States pay to re-open national parks and fuel anti-feds fire

 

Last Thursday, the complaints of business owners and restaurant workers in national park gateway towns around the West hit home when my boyfriend’s parents, who were about to embark on the Southwestern leg of their once-in-a-lifetime cross-country road trip, realized the shutdown had foiled their entire itinerary for the region. Instead of snapping pictures from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon or the shadow of Arches National Park’s Delicate Arch, they motored through, stopping at tribal parks and taking pictures from the car window.

They were two days too early. On Saturday, governors in Utah, Arizona and Colorado reached a deal with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to re-open select national parks with state and private funds. While the timing of the re-opening was frustrating for my boyfriend’s parents, it came not a moment too soon for tourism-dependent towns like Moab and Springdale, Utah, Estes Park, Colo., and Tusayan, Ariz., which were reeling at the prospect of a Columbus Day weekend – and possibly an entire October – without visitors. Indeed, as a report released last week by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees makes clear, the closure of our national parks has already taken a huge economic toll on surrounding communities and on the National Park Service itself.

But the use of state funds to pay national park staff fuels the arguments of people like Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who believe states should have more control of federal land. “’If anything,’ the shutdown has shown that states and localities may be able to manage the properties better than the federal government,” he told E&E News.

Point_Reyes_2013_shutdown.jpg
Point Reyes National Seashore in California closed for the federal shutdown.

Though the state control issue has reared its head around the West for years, the momentum is strongest in Bishop’s home state, where in March 2012 Governor Gary Herbert signed a law requiring the feds to turn ownership of some 20 million acres over to Utah by December 31, 2014. Utahans have also recently tried to limit federal land agencies’ ability to enforce the law, declare state jurisdiction over “mismanaged” federal forests and limit federal management of endangered species – and keep the feds from having any input on these proposals. Now, state Rep. David Lifferth is drafting a bill that would allow Utah to operate its national parks if the feds are unable to do so.

"The federal government is dysfunctional,” Lifferth recently told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We need to be prepared for any eventuality … in the event the federal government can’t live up to their obligations, we need to be prepared at a moment’s notice.”

But as HCN’s Jodi Peterson wrote last year, the motives behind state control of federal lands aren’t so pure. “The rhetoric behind the measures is all about states' rights, but they would also boost corporate access to Western natural resources,” she wrote, noting that the fossil-fuel funded American Legislative Exchange Council supplied the language for Utah’s proposal.

Not every Western governor is gunning to run national parks. Although Colorado, Utah, South Dakota and Arizona forked over hundreds of thousands of dollars ($1.7 million in Utah) to re-open parks for the next 10 days or so, many other cash-strapped Western states have said they simply can’t afford it.

The governors of California, Washington and Nevada all cited budget constraints as the reason they would not be taking Secretary Jewell up on her offer to negotiate a deal to re-open their national parks. Others are refusing Jewell’s offer on principle. In Wyoming, a spokesman for Gov. Matt Mead told The Casper Star-Tribune, “Wyoming won’t bail out the federal government and spend state money to do federal work.”

The time of year also helps explain why some states, like Utah, jumped at the chance to re-open their parks, while others are hanging back. October is a huge tourism month for canyon country in sunny, hot Utah, generating $100 million in that month alone. But fall isn’t nearly as popular for tourists in much chillier Montana, where Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, told The Helena Independent Record “if this was July or August, we’d be up in arms."

Economic diversification in park gateway towns in recent decades also plays a role in how various localities are responding to the shutdown. In 1995, during the last shutdown, Carlsbad, N.M. raised money to keep Carlsbad Caverns National Park open. But that’s not happening this time around, Park Superintendent John Benjamin told the Current-Argus. That park is staying closed, at least for now. "I think one reason is that today, unlike back then, the economy is not as dependent on tourism because of the oil and gas boom. Tourism is still important to the community, but it appears not as crucial as it was in the mid-1990s."

Benjamin was set to retire the week of the shutdown, but has continued to act as superintendent because there wasn’t time to appoint someone else.

"Someone had to be at the helm to provide guidance and take on the responsibilities that still come with the shutdown," he told the Current-Argus. "I really don't know if I'm officially retired, so here I am."

Emily Guerin is a correspondent for High Country News. Follow her on Twitter @guerinemily.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...