Utah’s congressmen are asking for federal funds to keep the state’s national parks fully staffed on an emergency basis to protect public safety as the government shutdown stretches into its third week.
The state’s three Republican representatives — Rob Bishop, Chris Stewart and John Curtis — wrote in a Friday letter that while there is some access to Utah’s national parks, they believe the federal government “has the authority to do more” in funding the parks to the fullest extent. Utah’s lone Democratic representative, Ben McAdams, penned a similar letter Saturday.
As part of the Department of Interior shutdown contingency plans, all national parks and monuments remain open to visitors, but don’t provide visitor services, like restrooms, trash collection, and road and facility maintenance.
The federal government is allowed to continue regular operations during a shutdown if there are “emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.”
The three Republicans wrote in the letter to Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt that they believe public safety and property are at a “heightened risk,” especially at Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park.
“Park rangers and search and rescue personnel respond to hundreds of emergency incidents in Utah parks each year,” the letter reads. “While some national parks may see a decrease in visitation during the winter season, this is not always the case. Zion has seen a surge of visitation, with as many as 11,000 people visiting the park in a single day. Only a skeleton crew is left to protect and serve these thousands of visitors.”
McAdams wrote in his letter that while other national parks have slowed down with visitors, winters are mild in southern Utah and people still flock to the parks there.
“I join with others in the Utah Congressional delegation to urge your consideration of an alternative approach,” he wrote. Warning that public safety and property are at risk, he wrote, “I’d draw your attention in particular to Arches National Park which has been unable to plow the park road during a recent snowstorm.”
Three people have died in national parks since the shutdown began, including a 14-year-old girl who fell 700 feet from the Horseshoe Bend Overlook in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, just south of the Utah state line in Arizona, according to The Washington Post. A man died from a fall in Yosemite National Park in California on Christmas Day and a woman was killed two days later by a falling tree in Great Smoky National Park in the southeastern United States.
A National Park spokesman told The Washington Post that an average of six people die each week in the park system.
McAdams' spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrend, would not say whether the newly sworn-in Democratic lawmaker was invited to sign the letter sent Friday by the three Republican congressmen. She said McAdams’ letter shows he is “pursuing multiple paths to reopen the government.” McAdams noted in his letter that he voted to reopen and fund the federal government without paying for President Donald Trump’s border wall. The three Utah Republicans all voted against the bills to reopen the government.
The letters from Utah’s members of Congress say that the state has used its funds for some personnel costs since the shutdown started Dec. 22, and several private donors have pitched in money. But the lawmakers noted that the funding is limited, and Utah has yet to be reimbursed $1 million it paid to keep parks open during the 2013 federal government shutdown.
The congressmen requested that “emergency action” be taken so regular activities can resume at all five of Utah’s national parks.
Arches and Canyonlands already shut their gates last week as fresh snow covered the roads and there were no federal workers to plow them.
Websites for the parks alert visitors to the Dec. 31 closure because of snowfall — but there is no updated information about if or when the parks have reopened.