By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, Wyoming (Reuters) - Bartender Evelyn Burgess drove all the way from Seattle hoping to see wolves and bears in their natural habitat in Yellowstone National Park, but instead headed home on Tuesday after the first U. S. government shutdown in 17 years closed the park.
The only close look Burgess got of the predators she sought was through fences at a private wildlife refuge on Monday before rangers on Tuesday turned her away at the entrance to Yellowstone, famed for its wildlife and gushing geysers.
"I kind of feel like we're getting screwed over on this deal," said Burgess, 30, who had paid $25 for a seven-day pass to the world's first national park, which she was visiting on a long-awaited vacation with her mother.
Burgess joined a string of disappointed vacationers on Tuesday who were either turned away from the park or told they would soon have to pack up their tents and leave amid a standoff between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans over healthcare reforms.
Yellowstone, straddling a rugged corner of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, is among 401 National Park Service attractions across the United States that shut their gates to fee-paying visitors after the U. S. Congress missed a midnight deadline to agree on a spending bill.
Among the iconic U. S. sites that were closed to visitors on Tuesday were the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and Alcatraz Island, the home of the infamous former federal jail in San Francisco Bay. Also shut was California's Yosemite National Park, which celebrated its 123 birthday on Tuesday.
Burgess had wasted at least $2,000 in lost wages and travel expenses, including booking a time-share in West Yellowstone, Montana, although that was the least of her disappointments.
"It's also the emotional letdown of planning this whole trip and now not being able to even get into the park," she said, venting her frustration at the standoff between Obama and congressional Republicans. "Yellowstone Park has absolutely nothing to do with health care."
'IT'S REALLY PRETTY EMPTY'
Would-be visitor Jack Leighton, 63, meanwhile, who was headed for the mountainous park on a cross-country trip starting in California with his adult daughter, watched in dismay on Monday as his holiday plans were ruined.
"We sat there in a cheap motel in Utah last night, turned on the TV and watched the government go down in flames," he said. "It's embarrassing and humiliating, and I can't tell you how frustrated I am that politics has gotten in the way of the beauty of our country," he said.
An offer floated by Republican party leaders on Tuesday to mitigate some of the impact of the shutdown would restore funding for federal parks, veterans programs and the District of Columbia, although it was rejected by the White House.
The national parks attract some 280 million visitors a year, among them about 3.5 million who flock to Yellowstone, where signs at its five entrances on Tuesday read simply "Government Shutdown, no visitor access."
Inside Yellowstone itself, there were few visitors on Tuesday despite a warm, sunny fall day that would usually draw much larger crowds, said Montana-based nature photographer Christopher Cauble.
"It's really pretty empty, and kind of strange walking around with so few people here," said Cauble, who drove into Yellowstone on Monday evening when it became apparent that a shutdown would mean visitors would be barred.
"A few people here are just checking their phones to see if there are any updates, and some are just wandering around mumbling things about Republicans," he said.
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)