When the federal government last ground to a halt in December 2018, the state of Utah thought it had a solution to keeping the gates open to its five National Parks, the main tethers of its tourism industry. It sent millions of dollars to Washington earmarked for that purpose. Then, it waited for the government to distribute it.
Getting that money where it was supposed to go by the time it was needed proved more difficult than anyone in the state had considered. In fact, at one point a government employee nearly had to drive from Sandy to Springdale in a snowstorm to deliver a check on time.
“We’ve gotten crazy circumstances where, because it’s the federal government and very bureaucratic, the national parks weren’t able to receive the money until they had a bunch of calculations in place,” said Vicki Varela, the director of the Utah Office of Tourism. “And then they needed it right now. And it couldn’t be wired. And so we were in situations where we were considering having team members do these frantic drives in the middle of winter to hand-deliver checks.”
Adding insult to injury, the state was never repaid almost half the funds it put forward. It is still owed about $1.6 million.
As another government shutdown looms this weekend, Gov. Spencer Cox has promised the state will step up again to keep Utah’s national parks open. It will be the third time in as many shutdowns that the state has taken on the role of life raft for the parks, which see a combined 13 million visits and generate an estimated $1.66 billion annually. But past experience has taught local leaders and tourism officials a few lessons.
So this year Utah is going to take a different tact — if the federal government will let it and if the state can afford it.
In announcing Friday that a government shutdown would force it to shutter the national parks, the Department of the Interior left open the possibility of states paying to keep all or parts of their parks open. This time around, though, the states won’t be getting any money back.
According to a senior Interior Department official, “Parks will be able to enter into nonreimbursable arrangements for donations to fund the full operation of an individual park site or specify services that clearly benefit the park and the public.”
When he reiterated on Thursday the state’s willingness to support Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks during the shutdown, Gov. Cox specified he expected to get the money back. In a statement texted to the Tribune following the Department of the Interior’s announcement, he said Utah would continue to keep its parks open.
“We’re extremely disappointed with Congress and the administration for putting the nation in this position,” Cox said. “We still hope they’ll do the right thing and reimburse the states, but we’re going to do right by our rural communities and state economy by keeping the national parks open.”
The governor’s office estimates Utah’s local economies will lose $7.1 million per day for every day the federal government remains closed. Neither Varela nor Cox’s offices could produce a figure for the daily cost of keeping all five parks open. They said it varies depending on the park, the number of services offered, the time of year and the length of the shutdown. During the 16-day shutdown in 2013, however, an expert told the New York Times it cost Utah $7,662 a day to run Arches National Park. At the same time, the expert said, operating the Grand Canyon cost Arizona $93,000 per day.
The state has set aside $5 million to run the parks, Varela said. That money will come from the industrial assistance account held by the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity. It provides funds, Varela said, for “unusual, timely opportunities or challenges.”
If Utah is going to commit that much money to the parks, though, Varela wanted to ensure she didn’t have to send employees on 250-mile errands across icy roads to get it to them. So, this time the state is taking an alternative route.
Varela said the state plans to circumvent the federal government and hand the funds to cover basic operating expenses over to various foundations that have established themselves as caretakers for the parks. Money can flow more freely with the foundations as an intermediary, she said, though she emphasized that the foundations will not be operating the park. They will, however, work with the parks, the state and the Department of Interior to determine a list of essential services that may or may not include amenities like the Zion and Bryce Canyon shuttles.
The devil, she said, is in the details.
“For better or for worse, we are getting much better at it,” Varela said of managing a federal shutdown. “We have learned a lot along the way. And one of the many important learnings is to work really closely with the National Park foundations that support each of these parks so that when state money flows, it flows through those foundations.”
The Department of the Interior seemed to support Utah’s approach.
“States may want to enter into their own arrangements with philanthropy in order to fund those donations which are inherently not reimbursable,” the senior official said. “I fully expect some creativity from the states when it comes to trying to step into the breach created by Congress if Congress fails to fully fund the parks.”
Even with the state’s backing, Utah’s Mighty 5 will be a little less mighty. Visitors shouldn’t expect rangers to be offering directions or giving nature talks. Trash pickup and bathroom cleanup will be less robust and some visitor centers may not open.
As Varela said, “It’s going to be very bare.”
But bare is better than nothing as far as many business owners and residents of the towns that thrive on tourism from the parks are concerned.
Jason Taylor has spent the past two decades as the Utah operations manager for Western River Expeditions, which runs bus tours through Arches under the name Moab Adventure Center. He said the state’s support of the parks during the shutdown is appreciated and vital.
Taylor said October is one of the busiest times of the year in Moab. The month is the sixth busiest of the year in terms of visits at Arches and the third busiest in Canyonlands, but Taylor said for outfitters, “it’s our Black Friday.” When the parks closed in October 2013, it had a ripple effect on other businesses. The state eventually stepped in to reopen the Mighty 5, but the effort was too late to avoid creating an economic trench almost too steep to climb out of — even for months afterward.
“People didn’t know how long it was going to last, and so they’re canceling reservations a month out because they just didn’t know,” he said. “So as soon as the parks opened up, things didn’t kick right back into gear again. It took a lot of time for the momentum [and] for people to start coming back because so many people made other arrangements or canceled.”
This year, even with so much uncertainty, feels much less frantic. When worried representatives from national bus companies call Taylor, he can tell them to take a deep breath.
“Gratefully, we can go, ‘Hey, it’s business as usual,” Taylor said.
“Now,” he added, “it’s just a matter of getting the word out that the parks are open.”