On Thursday, President Obama announced that even as the federal shutdown continued, states could open national parks within their borders, with one caveat: States must use their own money to cover expenses. Several states reacted by essentially saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.” By one estimate, national parks and nearby communities have been losing $76 million for each day that park gates have been closed due to the ongoing federal government shutdown.
The closures have provoked anger—and in some cases, defiance—at national parks around the country. Last weekend, crowds of protesters climbed over gates and illegally entered Zion, Acadia, Badlands, and other national parks. According to one report, as of last Monday rangers had handed out citations to 21 people who were in Grand Canyon while it was closed. Last Friday, an innkeeper along the federal-run Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina defied orders and opened his gift shop and restaurant for a couple of hours before rangers shut the operation down.
In southern Utah, where the local economy is particularly reliant on national parks, several counties recently felt forced to declare a state of emergency because business has essentially come to a standstill.
Unsurprisingly, Utah is one of the states jumping at the chance to reopen national parks after getting the green light from the feds. Late on Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert signed an agreement to wire $1.7 million in state taxpayer money to the federal government to cover the tab for keeping five national parks (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Zion) and other national recreation areas open for 10 days. The parks should open by Saturday morning of this all-important holiday weekend.
“C’mon down to Southern Utah,” Herbert said during the ceremony in which he agreed for Utah to pay the national parks’ $167,000-per-day costs, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. “We expect you’ll have a great time in Southern Utah and our parks are open.”
Neighboring Colorado is also at least partially on board with the plan to open access to its national parks, shutdown or no shutdown. The Denver Post, noting that Rocky Mountain National Park has lost some $4.8 million in tourist spending in the shutdown’s first 10 days, reported that the state would reopen Trail Ridge Road, a key access point for tourists to parklands. For some, however, removing the gates from one road doesn’t do enough:
“We need it all to open,” said town of Estes Park spokeswoman Kate Rusch. “Not only do we have about 200 National Park Services employees (in the area) who are not able to go to work now, but this is also the gateway to the park. There’s been a real decline in visitors to a community struggling to recover from the flood — and that’s a huge blow.”
Even though park closures are causing losses in the millions around the country, several states aren’t taking the federal government up on its not-quite-generous offer. “Florida taxpayers will not foot the bill to cover Washington’s failure to negotiate and compromise,” said a spokesman for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, explaining why Everglades National Park and other national parks and monuments would remain closed throughout the Sunshine State.
Likewise, national parks in California will remain shut until the federal government resumes funding them. H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the state can barely afford paying for its own lands, so covering the federal land tab is out of the question. “Even if the state were to front general funds for this, or for any other program for that matter,” he said, “the executive branch cannot unilaterally guarantee that the state would be reimbursed for out-of-pocket costs. It would require an act of Congress to do that.”
In Montana, home to Glacier National Park and other national recreation areas, Gov. Steve Bullock said he wouldn’t open up state coffers in order to open up parks. “When I say that it’s long past time to open up the government and end this reckless and job-killing shutdown, I mean the entire government — benefits for the families of service members killed in combat, ‘open’ signs at Social Security offices and resumed use of our national parks,” Bullock said, according to the Helena Independent Record.
“It’s unacceptable that a state like Montana could be forced to bear even more of a financial burden because of Washington’s failures,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont), who plans on introducing legislation that would mandate states be fully reimbursed for any expenses related to park closures during the shutdown.
Utah and other states that are using their own funds to open parks also hope that the federal government will pay them back, but it’s unclear how, when–or if–such payments will take place.