As southern Utah struggles with the economic impact of national recreation site closures, local authorities in San Juan County are considering taking over the parks there during the federal government shutdown.
San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge and County Commissioner Phil Lyman confirmed Tuesday that county officials have proposed removing barricades and providing resources to operate Lake Powell, Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments, and the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.
“This is not going to be a showdown or a standoff,” Eldredge said. “This is something that’s going to be done peacefully. We just want to take over as far as law enforcement, EMS, and search and rescue, and get those parks open.”
Lyman said he expects action as early as this week, but the county is trying to coordinate with other southern Utah counties and some Arizona counties. Commissioners also are awaiting for word from Gov. Gary Herbert in response to declarations of economic emergency made by several southern Utah counties as park closures have disrupted fall tourism.
“Having [the state’s] backing and resources is important,” Eldredge said. “It’s as if we’ve had a natural disaster, like a flood. We have to petition the state for help to be able to cope with this and get tourism flowing again through our counties.”
Lake Powell presents the biggest logistical challenges of all the San Juan County sites, especially as it shares shoreline with other jurisdictions. The county is trying to finalize a strategy to conduct mussel inspections on boats — a function state wildlife officers could serve if Herbert authorizes it, Lyman said.
The other sites are more straightforward, Lyman said. The county is prepared to staff them and bring in portable toilets and other equipment.
Less clear is what the federal response might be to such an action. The dispatch center for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area did not answer calls on Tuesday night. Lyman said county officials have alerted park superintendents as to their plans.
“The last thing we want to do is surprise everybody,” he said. “We’re begging them for any information they’re willing to give us, and they’re passively resistant. Philosophically, they may agree with what we’re doing, but they can’t come in and say, ‘Let’s work out a deal,’ and they can’t accept any help from the state.”
He said efforts are not politically motivated on either side.
“It’s really the economy of our county. We’re watching one of our prime months fade away from us. It’s really painful, and [the federal park officials] get that.”
Lyman said county officials do not want to bite off more than they can chew.
“We don’t want to do this and end up making a bigger mess going in unprepared,” Lyman said. “We feel confident that we have the ability to do what we’re doing.”
Lyman said the county commission will prepare a resolution as early as Wednesday, outlining actions for the sheriff to take.