Zion and Bryce open. Utah sidesteps shutdown, pays to open parks
As political Washington remains knotted over how to end the partial shutdown of the federal government, Utah is putting up its own money to reopen shuttered national parks, part of the growing trend of how local government and civil society is coping with the closings.
The nation moved into the 11th day of the partial shutdown on Friday and Utah began reopening its famed national parks, including Zion, Bryce Canyon and Lake Powell, according to a tweet from Gov. Gary Herbert. All three are expected to be fully operational by Saturday morning, he said.
At least three other states, Arizona, South Dakota and Colorado, are considering action similar to Utah’s, in effect, paying the federal government to open their national parks, which generate significant income from tourists. At least three states, Wyoming, Montana and California, have ruled out any similar action, at least for now, according to their state officials.
[Updated 2:47 p.m. PST, Oct. 11: The National Park Service announced it has entered into an agreement with Colorado to allow Rocky Mountain National Park to re-open and temporarily operate during the partial government shutdown. The state will donate $362,700 to operate the park for 10 days through Oct. 20.]
California “has no plans to advance general funds to reopen national parks,” H.D. Palmer, deputy director at the state Department of Finance, told the Los Angeles Times. He said that there was no guarantee if the state paid to reopen the parks, it would ever get reimbursed by the federal government after the current fiscal snafu is resolved.
The effort to reopen the national parks is just one of the ad-hoc measures that have popped up in recent days to deal with the disruptions caused by the partial shutdown. Private foundations offered to pay death benefits for families of service members killed in action and the offer was accepted by the government. But the situation grew so embarrassing to figures in both parties that the political rupture that led to the shutdown was briefly stitched over and President Obama signed a bipartisan bill to restore the benefits on Thursday night.
Defense has also been the beneficiary of a move to bring back furloughed federal workers. About 800,000 employees had been told to stay home, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered his 390,000 civilian employees back to work.
Private money has also been pledged to deal with some – but not all -- of the problems caused by the cessation of federal funds to programs like Head Start.
The national parks, however, are in a special category. They fall outside the definition of essential so the nation’s about 400 national parks and institutions have been closed to visitors. But many of the parks, especially in the West, are significant generators of tourist dollars for hard-pressed parts of the states.
“Utah’s national parks are the backbone of many rural economies and hard-working Utahans are paying a heavy price for this shutdown,” Herbert said in a statement released after he had reached an agreement with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reopen the parks. “I commend Secretary Jewell for being open to Utah’s solution, and the world should know Utah is open for business and visitors are welcome.”
As part of the agreement, the state agreed to pay the National Parks Service up to $1.67 million -- $166,572 a day – to re-open eight national sites for up to 10 days. If the shutdown ends before that period, the state gets a refund.
The deal would reopen Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks. The other three locations that will be opened are Natural Bridges and Cedar Breaks national monuments, as well as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah said.
For Utah, the payment will come back like the bread on the waters. State officials estimate that tourism in October – an especially lucrative month – could bring in $100 million. Paying even $2 million for about a third of the month is a solid return on investment.
“This is a practical and temporary solution that will lessen the pain for some businesses and communities in Utah during this shutdown,” Jewell said in a statement emailed to reporters. She also rattled the tin cup for other states to help fill and repeated the Obama administration’s repeated call for Congress to put aside its political differences and pass a continuing resolution that would reopen the government without jeopardizing Obamacare, which conservative Republicans are fighting to defund.
Jewell said she would consider agreements with other states similar to Utah’s but is eager to restart all of the parks and bring back the 20,000 employees who are furloughed. “We want to re-open all of our national parks as quickly possible for everyone to enjoy and call on Congress to pass a clean continuing resolution to open the government,” she said.
[For the record 1:27 p.m. PDT Oct. 11: An earlier version of this article misspelled Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s last name as Nagel.]
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Staff writer Richard Simon contributed from Washington.
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