Feds will let states pay to reopen national parks
Under pressure from governors, the Obama administration said Thursday it will allow some shuttered national parks to reopen — as long as states use their own money to pay for park operations.
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. All 401 national park units — including such icons as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite and Zion national parks — have been closed since Oct. 1 because of the partial government shutdown. More than 20,000 National Park Service employees have been furloughed, and lawmakers from both parties have complained that park closures have wreaked havoc on nearby communities that depend on tourism.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the government will consider offers to use state money to resume park operations, but will not surrender control of national parks or monuments to the states. Jewell called on Congress to act swiftly to end the government shutdown so all parks can reopen.
Utah's Republican governor, Gary Herbert, said late Thursday he had wired money from state taxpayers that will open Utah's national five national parks. He said he was inking a deal with Jewell that provides $166,000 a day in funding for the five red rock parks and other units of the national park system, starting Saturday. He said that will keep them open for 10 days, and the state can buy extra days as needed.
Interior Department spokesman Blake Androff said the government does not plan to reimburse states that pay to reopen parks. Costs could run into the millions of dollars, depending on how long the shutdown lasts and how many parks reopen. Congress could authorize reimbursements once the shutdown ends, although it was not clear whether that will happen.
Governors of Arizona, South Dakota and Colorado have made similar requests to reopen some or all of their parks.
A spokesman for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said the Republican governor is committed to finding a way to reopen the Grand Canyon, one of the state's most important economic engines
"It's not ideal, but if there's something we can do to help reopen it, Gov. Brewer has been committed to trying to find that way," said spokesman Andrew Wilder.
Brewer and state legislative leaders have said they would make state funding available, but "the state cannot pay the federal government's bills indefinitely," Wilder said. Businesses outside the Grand Canyon have pledged $400,000.
October is a peak month for tourism in Arizona and other parts of the West.
In South Dakota, a spokesman said Gov. Dennis Daugaard is considering the government's offer, but wants to see how much it would cost. Daugaard, a Republican, "appreciates the federal government's willingness to evaluate other options," said Dusty Johnson, Daugaard's chief of staff. "When we get the numbers, he'll consider it more fully."
Herbert, also 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.
Androff 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-off area that can be used to view and photograph Mount Rushmore from a distance following complaints that the agency was intentionally blocking viewing areas. Hundreds of tourists complained that park rangers blocked drivers from pulling over to take photos of the South Dakota monument, which features the stone-carved faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.