Tourism-Driven States Scrape Together Funds To Keep National Parks Open
For Utah, not even the federal government shutdown was enough to keep its residents from lobbying to keep their world-renowned national parks open — but it’ll cost them.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) was among four state governors to negotiate a deal between his state parks department and the federal government. For just over $166,000 a day, the National Park Service will leave the gates open for at least five of the state’s national parks and two of its national monuments.
“Utah’s national parks are the backbone of many rural economies and hard-working Utahns are paying a heavy price for this shutdown,” Herbert said in a statement. “I commend Secretary [of the Interior Sally] Jewell for being open to Utah’s solution, and the world should know Utah is open for business and visitors are welcome.”
Herbert’s move comes after President Barack Obama bowed to the pressure from four states that pleaded with the administration to work out a deal to keep their national parks open.
South Dakota, Colorado, Arizona and Utah are all home to some of the country’s most premiere parks, which not only serve as a source of natural beauty, but also a source of tourism revenue.
It was the governors of those states who led efforts to pressure Obama and Secretary Jewell to negotiate a scenario where states would merely be allowed to open the parks.
“Responding to economic impacts that the park closures are having on many communities and local businesses, Secretary Jewell 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,” Blake Andross, a spokesperson for the Interior Department, said in a statement.
The shutdown has impacted 20,000 National Park Service employees, all of whom are temporarily out of work. In Arizona, home of the iconic Grand Canyon, it’s estimated that visitors flocking to the area generate $467 million. According to Gov. Jan Brewer (R), the park supported 7,400 jobs in 2011.
The time is still ticking
In Utah, the tourism industry brings in roughly $100 million on average in October alone, a key month in a state that boasts its beautiful fall scenery.
“This is a practical and temporary solution that will lessen the pain for some businesses and communities in Utah during this shutdown,” Jewell said in a statement.
According to a press release released by Herbert’s office, the Division of State Parks of the Department of Natural Resources has agreed to provide the initial funding to keep the parks open — a cost that includes the wages for those employed through the National Park Service.
The agreement made between the state and the federal government, however, still rests on the hope that the federal government will be able to reach an agreement and end a shutdown by Oct. 20.
Utah, however, has said it will keep paying the National Park Service to keep its parks running, but that would only lead to Gov. Herbert and other governors picking up the tab, prompting them to lobby even harder for the federal government to issue a reimbursement payment.
This is where it gets tricky, as there’s no guarantee that the federal government will pay the state for the costs it incurs to keep the parks open, but congressional approval of reimbursements could be the ticket for payback.
“Consequently, the Governor has engaged Utah’s congressional delegation to actively pursue timely repayment to state coffers,” the press release states.
So far, state legislators have been behind the governor, citing the revenue sources the state’s five parks bring in — roughly $100 million in October alone — not only to the parks themselves, but the tourism industry.
Herbert indicated that the shutdown was destroying businesses’ bottom lines, including those in the motel, restaurant and outdoor outfitter industries. Even with the opening of national parks, businesses are still attempting to work from behind to make up revenue during one of their biggest seasons. There’s also an issue of getting that information out there to potential tourists who have already thought of cancelling their trips due to the shutdown.
“We have lost significant dollars in these 10 days that unfortunately we’ll never be able to recoup,” Best Western General Manager Dean Cook told local station KSL. “October is a big month for us, usually one of the top three in a given year.”
A state brought to its knees
South Dakota, home to the iconic Mount Rushmore National Park, was among the states to be hit hard by the shutdown.
The closure elicited protest among those whose livelihoods rely on the national attraction, yet not everyone is pleased with the alternate decision, either. Along with the state’s promise to keep the park open comes a price tag for the state’s taxpayers — one worth $15,200 a day.
That’s the amount the state has agreed to pay the National Park Service not only to reopen the monument but also to maintain daily operations, including wages for those employed through the National Park Service.
The state has attempted to work out a program that would allow various charities and businesses to “buy a day” to keep the park open. The Mount Rushmore Society has already provided the funds that kept the park open Monday. Other organizations and businesses, including the infamous Wall Drug, have done the same.
Even so, there’s still question over whether donations will be enough to wipe out the $15,200-a-day price tag.
Not everyone was pleased with state taxpayers having to shoulder even a portion of the burden, though. Protests erupted outside the monument over the weekend, with residents on horseback claiming the burden should instead fall on the backs of failed congressional leaders, not South Dakotans.
Jeff Johnson, who organized the protests outside of Mount Rushmore last weekend, told the Associated Press that demonstrators were pleased the monument was opening up, yet they felt the blame and pressure needed to remain on Congress.
Others, however, are focussing on the positives, pointing out the ripple effect it will have on area businesses that rely on tourism.
“I want to thank the Mount Rushmore Society for their support,” Daugaard said in a statement. “For years, the Society has worked to advance Mount Rushmore, and thanks to their generosity our Shrine to Democracy is open to the public today.”
There’s no concrete end in sight for the government shutdown, which means there’s no way for states to truly work out a budget that will keep their beloved national parks open.
Even before the Obama administration gave the nod for states to pay to keep national parks open, Daugaard’s office admitted the option now on the table was an expensive one. Prior to the shutdown, South Dakota had attempted to negotiate terms that would allow Mount Rushmore to stay open, but under restricted hours and with limited services available to the public.
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