Utah national parks to open Saturday with state aid
Ten days after a federal government deadlock shut down Utah's national parks, bleeding tourism-dependent businesses and towns, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert inked a deal late Thursday and wired funds Friday morning to the Interior Department that should have park gates swinging open by Saturday morning.
"C'mon down to Southern Utah. We expect you'll have a great time in Southern Utah and our parks are open," Herbert said during a signing ceremony Thursday night.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell signed the contract with the state Friday morning and work began to call park employees back to work.
Utah taxpayers will loan the federal government $1.7 million, enough to keep five national parks Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef and Natural Bridges, Glen Canyon and Cedar Breaks national monuments open for 10 days. The Legislature, which will meet in special session Wednesday, can approve funds to keep the areas open beyond that time.
"The people who make their livelihood off tourism and travel, this is a godsend for them. They've been decimated," the governor said.
October is a busy tourist season, with $100 million in revenue earned in the period. The deal will ensure the parks are open during the upcoming Columbus Day weekend, as well as the fall recess for Utah schools.
In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock says the state will not pick up the tab to reopen Glacier National Park during the federal government shutdown.
The Democrat told Lee Newspapers of Montana on Thursday that it's long past time for Congress to end "this reckless and job-killing shutdown."
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead's office said that state would not pay to reopen Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks.
But Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer says she'd consider paying for a partial reopening of Grand Canyon National Park.
Herbert wrote to President Barack Obama earlier this week, offering state funding and asking the president for the "keys to the gates." Thursday morning, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell spoke to Herbert by phone, expressing a willingness to consider the state's offer, sparking a scramble to hammer out the deal finalized Thursday evening.
The agreement defuses a looming confrontation between the park service and some southern Utah counties whose elected leaders were bent on reopening park units with county sheriffs and personnel.
Herbert called the Legislature into special session Wednesday to approve additional, longer-term funding. It would take an act of Congress to approve repayment of the funds. Herbert said his office was working with the congressional delegation to make sure that happens.
Local leaders react • At a meeting in St. George, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, and Herbert deputy chief of staff Mike Mower conveyed the good news to local officials, drawing applause although some groans, too, from those who want to swing the gates open now.
Asked about a 24-hour wait, Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner said, "I thought, 'Wow, that's a long time.' "
He also worried that many tourists originally heading to the parks may have already changed their plans, opting for other destinations.
Mower said the governor is "planning on a full opening" of the national parks, rather than a partial one. He also said the federal government would retain liability for what occurred inside the parks.
Lockhart, who was running the meeting, expressed concern about loaning money to Washington, D.C.
"Let's remember," Lockhart said, "why this is happening: the utter failure of the federal government."
She pointed out that the federal government doesn't currently have the highest credit rating. She also said issues such as interest still have to be determined. "The Legislature is probably going to want some assurances."
But in an interview Thursday night, she said it is an important deal and predicts legislators will support the agreement.
"There's a lot of emotion wrapped up in that and these are serious issues and we've avoided any potential confrontation," Lockhart said. "We've got a lot of cool-headed people who are thinking about these things very seriously and want to make sure we do the right thing and take a step forward and not backward."
Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, whose district includes Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, said there has been frustration that the government would hurt small businesses and communities over a political squabble, but there is relief with the temporary fix.
Okerlund said though the governor initiated the process to reopen the parks, lawmakers will want a role.
"The Legislature should be involved," he said, "and will want to be involved in this process."
The closures of the parks and monuments have dealt a devastating blow to the visitor-dependent gateway communities around them. Zion National Park, for example, is the state's third-most-visited tourist destination and a key piece of Utah's $7.4 billion tourism economy.
In one example, Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock said the agreement between the feds and state has saved some 100 jobs at Ruby's Inn near Bryce Canyon.
"We understand these local communities are hemorrhaging economically and that is our primary motivation, to restore our tourism infrastructure to being fully operational," said Ally Isom, Herbert's spokeswoman. "That includes the national parks, because we do understand there are people at the local level that are suffering because of Washington, D.C.'s, inability to find a solution."
