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National Parks in Utah prepare to close gates

Published October 1, 2013 7:43 am

Shutdown • If there's no deal, parks will block access and give visitors 48 hours to pack up and leave.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Springdale • Mark and Kathy Boeckman carefully planned their trip to visit southern Utah's national parks months ago. The one thing they didn't see coming — a government shutdown — may wipe out their efforts.

"We may only get to one of the four parks we had in mind," Mark Boeckman, of San Francisco, said Monday while waiting for the Springdale Shuttle just outside Zion National Park. "We are very disappointed."

Many tourists like the Boeckmans were well aware of the looming federal shutdown. Others, like Avi and Orly Well, of Israel, were surprised by news that the national parks they have been visiting for the past two weeks — Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon national parks and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in addition to Zion — might be closed due to "politics."

"We have been disconnected from the news. You mean people will show up and they won't be able to get in?" Avi Well asked. "That is very unfortunate."

The government shutdown that kicked in early Tuesday will impact Utah's 13 National Park Service units — including the five world-famous national parks that drew more than 9.5 million visitors in 2012.

"Tomorrow we will come to work to find out if we have been shut down," said Zion National Park superintendent Jock Whitworth. If there is a shutdown, "everything will be closed, but we will keep the [Zion-Mount Carmel] highway open to allow people to pass through. People in the Zion Lodge and the campgrounds will have 48 hours before they have to leave."

While Highway 9 will remain open to through traffic, it will be closed to long and wide recreational vehicles due to tunnel restrictions. There will be no recreating in the park, or stopping to take pictures. The Kolob Canyons Road, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and Kolob Terrace Road all will be closed.

If the shutdown happens, about 200 NPS employees at Zion will be furloughed and about 40 "critical" staffers will remain to patrol the park and keep facilities maintained.

Officials at Arches and Canyonlands national parks say 122 of the 145 staffers for both parks would be furloughed. Not all of the remaining 23 would be employed on a full-time basis.

"In the event of a shutdown — all parks and facilities will be closed and commercial activities will cease," said Paul Henderson, assistant superintendent at Arches/Canyonlands national parks. "Where we can physically control access — road, gates, etc. — we will prevent any entry into the parks. We'll go down to a very minimum staffing level."

Whitworth and Henderson were both holding out hope that a shutdown would be avoided but said they are prepared if it comes.

In addition to shutting down the parks to the people, administrators point out they will also be losing revenue. At Zion an average of some 10,000 people enter the park during a weekday this time of year. Just counting the daily per-car entry of $25 — not annual passes — that is roughly $50,000 in revenue each day.

Aly Baltrus, chief of interpretation and education at Zion, said questions in recent days have centered on the extent of a shutdown.

"We have been directing them to nearby Utah state parks, which are not affected by the federal government shutdown," she said.

Businesses in Springdale appeared to be bustling on Monday. Nathan Wells, general manager of Zion Canyon Village — which includes a theater, brew pub, grocery store and the Cable Mountain Lodge just outside the entrance to Zion — said business is as brisk as ever and lodging remains near capacity.

"There is a little bit of uncertainty, but Springdale and Zion National Park have experienced this before," he said. "We feel that Springdale provides so much in terms of dining, galleries, hiking and recreation that people can still experience a memorable vacation even if the park is closed."

Like the couple from Israel, Wells is a little mystified about how Zion and other national parks across the country came to this juncture.

"It seems like an impossible, almost surreal, scenario that the national parks are faced with closure because of a national health-care issue," Wells said. "We are just bracing for what might happen."

The Boeckmans are hoping they can continue their trip in southern Utah, with other stops scheduled in Bryce, Capitol Reef and Arches national parks, but they didn't seem optimistic.

"I'm a Republican and I am not happy with what they are doing," Mark Boeckman said. "I'm of the opinion that the far right of the Republican Party has taken this too far. The Obamacare thing is something they voted for … it is what is. Live by it."

brettp@sltrib.com