Some national parks reopen as states pick up tab in shutdown
Utah became the first state to agree to temporarily foot the bill to reopen some national parks on Friday. Four of five national parks in the state welcomed visitors after being closed as part of the government shutdown. Colorado also has agreed to pay to reopen a park.
Four of Utah's five national parks began welcoming visitors again Friday after being closed as part of the government shutdown then reopening when the state agreed to cover the operating costs.
The move drew cheers from antsy tourists and relief from beleaguered shop and hotel owners whose sales tanked during the closures.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert sent $1.67 million to the U.S. government late Thursday -- enough to keep the national parks in the state open for 10 days.
If the federal government shutdown continues and Utah wants to keep its national parks open beyond those 10 days, the Legislature would have to meet for a special session to consider spending $167,000 a day.
Zion National Park was the first site to reopen, with Bryce, Arches and Capitol Reef set to open later in the day. The Natural Bridges national monument also opened. Lake Powell was partially opened and will be fully open by Saturday. Canyonlands will reopen Saturday.
"We're kind of scrambling to get staff back on board," said Paul Henderson, assistant superintendent of Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Federal workers were not allowed to use their government emails during the shutdown, he said, so supervisors spent Thursday night and Friday morning tracking down workers on personal emails and cellphone.
Henderson expects large crowds this weekend with many people off for Columbus Day Monday and lured by the draw of the crisp autumn temperatures.
"There is probably a bit of pent-up energy with folks wanting to come to the park, too," Henderson said. "We expect it to be a busy weekend."
Busy is exactly what shop, restaurant and hotel owners are hoping for in the small town of Springdale, adjacent to Zion National Park. Hotels have been partially vacant and retail and rental shops have seen sales plummet during the shutdown.
"A lot of businesses have suffered severely because of the government," said Jenna Milligan of Zion Outfitters. "I just hope it does stay open through autumn."
Milligan said Zion Outfitters, which rents bikes, tubes and hiking and climbing gear to park visitors, has seen average daily sales drop from about $1,500 to next to nothing.
Ben Patel, general manager at the Pioneer Lodge in Springdale, said occupancy rates that would have been 80 to 90 percent dipped to 20 to 30 percent during the shutdown as cancellations flooded in, He said he was considering letting some employees go if the shutdown continued one more week.
The reopening will likely lead to more visits from people in the United States, but it probably won't bring back foreign visitors who planned to visit Zion and have already cancelled.
"The damage is done," Patel said. "I don't see them coming back. It's almost the end of the season."
More than 400 national parks, recreation areas and monuments have been closed since Oct. 1 due to the partial government shutdown. Utah was the first state to take the Obama administration up on its offer to reopen national parks.
Colorado's governor has struck a deal with federal officials to reopen one of its national parks, becoming the second state to accept an offer to send money to the federal government to save lucrative tourist seasons.
Federal officials announced Friday that Colorado has agreed to pay about $360,000 to reopen Rocky Mountain National Park through Oct. 20.
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 in South Dakota 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.
U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., introduced legislation that would reimburse states for the costs of reopening and operating the parks within 90 days. Utah's four U.S. representatives -- Democrat Jim Matheson and Republicans Jason Chaffetz, Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop -- all signed on as co-sponsors.
Utah state officials focused on reopening the most heavily visited parks, leaving some other federally managed monuments and parks closed, said Jay Kinghorn, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Tourism. For instance, Hovenweep, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Dinosaur national monuments remained closed. Timpanogos Cave already closed for the season, he said.