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman said he was eager to assert county "jurisdiction" over Natural Bridges National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, but he is pleased that such action may not be necessary. San Juan was among several counties this week to declare a local emergency because of the harsh economic impact from the park closures.
"I'm thrilled to get these parks back open. That was our main objective. I'm proud of Governor Herbert stepping up," Lyman said in a phone interview Thursday morning from Halls Crossing on Lake Powell, standing near the quiet marina and boat ramp. "We would have been opening those today. We felt compelled to acquiesce to the governor's request to stand down. We are subdivisions of the state, as much as we feel like bucking federal authority."
Washington County Commissioner Dennis Drake said Thursday's development was welcome news because his county is home to Zion, which normally gets 10,000 visitors a day this time of year.
"It is huge for Washington County and all the recreation areas in the state. There are so many businesses that can be crushed by the closures," Drake said. U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, welcomed the breakthrough and commended Herbert and Jewell for "setting politics aside." He added he is confident Congress can agree to compensate states for keeping the parks open.
Sigh of relief • Even as state and county officials worked to open Utah's national parks and monuments Thursday, uncertainty reigned in Springdale, just outside Zion National Park.
Joy Stein runs Joy Craft and Design, a small boutique on Zion Park Boulevard, the town's main drag. Stein moved her business which sells local arts and crafts and relies on tourism a few blocks to its current location just two weeks ago, at almost exactly the time the government shutdown. Her plan was to use the money from her second job as a shuttle bus driver to stay afloat.
But when the government closed down, Stein's bus driving gig closed along with it.
Stein had few details about any possible reopening, but saidÂ Thursday nightÂ that she had heard from friends it was coming within the next day.Â AndÂ despite the setbacks and weeks of lost money, Stein said reopening Zion by Saturday would help.Â
"Given how difficult the last few days have been, 24 hours is reasonable," she added.
Mark Chambers agreed. Chambers runs Under the Eaves, a bed and breakfast Â just a stone's throw from Stein's shop, and serves on the Springdale Town Council. He acknowledged that many people who were planning trips to Zion may have made alternative plans and he said the bigÂ question was if they would come back.
Chambers said some of the larger hotels have seen a loss of as much as 60 percent of their business and the negative economic impact of the shutdown has reverberated throughout the surrounding communities as well. But he added that the busy season lasts through November and opening the park by Saturday would likely reinvigorate the community.Â
"It will make a huge difference," Chambers said. "Zion attracts the world but Springdale brings them back."
Much like Stein, Chambers did not have firm details about any reopening timetable, instead relying on news outlets and word of mouth.Â
Scott Williams, owner of nearby Deep Creek Coffee, also said he had heard the park would open soon.Â
"The sooner the better," he said. "I heard the Legislature was in a meeting."
Williams said he has seen a decrease in business during the shutdown, but added that local support has allowed him to avoid letting staff go. If the shutdown continues, he added, he might not be able to keep everyone on the payroll.
20,000 park workers • Interior spokesman Blake Androff noted that 20,000 park service employees are on furlough nationally during the shutdown spread among 401 national parks.
"We continue to call on Congress to act swiftly to enact appropriations for the entire government," he said.
Governors of South Dakota, Arizona and Colorado have made requests similar to Utah's to tap state resources to reopen the parks.
Coalition: Park closures drive losses in visitor spending
More than $3.4 million in visitor spending has been lost since the Oct. 1 closure of Zion National Park, according to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
The park's closure due to the federal government shutdown has threatened more than 2,401 jobs, including 2,136 local jobs not affiliated with the National Park Service, the coalition said.
The group reported losses for Zion and other parks across the country for the first 10 days of the shutdown based on visitation numbers from Oct. 12, 2012.
Other major impacts in lost dollars include: $11.7 million at Grand Canyon National Park, $5.2 million at Acadia National Park, and $23.1 million at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.