Point Reyes National Seashore reopens, staff returns after federal government shutdown ends

Park employees reopen Point Reyes National Seashore, though pupping elephant seals put Drakes Beach off-limits, for the moment.|

The listless malaise common to many workplaces on Monday mornings was nowhere apparent among national park staffers, as workers returned from a 35-day layoff imposed on them by a political showdown 3,000 miles away.

Their email inboxes were brimming and the awaiting work load unmeasured, given 150 miles of back-country trails still to patrol for downed trees and other damage from recent winter storms.

But everywhere, people were clearly glad to be in uniform and back on the job after a long, uncertain and stressful wait.

A Monday morning meeting of about 80 personnel just to check in and mark the occasion was more like a high school reunion than anything else, Point Reyes National Seashore spokesman John Dell’Osso said.

Wildlife ecologist Dave Press said everyone was glad to see one another and find out how they had passed the month away from work.

“It was very uplifting,” said Dell’Osso, a 36-year employee of the seashore. “It was great to see everybody.”

The public was allowed during the federal shutdown to use trails and roads on the 193-acre seashore, a year-round attraction to locals and tourists alike.

But without employees, park facilities - like restrooms or visitors centers - weren’t operating or maintained as usual, and visitorship has been relatively light.

The partial federal government shutdown that began Dec. 22 ended on Friday, however, thanks to a deal between the Trump administration and congressional Democrats. The seashore started to bring back staff beginning Sunday.

Sebastopol resident Teresita Haag was among those who waited for the seashore to reopen in full before making her annual pilgrimage to view the northern elephant seal pups at Chimney Rock and Lifeboat Station on Monday.

“Every January I like to come out and see them,” said Haag, 74. “I love this park.”

Three longtime friends and first-time visitors to the seashore from Oregon and New York said they were just lucky to hit the timing right during a stay in nearby Mill Valley. They were delighted to see such a beautiful landscape on such a lovely day - especially, said Andrea Terwilleger, 78, of Lake Placid, knowing there were 2 feet of snow on her roof at home.

“We’re glad to see the poor people back to work,” said Terwilleger, who was picnicking with friends Anne and Bruce Erts, of Portland. “That’s for damn sure.”

Dell’Osso said the seashore limped along more successfully than it might have during the shutdown thanks in large part to an outpouring of community support.

There was no official park trash collection, and only a small number of law enforcement rangers were working.

But a Novato debris and junk-removal company called Green Hauling stepped in a few weeks into the shutdown to empty dumpsters and trash cans from trailheads, beaches and parking areas, disposing of it at their own cost, Dell’Osso said.

Park visitors also brought in trash bags to remove trash as some of the garbage cans filled up, he said.

The Marin County Parks department, which already was serving nearby county parks, also took on responsibility for the Bear Valley restroom, making it the only functioning restroom with flush toilets and running water in the park.

But over at park headquarters, Jeff Jewhurst, facilities chief, said he was still feeling slightly overwhelmed by the volume of unaddressed emails and the unknown extent of damage from recent storms that likely brought down limbs and maybe trees in the back country, perhaps clogging culverts and creating other problems.

He also said a handful of workers who were to have started new jobs Jan. 6 had to seek other employment because of the shutdown.

But in a bit of irony, one of the biggest challenges facing the seashore staff also could put limits on a popular park attraction: Drakes Beach, located at the edge of Drakes Bay and site of one of the seashore’s three visitor centers.

In the absence of heavy visitor traffic and regular staff wildlife management, the burgeoning elephant seal colony that has been drifting along the shoreline from Chimney Rock for several years appears to have gotten a foothold at Drakes Beach, though it’s not entirely clear where the elephant seals there came from.

What’s clear is they find it a safe and protected place to bear offspring.

By Monday, there were about 50 females with 40  pups and more on the way, as well as a dominant bull and several subordinates.

Some of them in recent weeks had been found up in the parking lot, under picnic tables and even on the ramp up toward the visitor center, having clambered over a wooden fence and leaving it in pieces, Dell’Osso said.

?While in the past a few stray, subordinate males had made their way to Drakes Beach, and two years ago two females and their pups had appeared, seashore scientists, with proper permission, have generally been able to keep them away using accepted hazing techniques like shaking tarps, said Press, the wildlife ecologist, and marine ecologist Sarah Codde.

But this year, nothing can be done except ensure the pups and their mothers are allowed to have their space unbothered and that human visitors, too, are not put in harm’s way, officials said.

Some of the pups are mere days old, Codde said, and most will have been born by the second week of February. They usually are weaned around the first week in March, and then the pups depart in April.

Normally, by now the winter shuttle bus established to help mitigate heavy traffic during the pupping and mating season would be up and running.

It usually runs between the Point Reyes Lighthouse - which has been closed since August because of a $5 million overhaul - Chimney Rock and Drakes Beach.

But for the moment, the road to Drakes Beach from Sir Francis Drake Boulevard is temporarily closed to all motorized and foot traffic, and the shuttle service itself is in question, though park administrators and scientists are trying to work out a plan that would allow the public some opportunity to view the new pupping group safely without disturbing them.

“What an interesting management challenge for us,” park Superintendent Cicily Muldoon said. “But what a great opportunity.”

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