It’s no secret that the Government Shutdown is affecting those of us who love being outdoors on our federal lands. Now, as we near the end of the second work-week of the Shutdown, people are starting to take matters into their own hands. In violation of the law, a South Carolina man named Chris Cox took his lawnmower, leafblower, and some trash bags to the Lincoln Memorial to clean up the lawn and clear some fallen branches and other debris yesterday, telling local news media, “The building behind me serves as a moral compass, not only for our country but for the world. And over my dead body are we going to find trash pouring out of these trash cans.”
Meanwhile, San Juan County has become the fifth county in Utah to declare a state of economic emergency in response to the closure of National Parks. The county in southeastern Utah is home to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the Island in the Sky and Needles Districts of Canyonlands National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Hovenweep and Rainbow Bridge National Monuments. 91% of the county land is state, federal, or Native American land, and the county fire marshal said that 70% of the county’s businesses depend on visitors to parks which are now closed or suffering from reduced services … and the county’s had enough.
Yesterday, county officials held an emergency meeting and decided to take control of some of the parks, remove barricades, and re-open them to the public. County Sheriff Rick Eldridge told the Salt Lake Tribune, “This is not going to be a showdown or a standoff. This is something that’s going to be done peacefully. We just want to take over as far as law enforcement, EMS, and search and rescue, and get those parks open.”
To that end, the county officials have kept Utah’s governor informed, as well as the regional superintendent of the National Park Service and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, and the Governor has made an official request to the federal government to authorize the temporary use of state and local funds to operate the Parks and Monuments. There were plans to re-open Natural Bridges National Monument this morning but it appears the county officials are waiting to hear a response from the Department of Interior. They are also attempting to coordinate efforts with other counties in Utah and northern Arizona.
October is generally a very high tourism period for the region.
During my Utah trip earlier this year, I visited many of the Parks and Monuments in this corner of the state – and they are absolutely, 100% breathtaking. I want people to be able to enjoy the same beauty I was able to as quickly as possible, and while I want to believe the county official’s motivations are good, I’m a little wary of Governor Herbert’s involvement in this – trying to grab federally protected land for private interests is sort of his pet project. The Utahn state government has a long history of opposing National Parks and favoring the land for industrial uses, and Governor Herbert fits into that mold. In 2010 he fast-tracked approval on a coal strip mine just outside Bryce Canyon National Park after receiving $10,000 from the mining company for his re-election fund. Less than a year after opening, the mine was cited for two environmental violations. Later, he supported the mine’s expansion, opposing the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service. Last year he signed a law asking the federal government to return 20 million acres of land to the state, and earlier this year Salt Lake City passed another resolution asking for 30 million acres.
That said, a temporary approval for the states to fund National Parks could return quite a bit of cash to those regions and allow visitors to see them at their most beautiful … but it doesn’t look good. Similar requests from other governors have been turned down. A spokesperson for the National Park Service told the Wall Street Journal, “Beyond the legal constraints involved, it would not be appropriate or feasible to open some parks or some parts of parks while other parts of the National Park System remain closed to the public.”
UPDATE: DEPT. OF INTERIOR TO ALLOW STATES TO PAY TO RE-OPEN SOME NATIONAL PARKS
The governors of Utah, Arizona, South Dakota, and Colorado have asked Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to allow them to pay to re-open some National Parks, and just a few moments ago she responded, saying the Department would allow states to pay to operate Park units but that the Park Service would maintain control over the land. Jewell said she would be willing to work with governors who “indicate an interest and ability to fully fund National Park Service personnel to re-open national parks in their states.”
Decisions about which parks will re-open and for how long haven’t been made yet, but will hopefully be announced soon.
According to the breaking AP story, retired park service workers are estimating the areas surrounding our National Parks are losing about $76 million in visitor spending every day, while the Park Service estimates its losing about $450,000 a day from lack of entrance fees and other in-park costs like permits and campground reservations.