Hope, skepticism linger about parks reopening
TUSAYAN, Ariz. — Robert and Jayne Miller are on a three-week road trip across America, hoping to take in the sights along Route 66 as they head from California to Washington. But they hit a wall when they got to Grand Canyon National Park.
The Australian tourists are now just hoping the iconic landscape is accessible before they have to move on, optimistic that it could come as soon as this weekend after the Obama administration said it would allow states to use their own money to reopen some shuttered national parks.
Governors in at least four states have asked for authority to reopen the parks within their borders because of the economic impacts caused by the closures. All 401 national park units — including such icons as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Zion — 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.
“It’s like someone just turned around the closed sign here in America,” said Jayne Miller, standing alongside her husband as they checked into a hotel on the south rim of the Grand Canyon on Thursday.
Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, said late Thursday he had wired money from state taxpayers that will open Utah’s five national parks. He said he was inking a deal with Interior Secretary Sally 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.
Jewell said the federal 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.
Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said she’d consider paying for a partial reopening of Grand Canyon National Park but is rejecting the Interior Department’s insistence that state money pay for the whole operation — a daily cost of $112,000 — adding yet another element of uncertainty.
“It gets too complicated when you’re trying to do sections of park and you still have areas barricaded off,” said National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst.
The Grand Canyon draws about 18,000 people each day this time of year who pump an estimated $1 million daily into the local economy.
The town of Tusayan, just outside the park’s South Rim entrance, and area businesses have pledged $400,000 to help reopen the canyon, but Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder said it’s unclear if the Interior Department could even accept private funds.
He said there’s now no time frame for a reopening on the state’s dime.
That’s not good news for people like Julie Aldaz, general manager at Tusayan’s Red Feather Lodge.
“This is our last big weekend,” Aldaz said, explaining the hotel has already lost about $135,000 since the park closed. “I’m skeptical, but still hopeful. What more can we do?”
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.
Governors in South Dakota and Colorado have made similar requests to reopen some or all of their parks.
In South Dakota, Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, is considering the government’s offer, but wants to see how much it would cost.
“When we get the numbers, he’ll consider it more fully,” said Daugaard Chief of Staff Dusty Johnson.
Herbert, also a Republican, said in a letter this week 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 popular national parks, including Zion, Bryce and Arches.
Herbert estimated the economic impact of the federal government shutdown on Utah at $100 million.
Figures compiled by a coalition of retired park service workers indicate that some 700,000 people a day would have been visiting the 401 national park units and that the surrounding areas are losing $76 million in visitor spending daily.
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.
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.
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.
Hundreds of tourists had 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.