Eighty-eight cars passed through the gates of Haleakala National Park early Thursday morning to view the sunrise, a signal on Maui that the 2-week shutdown of the federal government was over.
The national park at the summit and in Kipahulu had been closed to visitors, with only a skeleton crew of about 10 providing maintenance during the shutdown, which began Oct. 1. But as soon as news of an agreement and congressional votes to resolve the government shutdown and debt-limit crises came through late Wednesday, a notice was put on the Haleakala National Park phone message saying that "we are open," said Haleakala Chief of Interpretation Polly Angelakis.
"Everyone is so happy to be back at work," she said. "It's really wonderful."
With Haleakala National Park reopened Thursday, 88 cars passed through the gate to view the sunrise at the summit. All roads, restrooms, visitor centers, campgrounds and trails were open again at the summit and Kipahulu districts following the resolution of the federal government shutdown.
Haleakala National Park photo
Park rangers were so excited to be back on the job that three of them raced to greet and talk to the first visitors to the park since the shutdown began 16 days earlier.
"We're thrilled to be open again," said park Superintendent Natalie Gates in a news release announcing the reopening of the park. "We look forward to people enjoying and exploring the park again, and we thank our visitors, communities and commercial service providers for their continued patience over the past two weeks."
All roads, restrooms, trails, campgrounds and visitor centers were open Thursday at the summit and in Kipahulu.
The pools at Oheo, which are prone to
flash flooding, were closed due to heavy rains and high water levels but hiking and other activities were permitted in Kipahulu, said Angelakis. She urged visitors to call the park ahead of time for information on pool water levels, which are monitored and can rise and become dangerous at any time.
At the summit, the 88 cars going through the gate constituted a really "slow day" for the park; a busy day could see 200 cars for the sunrise, said Angelakis.
"We are expecting more tomorrow," she said.
"People were very happy, very appreciative of the work park rangers do," said Angelakis of the reactions from visitors. "It was great."
Between 2,000 and 3,000 people usually visit Haleakala each day in October, the park service said at the outset of the closure. For each day the park was closed an estimated $6,800 of entrance fees, which are used to maintain the park's visitor facilities and services, were lost.
More than 70 of the park's approximately 85 employees had been put on furlough. In addition to closure, all park programs and special events were canceled, including talks, hikes, school programs, volunteer projects - and the park's involvement in the Maui Fair and parade.
More than 29 businesses with commercial use permits - bus, downhill bicycle and horseback tours - were not able to enter the park to conduct business. Several of those permit holders contacted were happy that the park was reopened but noted that they had to cope with lost business.
Pony Express Tours, which takes people down the Sliding Sands trail into the crater on horseback, was back in business Thursday, said Kathryn Smith, who owns the company with husband Doug Smith.
"We are up in the crater today, and the tourists are very happy," she said.
They took six people down the trail Thursday; a full tour is eight, Smith said, adding that all eight slots are filled today.
Pony Express was able to get up and running quickly because its bookings are at least two weeks in advance, she said. During the shutdown, visitors with reservations were calling to reschedule at the outset of their vacations.
"There are some people who came primarily to see the crater," said Smith. "We had some people who are majorly disappointed."
Pony Express, which also operates a horseback ride through Haleakala Ranch, has five workers, and the two crater guides had to be laid off during the shutdown, she said. One of the guides had to seek part-time work to make ends meet.
She figures she lost $25,000 due to the park closure. That's 132 people who did not take rides into the crater.
"We love what we do," Smith said, noting that they are a small family-run operation in business for 32 years. "People just love the crater and love this ride. We are glad to be open."
Maui Downhill guided bicycle tours will be restarting today, said Robynn Hussey, manager of Maui Downhill, on Thursday.
"We have to wait until tomorrow," she said. "When we found out, to try and conjure up business would be kind of difficult."
The company will be at about 75 percent of its maximum of 48 riders for its sunrise tour.
The sunrise tour begins with a van tour of the park; the bike ride begins at the 6,500-foot level outside of the park and ends above King Kekaulike High School.
The Maui Downhill website shows two other bike tours with van trips into the park and two others that begin at the 6,500-foot level.
"However, with Haleakala being a spot that they want to see . . . the summit is our biggest seller." she said.
Although she did not give specifics, Hussey said that the company took "a substantial hit," and workers had to shorten their hours.
"It's about time," she said about the agreement to reopen the government and the park. "Just happy and just looking forward to the future.
"It will be hard to make up for what we lost in the last 16 days."
Customers were "really understanding" about being unable to visit the park but had "some very explicit words" about the politics that led to the shutdown, Hussey said.
While the park was closed to vehicular traffic, some visitors took to the air to see the island's top visitor attraction.
"I think there was a little bit of that," said Dave Chevalier of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters on Thursday. "It was definitely apparent but not gangbusters."
He estimated that Blue Hawaiian saw a "10 percent bump" during the shutdown compared to normal passenger numbers for this time of year.
The gates to the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last remaining natural wetlands in Hawaii and home to the endangered ae'o (Hawaiian stilt) and 'alae kea (Hawaiian coot), were open Thursday. The boardwalk and visitor center, along with the rest of the refuge in South Maui, were closed for the shutdown.
Attempts to reach officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday to confirm the opening of the refuge were unsuccessful.
The shutdown took a human toll on the veterans in Maui County. Some services for the estimated 11,000 veterans living in the county were disrupted during the shutdown and generated unneeded fear.
"A lot of people were fearful because (they wondered), 'Am I going to get the meds?' 'Is my appointment still valid?' '' said Paul Laub, president of the Maui County Veterans Council, on Thursday. "You don't know what you are going to be able to do and what's coming your way."
This is particularly difficult for veterans, many of whom are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The shutdown and the fear it created "exacerbated the problem" for veterans, their wives and caregivers, he said.
The Veterans Affairs Department said that medical care at clinics and counseling services at veterans centers were not affected by the shutdown but that the Veterans Benefits Administration offices were closed. Offices provide financial, career and educational counseling.
Laub explained that veterans in hospitals were not affected because the hospital was not shutting down, but those submitting papers for veterans services did not have their forms processed.
In a news release Thursday, the VA said that a program to put workers on overtime to reduce the backlog of claims came to a halt during the shutdown. That program that helped reduce the backlog of claims by more than 190,000 in the last six months has been restored, the VA said.
"In the coming weeks and months, we will fight hard to regain ground lost as a result of the government shutdown," said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. "We remain committed to eliminating the disability claims backlog in 2015."
He added that the Nov. 1 benefit checks will go out as scheduled to 5 million veterans and their beneficiaries.
"There's no positive side to this shutdown," said Laub. "There is lost time and money that won't be made up."
And he warned of possible problems in the future. The agreement reached in Congress and signed by the president funds the government through Jan. 15 and permits it to borrow normally through Feb. 7, though Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew retains the capacity to employ accounting maneuvers to create wiggle room on the debt limit into mid-March or so.
"They didn't come up with a solution. They came up with a Band-Aid," Laub said.
* Lee Imada can be reached at email@example.com.