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Effort to Reopen Grand Canyon Halted

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Gov. Fife Symington and a National Guard posse tried to ride to the rescue of Grand Canyon National Park on Friday, hoping to reopen it for the 20,000 tourists a day who pass through one of the state’s and the nation’s most valuable natural treasures.

But the Interior Department headed them off at a tiny airport outside the park entrance.

The park superintendent carried an Interior Department letter rejecting Symington’s proposal to run the national park with state workers.

Symington saw hope in a part of the letter suggesting that the state might offer to pay the full cost of running the park, and negotiations are set for Monday.

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Symington also proposed a partial solution: Reopen Mather Point, a huge overlook on the canyon’s south rim. The point, he said, “is really the most spectacular view and why so many people come from all over the world to see the canyon.”

He had brought about 60 guardsmen and 40 state employees to take over ticket booths, concession stands and campgrounds and possibly even lead tours to the base of the mile-deep gorge.

With entrances and roadside viewing points closed, helicopter and airplane tours of the canyon did double their regular business on Friday.

But Lasse Heideman and Christian Wulff, both 19 and visiting from Denmark, could not afford a flyover. Instead they hunkered down in the Moqui Lodge, groping for words to explain the situation in letters they were writing to friends and relatives in their homeland.

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“It seems so illogical we don’t know how to explain it,” Wulff said. “We thought it was the people’s park. I guess not.”

Symington remains hopeful that Congress and President Clinton will quickly sign legislation that could fund park operations and result in the return of Grand Canyon employees and the reopening of the park, which generates $20,000 a day in revenue.

In the meantime, he said, he hopes that his 100 people will eventually be allowed to fill the gap left when National Park Service officials furloughed 150 Grand Canyon workers and closed the park Wednesday for the first time in its 76-year history.

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The park, which gets about 5 million visitors a year, was nearly deserted Friday.

“I’m so depressed,” said Tae-Soo Lee, a University of Houston student who somehow got through the barricades and into the tourist center at Grand Canyon Village. “This is my first chance in my life to see the Grand Canyon and now I can’t go down it.”

A request from Symington to partially pay for park operations with state funds was denied, said Amy Ressonico, the governor’s spokeswoman. Under that plan, park fees would have been collected and split equally between the state and the federal government.

But Symington also said in a letter Thursday to Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt that he is “prepared to make additional state personnel available in an effort to restore some of the services that park guests have come to expect.”

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The Interior Department letter to Symington said the Park Service cannot legally delegate its job to people untrained and unfamiliar with its obligations, such as search and rescue or preservation of historic landmarks.

It also said the Park Service cannot spend more than the bare minimum to keep the park secure, and noted that reopening with state workers would still result in costs for utilities, maintenance and liability.


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