Utah company gives $100K to keep Zion, Arches and Bryce operating through Presidents Day during shutdown

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A woman in a hammock at the end of the Riverside Walk in Zion National Park as the government shutdown continues on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019.

As grants from nonprofits and state and local governments expired this week, a private company has stepped in with a major donation to support operations at Utah national parks that otherwise would be seriously understaffed as the federal government shutdown drags into its second month.

Alsco Inc., a Utah-based linen and uniform rental company, is providing $100,000 to cover basic visitor and custodial services at Utah’s Zion, Arches and Bryce Canyon national parks at least through Presidents Day weekend.

“As visitation increases in February, so does the need for staff. This should cover custodial services so that when people arrive at the parks, they are clear of trash and have clean restrooms,” CEO Bob Steiner, a former Democratic state senator, said at the Utah Capitol. “This will help maintain the natural resources and a pristine experience. Many travelers have planned their trips to Utah for months — if not years. We want to them to remember the beautiful vistas, not piles of trash.”

While the company’s gesture drew praise from several Utah lawmakers, it won’t address longer-term hardships the government shutdown is imposing on the parks, warned Vicki Varela, Utah’s tourism director.

“It’s not like everything is fine now; it’s not,” Varela said, pointing out that Utah’s parks can’t do much to hire seasonal staff and prepare for spring when the parks get busy.

“It’s just that we have patch-worked through a dysfunctional situation that protects the most important things for the short term — i.e., minimize risks to the natural environment and protect the visitor experience as much as possible.”

Now is the time park managers normally begin a process of hiring seasonal staff that is sure to be disrupted even if the shutdown ends soon.

“It probably means that they won’t be able to rate and evaluate seasonal applications and provide a list for supervisors to select employees,” said Phil Francis, a retired park superintendent who serves on the board of The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.

“If you don’t do it in a timely way, people looking for seasonal jobs will look somewhere else,” Francis said, predicting the hiring backlog will postpone openings of campgrounds and day-use areas.

“All this is being pushed back and then it’s going to be compacted into a short amount of time,” Francis said. “It is creating increased stress on human resources folks. The parks need to have some idea when their [seasonal workers] can be brought on board and when their background checks can be completed so they can plan when to open their facilities.”

Francis and other advocates have called on the Interior Department to close the parks during the shutdown to avoid putting their resources and visitors at risk.

The Alsco money is hoped to reduced these risks by keeping visitor centers staffed. These funds will pass through nonprofit associations that partner with the Utah parks and have been tapping their own funds in recent weeks to sustain operations there.

Alsco divvied money between the three parks based on their visitation numbers from last February, Steiner said. Accordingly, Zion is to receive $62,300, based on the nearly 128,000 visitors it saw that month. Arches will get $19,600 and Bryce $18,100. This money is to fund Zion from Feb. 5 to March 9, while funding the other two parks from now until Feb. 18.

The government shutdown paused several projects at the parks to improve the visitor experience. One such project is the installation of additional outhouses at Zion’s Scout Lookout, the busy spot where hikers begin treks up Angels Landing and the West Rim Trail. According to Varela, the Alsco money will be used to finish installing toilets needed to mitigate the stench pouring from the existing outhouses.

“This has been quite a season, a season full of silver linings,” Varela said. “It is amazing that as dysfunction in Washington, D.C., continues, it creates an imperative to do things right in Utah.”

This is the largest private donation toward national parks’ operation over the government shutdown, according to Varela. The only contribution that comes close was Delta Air Lines’ $83,000 to keep the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park open over the slain civil rights leader’s birthday.

Even with private funding, the parks have far fewer staffers working than normal. That can cause problems with rescues, for instance, and put more pressure on area law enforcement agencies.

Two visitors got lost while hiking in Bryce during Monday’s storm. Snow covered the trail, which became hard to distinguish, winds were blowing, and snowdrifts got up to 6 feet high, said Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins, who didn’t have an exact location for where it happened.

Another couple bumped into the two, and the four called for help about 6 p.m. “In spite of the government shutdown,” the sheriff’s office said, park rangers acted quickly and asked for assistance from officers.

“They didn’t hesitate a minute to ask for help,” Perkins said. “They’re a good partner.”

A small team from the National Park Service and 10 people with sheriff’s office were able to get the four stranded hikers out by 1 a.m. Tuesday.

“It was high winds and snow blowing like you can’t believe,” Perkins said. “It was really a horrendous thing. It was bad. If those people wouldn’t have had cellphones, we might have really had some trouble.”

Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this report.