Utah’s state parks experience both famine and feast during COVID-19

(Nate Carlisle | Tribune file photo) A sign marks the end of the Curtis Bench Trail in Goblin Valley State Park. The trail concludes with a view of Goblins on the valley below and the Henry Mountains in the distance.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken Utah’s state parks for a roller-coaster ride, an agency representative said Monday.

The situation looked grim early in the pandemic, Jeff Rasmussen, the state’s head of parks and recreation told Utah lawmakers. Amid public health restrictions, overall park attendance dropped by nearly 40% in April compared to the same month in 2019. The hardest-hit park — Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding — saw its visitation nosedive by 98% year over year.

Initial estimates showed that the state parks system had lost about $2 million in revenue, Rasmussen said.

“We were getting nervous about how are we going to cover these costs, being a self-funded agency,” he told state lawmakers during a meeting of a subcommittee that oversees state appropriations for natural resources, agriculture and environmental quality.

Then, in late April, the state lifted restrictions that had limited park attendance, and stir-crazy Utahns flooded back. Now, he said, the parks system has not only made up its revenue losses but is looking at breaking records.

Rasmussen on Monday presented a report showing that state park revenues from February through April were nearly 23% lower than the same period a year earlier. During that time frame, state parks were closed to out-of-county visitors, driving down entrance fee proceeds and forcing officials to cancel camping reservations, Rasmussen said.

But since those restrictions eased, the problem has been managing the crowds that have streamed into the state’s parks, he said. In fact, in some places, the flood of would-be visitors has been so great that officials have had to turn people away.

“We were having to close the gates in those parks as early as 8 in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays, as people were coming into our parks,” he said.

State park visitation for the year ending in June was 17% higher than the prior year, and attendance in the month of May shot up by about 53% year over year.

During May and June, the state park system’s revenues were up in almost all categories compared to the prior year — with the only losses showing up in retail sales from gift shops and visitor centers, which still aren’t running at full capacity because of the pandemic, Rasmussen reported.

“So, all in all, we’re super excited that we’ve been able to keep our parks open. I’m really excited that we’ve been able to make up our revenue losses,” he said. “And now, we’re doing good, or we’re back on track with our revenue and visitation.”

The pandemic has also brought some new attention to Utah’s parks system, drawing out-of-state visitors who are looking to escape their local COVID-19 restrictions, he said. In southwestern parts of the state, Rep. Carl Albrecht said he’s noticed an overwhelming number of Nevada license plates on cars at Utah parks, and he asked Rasmussen if the fees were higher for people from out of state.

Rasmussen said the parks system has instituted higher nonresident fees, adding that he’d also noticed a large number of Nevada plates during a recent visit to Sand Hollow State Park.

“They take our money,” Albrecht, R-Richfield, quipped, an apparent reference to legal gambling in Utah’s neighboring state. “We oughta take theirs.”