Federal government to let states pay to open national parks
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Thursday it will allow states to use their own money to reopen some national parks that have been closed because of the government shutdown.
Governors in at least four states have asked for authority to reopen national parks within their borders because of the economic impacts caused by the park closures.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the government will consider offers to pay for park operations, but will not surrender control of national parks or monuments to the states.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said his state would accept the federal offer to reopen Utah's five national parks.
Utah would have to use its own money to staff the parks, and it will cost $50,000 a day to operate just one of them, Zion National Park, said Herbert's deputy chief of staff, Ally Isom.
It was not clear if the federal government would reimburse Utah later. The Utah Legislature would have to convene in special session to appropriate the money, Isom said.
Governors of South Dakota, Arizona and Colorado have made similar requests to reopen some or all of their parks. It was not clear Thursday if they would accept Jewell's offer.
October is a peak month for tourism in many parts of the West.
Herbert, a Republican, said in a letter Tuesday to President Barack Obama that the shutdown of national parks has been “devastating” to individuals and businesses that rely on park operations for their livelihood. Utah is home to five national parks, including Zion, Bryce and Arches, which attract visitors from around the world.
“The current federally mandated closure is decimating the bottom line of bed-and-breakfast business owners and operators in Torrey (Utah), outfitters at Bryce Canyon City and restaurant owners in Moab,” Herbert wrote.
He estimated the economic impact of the federal government shutdown on Utah at about $100 million.
Blake Androff, a spokesman for Jewell, said the Interior Department will consider agreements with governors who “indicate an interest and ability to fully fund National Park Service personnel to re-open national parks in their states.”
Decisions about which parks to reopen and for how long have not been made, Androff said. All 401 park service units nationwide are eligible for state donations, Androff said.
Figures compiled by a coalition of retired park service workers indicate that some 700,000 people a day would have been visiting the parks and that the surrounding areas are losing $76 million in visitor spending per day.
The park service said it is losing $450,000 per day in revenue from entrance fees and other in-park expenditures, such as campground fees and boat rentals.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the Obama administration was playing “political games” with national parks.
“Why now, after more than a week of refusing to allow states to pay to keep national parks open, is the Obama Administration suddenly reversing course?” Hastings asked. “It appears they are truly just making this up as they go along.”
States and communities whose economic livelihoods are tied to national parks “deserve better than this administration's political games to make this shutdown as painful as possible,” Hastings said.
In Wyoming, Gov. Matt Mead's office said the state would not pay to reopen two heavily visited national parks or the Devil's Tower national monument.
“Wyoming cannot bail out the federal government and we cannot use state money to do the work of the federal government,” Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said Thursday Meanwhile, the park service said it is reopening to tourists a highway pull-out area that can be used to view and photograph Mount Rushmore from a distance following complaints that the agency was intentionally blocking viewing areas.
The national memorial in South Dakota has been closed because of the government shutdown. Hundreds of tourists have complained that park rangers have placed cones along an area highway to stop drivers from pulling over to take photos of the iconic monument, which features the stone-carved faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
The park service never intended to ruin anyone's view of Mount Rushmore, said Patricia Trap, deputy director of the agency's Midwest region. The agency has a limited number of rangers available during the shutdown, and some pull-out areas were blocked with cones out of security concerns because there weren't enough rangers to monitor those areas, she said.