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SPRINGDALE — A heavy metal gate with a large "do not enter" sign was not enough to stop James Milligan from visiting Zion National Park on Saturday.
"I wanted to go hiking today, and so I thought I'd invite some friends to come join me," Milligan said before leading about a dozen protesters over the fence and into Zion. "The way I see it this is our park over here and no one has a right to shut us out of it."
The group met about 8 a.m. just outside the park's entrance, energetic about their plan despite the chill that persisted in the shadow of the red rock cliffs. The parking lot and entrance to the park looked more like a ghost town than one of Utah's largest tourist destinations, and the gate at the end of the pedestrian bridge into the park remained locked.
They called the excursion "Occupy Zion," an act of civil disobedience in protest of the federal government shutdown that closed the park Tuesday.
Zion park representatives met the group near the gate, warning them of possible consequences if they chose to ignore the closure and enter the park.
"We did warn them we are closed, and they seem to understand that," Aly Baltrus, a public information officer for the National Park Service said. "We are simply observing, and we'll be taking pictures. We're trying to let people know they can get tickets and they can get cited later, and we're trying to get them to just follow the basic rules."
That did not deter Milligan, a Cedar City resident and manager of Zion Outfitter. "Just because they're having a dispute in Washington doesn't mean they can close the park and kill the town of Springdale," he said.
"It's an American legacy, this is something that was set aside for us, it's supposed to be preserved and protected for all generations so we can come here enjoy this area, and right now we can't enjoy it."
Through the week Milligan said he has seen crowds of disappointed tourists turn back when they see the closed signs, though a few found ways to wander in on their own. Similar scenes of disappointment were replayed throughout the country, at the shores of San Francisco Bay with Alcatraz Island tours canceled, and in Washington where conflict broke out at the World War II memorial.
Protesters and park officials agreed some of the saddest victims of the shutdown are the visitors, many from other countries, who have saved for years and planned for months to explore the one-of-a-kind terrain in Utah's National Parks.
Melissa Norris, a St. George resident, was one of the first over the fence Saturday. Like many in the group, she took a trash bag and gloves with her in order to clean up litter on the way out.
When she returned, she chatted briefly with Matthew Chuvarsky, a park ranger who was supposed to work his first season patrolling trails in Zion this year, but instead spent Saturday standing sentinel at the entrance. Together they discussed how a tour bus waiting in the parking lot wouldn't be able to come in before Chuvarsky politely offered to hold Norris' backpack while she climbed back over the gate.
Many park officials are working without pay. Saturday, however, the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. unanimously voted to guarantee that federal workers will receive back pay when the government shutdown ends. The Senate is expected to follow suit.
Norris called the empty park both eerie and beautiful, "like Zion used to be 20 years ago," and said her visit was worth any ticket she might face.
"I'm concerned, of course, but I knew there were consequences coming in," Norris said. "Shoot, if I have a record at 47 because I made a statement, then I have a record at 47."
Norris said she wasn't sure whether anyone took her picture while she was in the park, but quipped "I hope not, I didn't put on my makeup on this morning."
The park will remain closed until Congress funds the government and restarts federal operations. SR-9, which runs through Zion Park, remains open for travel, but motorists are asked not to stop and access trails.
Contributing: Alex Cabrero