Zion National Park. (Photo credit MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
By Aamer Madhani and Tracie Sullivan, USA TODAY
Utah announced it will open five of the state's national parks on Saturday after agreeing to pay out of state coffers to operate the federally-operated parks that have been shuttered as a result of the partial government shutdown.
Gov. Gary Herbert said he agreed to send the federal government $1.67 million to the cover the costs of keeping the parks open for the next 10 days after the Obama administration announced on Thursday that it would allow states to pay to reopen any of the country's 401 national parks.
Utah is the first state to take the administration up on its offer and wired the money to the National Park Service on Friday morning to reopen Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion national parks. The state is also paying to reopen the federally operated Natural Bridges and Cedar Breaks national monuments, as well as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
The state estimates its national parks bring in $100 million to Utah's economy in October.
"I was so anxious to do something, because this is a kind of seasonal work for people in Utah," Herbert told USA TODAY. "You miss October it's not like you can make it up in January. It's like missing the Christmas holiday season."
Utah is using emergency funds from the state's department of natural resources to pay to reopen the national parks, according to Herbert's office. National Park Service workers at Utah parks were alerted to return to work on Thursday night and began returning to their posts on Friday morning.
Several states have complained of losing millions of tourism dollars from the park closures caused by the government shutdown, which is now in its eleventh day. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell agreed on Thursday to let the states foot the bill to reopen the parks but on the condition that they bring back park service employees and reopen the parks entirely, not partially.
Jewell has spoken in recent days to officials from Colorado, South Dakota, and Wyoming who had previously expressed interest in opening national parks with state and donated funds, but Utah is the only state thus far to take her up on the offer.
In Utah, the decision to cover the costs-even though it remains uncertain that they will be reimbursed by the federal government once the shutdown ends-was an easy one to make considering how big of a blow the closures have been on the state's economy.
Ben Patel, general manager of the Pioneer Lodge near Zion, said the shutdown has dropped his occupancy to less than 50% during a time of year when the lodge is typically fully booked.
"The day they open, the guests will start rolling in. Once word spreads, we'll get people coming in," he said.
Jan Huber, a tourist from Freiburg, Germany, visiting Utah this week, said an open park over the weekend would at least partially make up for a week spent scrambling to find alternatives to the national parks she had been planned on visiting.
"We have been so unfortunate; it would be very good to finally get into (a park)," Huber said.
Herbert said the state is prepared to pay for more than 10 days if needed. He expects the federal government will reimburse the state once the government reopens-noting that the federal government repaid states that reopened national parks during the 1995 government shutdown.
"I hope this is not the new normal," Herbert said of the government shutdown. "I see a lack of leadership and I think blame can be spread around on both sides of the aisle, and I think the president needs to step up and lead."
Sullivan reports for the The Spectrum of St. George, Utah.