Jon Ostendorff, USA TODAY
Near MOUNT PISGAH, N.C. - At a spot 5,000 feet above sea level and 20 miles from the nearest town, an innkeeper decided Friday to defy the federal government and reopen his lodge.
That stand lasted about two hours as National Park Service rangers blocked the entrances to the privately run Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway after owner Bruce O'Connell decided to reopen his dining room, gift shop and country store at noon Friday for lunch. The federal government had forced the inn, in a leased building on federal land, to shut down at 6 p.m. ET Thursday at the height of fall foliage - and tourism - season.
The inn normally is open April 1 to Oct. 31.
O'Connell said Wednesday he would rebel against the order to shutter after seeing World War II veterans reopen their memorial in Washington when barricades blocked the entrances. But he had backed down by the Park Service deadline to close Thursday.
"Conscience, conviction. That's about it," O'Connell said of his decision to reopen after thinking about the situation overnight. He said he would take guests for the weekend as long as the doors were able to remain open.
His family has operated the inn on the parkway about 25 miles from Asheville, N.C., for 35 years. It the only spot for many miles along the 469.1-mile mountain route to sleep or grab a meal and go to the bathroom.
A handful of guests had lunch before Park Service patrol cars blocked the driveways, turning on their orange flashing lights. Rangers turned customers away, saying the government was closed.
The 51-room inn was booked solid for October. O'Connell said he plans to send refunds to customers who already paid though many planned vacations to see the fall colors months in advance.
His 100 employees are idled; 35 live on the property.
"It's conscience and conviction that have taken over me, and I just can't roll over any more," he said.
The parkway, which meanders through Virginia and North Carolina joining the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, has another privately run inn operating on leased federal land, the Peaks of Otter Lodge at milepost 86 in Virginia. Peaks of Otter Lodge officials closed without balking at the same time Thursday, telling those who had paid reservations that the inn would be providing refunds if guests are not able to change their reservations, according to information on its website.
Unlike national parks, which have gates and entrance fees, the Blue Ridge Parkway - like other federal parkways including Natchez Trace in Mississippi and Tennessee, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway in Wyoming and George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia - is not closed to traffic but National Park Service visitor centers, historic sites, campgrounds, picnic areas and restrooms along the routes are shuttered because of the budget impasse in Congress.
Communities with national parks see about $76 million a day in tourism-related sales that is lost during a government shutdown, according to a National Park Service press release. Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, 195 federal employees are on furlough and about 200 concessionaire employees have been forced off work; 43 Park Service employees continue to work along the route.
Pisgah Inn diners Friday didn't agree with the government's move to block access to the inn.
"If they were government employees, they'd get back pay when government re-funded," said Baird Lefter of Waynesville, N.C., in a valley about 20 miles northwest of the inn. He was dining with his wife and a friend. "They are just being shut out of work. And if they haven't closed the parkway why should they close the concessions?"
Because both the Pisgah Inn and Peaks of Otter Lodge are private, any proposal to pay federal workers for time off during the shutdown wouldn't apply to employees there.
The parkway's chief ranger, Steve Stinnett, said Park Service managers in Washington directed him to block access to the inn at milepost 408.6 and ensure "people don't utilize a business that, according to the federal government, is closed."
Rangers will stay in place as long as they are needed, Stinnett said.
Most of the inn's guests had left by mid-afternoon.
O'Connell said he got a letter from Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis ordering him to shut down. The Park Service also told him he was violating his contract, which expires this year.
He said he could not get around patrol cars blocking the entrances to his business but left the door open for future defiance.
"Right now, it appears we have reached a point where we have to acquiesce, but it doesn't mean tomorrow something might change," O'Connell said.
Rooms cost $125 a night, and the restaurant serves about 20,000 tourists during a typical October, O'Connell said.
But he said his defiance was not about the lost revenue.
"It's about the visitors. It's about the staff and employees who are now having to move off the mountain - they live here - with no notice," O'Connell said. "They have no jobs. That's the concern."