After more than two weeks of a federal government shutdown that closed public sites throughout the state’s largest national destination, campgrounds, gun ranges and recreation areas at the forest reopened Thursday, alongside thousands of national parks and lands.
And Karen McKenzie at the Shoal Creek Ranger District couldn’t be more pleased about it.
“I’m really happy my employees are back,” McKenzie said with a smile from her office on Monday morning. “That’s the best part.”
McKenzie said that during the shutdown, only law enforcement staff continued to work. Her full-time staff of 17 was furloughed during the 16-day shutdown, but all returned to work on Thursday. The returning staff reopened campsites at Coleman Lake, Pine Glen and Warden Station as well as the Henry Creek shooting range. Much of the park, including the Pinhoti hiking trail, had remained open to the public throughout the shutdown.
McKenzie referred questions about the shutdown’s effect on forest operations to Tammy Truett, a public affairs official with the Alabama Forest Service. Truett sent The Star a press release, but said she would need to refer further questions to officials at the Forest Service in Montgomery. Officials with the Forest Service did not respond Monday to The Star’s request for information about furloughed employees, the effects the shutdown had on operations in the forest or on scheduled events, or any lasting problems the shutdown caused.
The shutdown did mess up plans for horse riders participating in the Alabama Yellow Hammer at Talladega. The three-day endurance ride attracts horse riders from all over the country, but had to be cut short this year due to the government shutdown. Alice McGhee, a rider from Georgia, said the plans for the Yellow Hammer were amended to clear out campers on Oct. 5, the Saturday after the shutdown began. After riding 75 miles on Oct. 4, rangers told the campers they had to leave the campsites that night or face a fine and towing of their trailers and horses.
“Some of these people had been up for 14 hours,” McGhee said. “These horses aren’t in good shape. These people are tired, it’s dangerous to get on the road.”
Ken Marcella, one of the veterinarians for the endurance ride, said rangers gave the campers few options, but said because they were in a National Forest campsite, they needed to leave.
“It felt like rules for the sake of rules,” Marcella said. “None of it really made any sense.”
McGhee said she knew of at least one rider who parked her trailer overnight in a Piggly Wiggly grocery store parking lot and slept in her trailer with her horse.
While McKenzie said she’s happy to have the Shoal Creek district back up and running, she said she’s worried it might all come crashing down again in January. While Congress reached a deal last week to reopen the government, the funding will only last until Jan. 15, making another federal shutdown a possibility in 2014.
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.