Once again, Utah taxpayers and nonprofits are bailing out the national parks.
State transportation workers plowed snow off roads Thursday at Arches and Canyonlands, cut off by recent snowfall that the National Park Service could not clear because of the nearly 3-week-old federal government shutdown.
The Utah Department of Transportation reached out to Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, offering assistance for the duration of the shutdown.
“We see national parks as part of our state’s identity and want to make sure visitors are having a pleasant experience,” UDOT spokesman John Gleason said. At the request of parks officials, the agency dispatched four plows, two to Arches and two to the Island in the Sky portion of Canyonlands. It also will send plows to Capitol Reef if needed.
Not only are park roads expected to be passable on Friday, but the Arches and Canyonlands visitor centers may also be staffed for the first time in more than a week, thanks to financial assistance from the Canyonlands Natural History Association, a nonprofit partner to federal land managers in southeastern Utah.
“We are in the process of signing an agreement,” the group’s executive director, Roxanne Bierman, said Thursday. “We do need a vote of our board to expend those funds. Our mission is to serve visitors with education and interpretive information, and we can’t do that if visitors centers are closed.”
For the first 10 days of the shutdown, the Utah Office of Tourism directed $80,000 to the federal treasury to cover the cost of operating visitor centers and clean restrooms at Arches, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, the state’s three busiest. The Arches visitor center has been closed since Jan. 1, when state dollars ran out. Things got worse Dec. 31 when 6 inches of snow fell on Moab, forcing park managers to shut gates at Arches and Canyonlands.
Private groups have since been putting up money to fund basic operations at Bryce and Zion.
The Bryce Canyon Natural History Association has been covering that park’s visitor services since Jan. 1 in 10-day increments. When a new cycle begins Friday, the group’s payment will shrink to cover just the two people needed to staff the visitor center.
This is because, in the coming days, national parks that normally charge entrance fees — no such fees are being collected during the shutdown — will begin using their past fee revenues to fund basic operations, such as trash collection, law enforcement, emergency response and road maintenance. Interpretive services are not included, so private groups will still be asked to kick in money to keep visitor centers open.
Tapping recreation-fee money is a controversial move authorized by acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt that critics see as an illegal raid on funds reserved for projects that enhance the parks.
“There is a lot of discussion about visitor access and helping them have a positive experience, but not a lot of talk about impacts and bringing in people to address those impacts to natural and cultural resources,” said Emily Douce, director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association, or NPCA.
Under shutdown contingency plans developed by now-ousted Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the National Park Service has been keeping access open to most of its 417 units during the shutdown. This is in direct contrast with how the service responded to the 16-day shutdown in October 2013, at the height of Utah’s fall tourism season, when it blocked access to all its parks, monuments and recreation areas.
But park advocates, including former National Park Service (NPS) Director Jonathan Jarvis, say keeping parks open but understaffed endangers visitors and risks irreparable damage to park resources.
“The political pressures being put on our park managers are forcing them to follow an irresponsible, shortsighted plan,” said NPCA President Theresa Pierno. “This action blatantly disregards the fundamental duties of park staff who have dedicated their careers to ensuring our nation’s most precious natural and historic places are enjoyed not only today, but for years to come.”
All told, 21,000 members of the NPS 24,000-strong workforce have been furloughed. Of the 3,000 or so still on the job, those who perform critical life-safety and maintenance duties have been required to work without pay.
Under Bernhardt’s order, some of these employees could be getting paid soon, along with those returning to their posts for the first time since Dec. 22.
Meanwhile, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who is championing legislation to solve the parks’ maintenance backlog, has sent Bernhardt a letter asking him to provide the rationale for redirecting recreation-fee revenue.
It is unclear how much of such funds the park service holds to cover park operations during the shutdown, or exactly how they will be used at the Utah parks. Inquiries were referred to agency spokesman Jeremy Barnum, who was not immediately able to provide this information.
Park superintendents are submitting plans this week to the Interior Department, which could approve some as early as Friday.
Entry, camping and other fees were expected to generate $312 million this year. By law, this money is devoted to deferred maintenance, visitor facilities, restoring natural and cultural resources, and educational and interpretive programs.
Much of it is already spoken for. The Interior Department’s proposed parks budget for fiscal 2019 envisions spending nearly $166 million on deferred maintenance, $45 million on interpretation and visitor services, and $13 million on habitat restoration.
Examples of specific projects include upgrading Bryce Lodge Loop and Sunset Point roads (cost $2.7 million) and expanding Zion’s entrance station (cost $1.7 million), which is needed to reduce wait times to enter Utah’s most popular park.
Critics say using this money on basic operations undermines the parks’ ability to tackle the $11 billion maintenance backlog and improve the visitor experience. But some community-based groups that support parks welcomed the use of recreation dollars during the shutdown.
“It’s a brilliant move that should have been done long ago,” said Gayle Pollock of the Bryce Canyon Natural History Association, which has been paying to keep the lights on and toilets clean at that park.
While snowfall has forced the closure of some parks, Bryce has been able to keep enough of its access road open to serve its two most popular winter destinations, Sunrise and Sunset points overlooking the Bryce Amphitheater. At 8,000 feet in elevation, Bryce receives ample snowfall and it is a popular winter destination when visitors can ski or hike along the canyon rim and enjoy the views of the park’s signature hoodoo formations mantled in snow.
Bryce Canyon officials had previously identified snow plowing as an essential service that could be funded during a shutdown, according to Pollock. But the road leading out to the southern end of the park rises to 9,000 feet and is usually closed for the winter beyond the Rainbow Gate, a few miles south of the park entrance
Meanwhile, the shutdown is preventing parks from collecting fees of any kind. Zion lost an estimated $500,000 in entry fees during the first 10 days of the shutdown, according to Lyman Hafen of the Zion Forever Project. During those same 10 days, the park generated $100,000 in retail sales at the visitor center, a federal revenue stream made possible because of outside support.