Understanding and disappointment for Valley Isle’s visitors

After the government shutdown went into effect Tuesday, the closures of Haleakala National Park, Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge and other federally funded entities have already had “very disappointing” effects for local businesses on Maui.

“The Sunrise Special ride at Haleakala National Park is our most popular ride. It’s something we’ve offered for the 18 years we’ve been in business, and it’s something people come over to Maui just to do,” Lewis Upfold, manager of Haleakala Bike Co., said Tuesday.

Upfold said his company had to call nearly 50 guests who had booked a bicycle tour for Tuesday morning, notify them of the park closure, and offer a “less desirable” express ride around Upcountry that does not include the coveted tour of Haleakala. Many guests canceled their reservations after discovering they would not be able to visit the crater, Upfold said.

Public access to the park’s summit and Kipahulu district, including buildings, overlooks, trails, campgrounds, cabins, streams, pools, parking lots and roads, closed to visitors Monday night and will remain closed until the government reopens, park officials said.

Visitors currently staying in overnight campgrounds and cabins must leave the park by noon Thursday.

Additionally, all park programs and special events have been canceled, including talks, hikes, school programs, volunteer projects – and the park’s involvement in the Maui Fair and parade.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 people usually visit Haleakala each day in October, and for each day it is closed, the park will lose an estimated $6,800 of entrance fees, which are used to maintain the park’s visitor facilities and services, according to a National Park Service statement released Tuesday.

More than 70 of the park’s approximately 85 employees have been put on furlough, and more than 29 businesses with commercial use permits will not able to conduct business in the park during the closure.

“It’s sad because there’s a lot of people who say they come here just for that (Haleakala),” Upfold said. “It’s really unfortunate that one of the gems of Maui, we can’t even provide to people and it’s completely out of our hands.”

He said many of the company’s 12 employees have had shifts canceled, but it is the visitors who suffer most from the shutdown.

“We’ll survive, but who knows when the next time they’ll be back on Maui,” Upfold said.

Valley Isle Excursions also has seen “reservations drop dramatically” in the past couple of days for its Road to Hana bus tour, which includes a one-hour stop at the Pools of Oheo. The pools, as part of Haleakala National Park’s Kipahulu district, also have been closed to the public indefinitely.

“Haleakala pools is one of our core stops for viewing and swimming,” the company’s vice president, Raymond Hutaff, said. “It’s only one stop, but we’ve had people say that’s the only reason they’re going on the tour.”

He added that while Valley Isle Excursions may not have been as greatly impacted as other companies that tour Haleakala National Park exclusively, he estimated about an 18 to 20 percent drop in reservations Tuesday.

Despite receiving disappointing news of the park closure, most visitors and business owners have been “wonderful and really understanding” about the suspended access to Haleakala National Park, park officials said.

“The visitors have been amazing. They’re disappointed, but they’ve been really understanding about this,” Haleakala Chief of Interpretation Polly Angelakis said Tuesday. “(Business owners) were also, of course, disappointed and concerned for their business but just wonderful in terms of the park.”

She said early Tuesday morning, staff members put up signs at all the main junctures leading up to the park and closed the entrance gates at both the summit and Kipahulu district. The nonfurloughed park employees are taking turns staffing the entrance gates from early morning until “later on in the day” to notify visitors of the closure.

“This is for visitor safety because if someone is hiking in the crater and gets injured, we don’t have the staff to help them,” Angelakis said. “We’ve done all that we can to deter people.”

Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last remaining natural wetlands in Hawaii, also closed its gates Tuesday. The nearly 700-acre coastal salt marsh is home to more than 30 species of seabirds, including the endangered ae’o (Hawaiian stilt) and ‘alae kea (Hawaiian coot).

The boardwalk and visitor center, along with the rest of the refuge, will not be open until the shutdown is over. All activities on federal lands and in public buildings, including hunting and fishing activities, are canceled, according to a statement released Tuesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Closing off public access to our national wildlife refuges and public lands is the last thing we want to do but is consistent with operations called for during a government shutdown,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said. “This is difficult news for the families, bird watchers, hunters and anglers and recreationists who enjoy the great outdoors on the refuges – as well as for the many local businesses who depend on the tourism and outdoor recreation economy they generate. I think it’s most difficult for the thousands of furloughed service employees who are impacted in carrying out their mission to protect our nation’s resources and providing for their families.”

All 22 units of the National Wildlife Refuge System in the Pacific have been closed, and more than 7,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees statewide have been furloughed, the notice said.

The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center also has been closed.

Additional information on nationwide effects of the government shutdown is available at www.DOI.gov/shutdown.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.