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Some states pick up the tab to keep national parks open during federal shutdown

Tourists board a shuttle into Zion National Park, in Utah. The state government will pay for the park to stay open during the government shutdown, in order to keep tourist revenue flowing to nearby towns.
David Condos
/
KUER
Tourists board a shuttle into Zion National Park, in Utah. The state government will pay for the park to stay open during the government shutdown, in order to keep tourist revenue flowing to nearby towns.

With the possibility of a federal government shutdown on the horizon, the Interior Department is poised to close the gates to the National Parks System, which includes the national parks, monuments, and historic sites across the country. But some state governments are prepared to step up and pay to keep their most popular sites open in the event of a shutdown.

In Utah, state leaders have committed to funding the operation of the state's five popular national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches, if Congress fails to pass a spending bill by the end of Saturday.

Arizona and Colorado state leaders have said they also intend to bankroll some of their most popular national parks, including Grand Canyon National Park.

"We are all in agreement that it's worth keeping the parks open," Utah Governor Spencer Cox said at a news conference. "It's so important to these shoulder communities that rely on the parks as their lifeblood, and so we are going to step up and do that again."

Third time's the charm?

Utah has stepped in to fund park operations during past government shutdowns.

According to the governor, it cost around $1 million to keep the parks open for 35 days during the 2013 shutdown, and the state also provided funding to keep parks open during a shutdown in 2018.

But Cox says the federal government never reimbursed the state. This time around, he's hoping for a different outcome.

"We've communicated to Interior Secretary Haaland our plan to keep Utah's national parks open if she is willing to work with us, and our expectation that any state dollars spent will be restored to the people of Utah," he said.

That is easier said than done. According to the Interior Department, those funds are seen as donations and are not refundable.

"States may want to enter into their own arrangements with philanthropy in order to fund those donations, which are inherently not reimbursable," said a senior Interior Department official.

"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, both the National Park Service and the Interior Department are prepared to engage in those discussions with states like Utah."

Good news for gateway towns, but tourism could still take a hit

The news that Utah is willing to step in and fund park operations couldn't come at a better time for small businesses surrounding the state's national parks.

"This is one of the busier months — September and October," says Shannon Lee, general manager of the Zion Canyon Lodge.

Her business is located in the small town of Springdale, which sits right at the southern entrance to Zion National Park.

"[A shutdown] would be pretty devastating for all the businesses," she says.

But some worry that information isn't getting across to park visitors.

"I've received probably a dozen cancellations for October," says Sunflower Hill Inn owner Emily Niehaus, who also served as the mayor of Moab from 2018 to 2022. Moab serves as a "gateway community" to both Arches and Canyonlands National Park.

"I'm a small, six-unit inn," explains Niehaus. "And so I'm worried that not all visitors are getting the message [that we're open]."

Park ranger Jenn Cook answers questions from Bram and Elke Vanderelst at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. Over 23,000 people work in Utah's national parks, according to the National Park Service.
David Condos / KUER
/
KUER
Park ranger Jenn Cook answers questions from Bram and Elke Vanderelst at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. Over 23,000 people work in Utah's national parks, according to the National Park Service.

According to an August report by the National Parks Service, last year's visitation to Utah's national parks added 23,312 jobs and over $2.5 billion to the state's economy — much of that in adjacent communities like Springdale and Moab. With no park visitors, cash flow that is vital for those communities could dry up quickly.

"It's our bread and butter for the winter, the revenue that we get in October," says Niehaus, the Moab innkeeper.

"We worry for our community. We worry for our friends. We worry for our coworkers. I worry for other businesses. All it takes is, you know, just a dip in revenue and it will really impact the smaller businesses that are in Moab."

"The public finds a way"

It's not just local businesses that are wary ahead of congressional inaction. Park employees will be in for a lot of work once parks across the country do reopen.

"Usually the public finds a way in anyway, particularly in parks ... that don't have one set boundary and one entrance, one exit," says former Superintendent of Acadia National Park & St. Croix Island International Historic Site Sheridan Steele.

"Restrooms are closed, trash piles up, human waste appears in the bushes, and safety problems occur," he explains. "It just becomes kind of a nightmare, really, for park management."

But, Steele points out, when the national parks close, there are plenty of other other opportunities to get outside.

"I would encourage [people] to explore state parks, regional parks, and local parks," said Steele. "There's a lot of outdoor space that's not managed by the federal government... I would just encourage them to try some new things and new places."

Copyright 2023 KUER 90.1

Sean Higgins