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Food bank helps furloughed Grand Canyon workers as business owners protest closure

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Oct. 8, 2013: Tammy Cox, left, a worker at a Holiday Inn in nearby Tusayan, Ariz., joins nearly 100 other protestors at a Welcome To The Grand Canyon sign outside the south entrance to the Grand Canyon.AP

An Arizona food bank delivered hundreds of boxes to help out furloughed concession and government workers at the Grand Canyon National Park on Tuesday as area business leaders staged a protest to demand that the federal government reopen the park.

About 2,200 people who work at the park and its hotels have been furloughed as a result of the government slimdown. Many workers have been stranded inside the park with little food and without the resources to leave, the Arizona Daily Sun reported. 

“It’s had a devastating impact up there right away,” said Jerry Brown, a spokesperson for Phoenix-based St. Mary’s Food Bank, which delivered 600 boxes of food to the area. “They count on that paycheck to get them through the week, so missing out on even one has a big impact.”

The pastor of a church inside the park reached out to St. Mary's for help after he realized he couldn't meet the needs of people with donations he distributes out of his garage. The Rev. Patrick Dotson said many of the affected workers live paycheck to paycheck and are struggling to provide food for their families.

"It's a great turnout," he said Tuesday afternoon. "We're really thankful people are coming, the word is spreading and people are getting the help they need."

About 4.5 million tourists from around the world visit the Grand Canyon each year, pouring an estimated $1.3 million a day into nearby communities. The National Park Service said 2,200 federal and private employees who work in the park are on furlough and that the park will remain closed until the government reopens.

"It's definitely going to affect my paycheck," said Louise Mendoza, a hotel room inspector who picked up a box of nonperishable food at the local fire station. "It's really hard because we have only a few to do every day, and the hours are short."

For a brief time Tuesday, about 50 people crowded around the entrance sign to Grand Canyon National Park while helicopters hovered overhead carrying passengers over the massive gorge. Business leaders and community members organized a "fed up with the feds" protest to highlight the economic crisis they said they're facing.

Waving picket signs reading, "America is better than this," "tear down the Barack-cades" and "Does Obama care?," protesters met with park superintendent Dave Uberuaga, who told the crowd that only Congress had the authority to open the gate, the Grand Canyon News reported.

"I think the public needs the opportunity to let people know how they're feeling and I want to accommodate this best I can," Uberuaga said. "I'm doing everything in my control to facilitate what decisions need to be made, but at this time, the answer is, 'we can't open until we get appropriations.'"

Few services are available at the Grand Canyon and in the nearby town of Tusayan. The companies in town stake their business on access to the Grand Canyon. Becky Shearer, who manages a lodge in Tusayan, said she kept about 10 employees on during the first week of the shutdown but will be closing the 20-room lodge.

The state highway into Tusayan is now a dead-end street with everyone but park employees and residents of Grand Canyon Village being turned away. Town Council member Craig Sanderson, an air tour pilot, called on Congress to act soon to open the canyon to sightseeing.

"We're not telling the Park Service how to open it. We're saying 'here's the money, do it,'" he said. "By not opening the park, that tells me it's political."

Clarinda Vail, whose family owns businesses and property in Tusayan, called the situation a crisis. She said the community is suffering economic loss resulting from the shutdown and the Obama administration's refusal to accept offers of private and public money to keep the park open.

Vail said she hopes efforts by Arizona's U.S. senators, legislative leaders and Gov. Jan Brewer "will change some minds" within the Obama administration.

Brewer and state legislative leaders have sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to approve funding for the Arizona park and other national parks.

Brewer's staff previously called Uberuaga and offered to find a way to pay to keep the park open, but he politely rejected the overture.

"Some feel I can open the gate," Uberuaga said. "I cannot open the gate. I will not open the gate."

St. Mary's trucked the food boxes from Phoenix to the small community of Tusayan, a couple of miles from the South Rim entrance, and then to three locations inside the park for distribution this week. About 60 of the boxes were left at the fire department for local residents who couldn't get inside the park.

The food bank said it will continue weekly distributions as long as the shutdown lasts.

A grocery store at the Grand Canyon's South Rim Village is providing a 25 percent discount on food for residents, and concessionaires are supporting their furloughed employees and their families with subsidized rent and some meals, officials said.

The Grand Canyon recently held an employee food drive and distributed the donations at a recreation center within the park.

October is a busy time of year at the park because of the cool weather, with an average 18,000 tourists visiting each day.

The closure hasn't kept people out completely. Grand Canyon Chief Ranger Bill Wright said nearly two dozen citations have been issued to people for entering closed areas.

Other tourists were driving up to the park's entrance Tuesday without knowing the roads, campgrounds, lodges, trails, overlooks and entry sites for rafting trips down the Colorado are off-limits to visitors.

The closest they got was the entrance sign marked Grand Canyon National Park.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Click here for more from the Arizona Daily Sun.

Click here for more from Grand Canyon News.