Gov. Gary Herbert asked President Barack Obama in a letter Tuesday to let the state reopen national parks in the state shuttered by the federal shutdown, saying the closure is decimating the economy in parts of Utah.
"The unwarranted shutdown of the national parks and other federal facilities is devastating individuals and businesses that rely on these areas for their livelihood," Herbert wrote. "These closures must end immediately."
Herbert said state resources could be used to reopen the parks if federal funding is not available. Details of how that would work would have to be hammered out with each park superintendent.
"We have a solution in place," Herbert wrote. "We just need, literally, the keys to the gates. I cannot overstate that time is of the essence."
The request from the Republican Utah governor is similar to requests from the GOP governors of South Dakota and Arizona, both of which were rejected by the administration.
Herbert, who last week blamed Obama’s lack of leadership for the shutdown, also forwarded to the president emergency declarations from a number of Utah counties impacted by the federal shutdown.
David Nimkin, southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said everyone hopes Washington can resolve the impasse and the parks can reopen, but Herbert’s proposal of using state resources is "just not a realistic alternative."
"These are professionals. They have a responsibility both for protecting public safety, for protecting the resources and for providing interpretative services and that’s not something that can be done with any other unsupervised individuals," Nimkin said.
Nimkin said he doesn’t want to diminish the "almost tragic situations that folks in gateway communities are experiencing," but it would be better if the governor would urge the state’s federal delegation to come to a budget agreement quickly.
Meanwhile, state Rep. David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain, is preparing legislation that would allow the state to take control of the national parks and keep them open in the event the federal government is unable to do so.
"The federal government is dysfunctional. They are not putting forth budgets and funds to keep these open and, just to maintain our national parks, this is something that needs to be done," he said. "We need to be prepared for any eventuality … in the event the federal government can’t live up to their obligations, we need to be prepared at a moment’s notice."
Lifferth said that the transition would hopefully be cooperative and friendly and in the best interest of the parks. The state would manage the parks in a manner consistent with the existing rules and restrictions.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who led the GOP effort to reject funding for Obamacare, resulting in the standoff that closed much of the federal government, said the administration is acting vindictively to make the shutdown more painful than it needs to be.
Utah and other Western states are more susceptible to the pain resulting from a government shutdown because they contain so much federally owned land.
"As we’ve seen over the past week," Lee said, "these agencies are willing and able to wield tremendous influence in a manner that serves the political ambitions of the few, at the expense of the many."
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