PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona and Utah will keep the famed national parks in those states open if a federal government shutdown threatens access to Arizona’s orange Grand Canyon and the sheer red cliffs of Utah’s Zion Valley.
Most importantly for the state budget, visitors can continue to spend their money near the parks.
A cut off could come on Sunday. The economic impact of national parks is so important that the Democratic governor of Arizona and the Republican governor of Utah have decided to invest state funds to keep Grand Canyon, Zion, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands national parks open.
For Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, it’s a simple matter of economics.
The nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association says every dollar invested in national parks National Park Service supports more than $15 in economic activity annually.
The association says each day of closure could result in national parks losing nearly a million visitors overall and gateway communities losing up to $70 million.
Hobbs and Cox say their states will pay to keep these parks operating at a basic level, cushioning communities dependent on tourism.
“We expect a refund, just as federal employees receive back pay during a shutdown, and we have communicated that to the Interior Department,” Cox said this week.
Hobbs said Arizona Lottery money will help keep Grand Canyon Park open.
Utah paid about $7,500 a day in the last half of December 2018 to keep Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches running during a shutdown at the time. The nonprofit Zion Forever Project provided $16,000 to pay a skeleton crew and keep the restrooms and visitor center open at Zion, which continued to attract several thousand visitors daily.
The National Parks Conservation Association noted that keeping parks open during a shutdown without sufficient staff and other resources can be disastrous.
“We witnessed unnecessary and avoidable damage, including overflowing trash and human waste, vandalism, looting and illegal use of off-road vehicles,” the organization said of some sites during the 2018-2019 closure.
Conditions at Joshua Tree National Park in California were described as particularly dire, with overflowing trash and portable toilets, as well as unattended visitors driving off the road and toppling scores of the signature plants.
Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican who represents Wyoming, called on Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Thursday to keep the parks open with previously charged fees. The Trump administration’s decision five years ago to use such fees to keep some parks open was insulted deemed illegal by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog agency.
The Interior Department and the National Park Service it oversees have not released a contingency plan for a possible closure.
“As Secretary of the Interior, it is your responsibility to enable people to access our parks in a way that ensures the health and safety of visitors and provides equal opportunities for future generations,” wrote Barrasso, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Energy Committee natural resources.
Arizona paid about $64,000 a week to cover restroom cleaning, trash removal and snow removal at Grand Canyon Park during the shutdown, which spanned 35 days from late 2018 to early 2019. People with permits to hike in the backcountry or raft on the Colorado River were still able to go, but no new permits were issued during this period.
National Park employees who were not furloughed had to work without pay, and their lost wages were paid back under a budget resolution.
Among those expected to work during another possible closure are members of Grand Canyon National Park’s emergency medical service, which has teams trained in medical services, search and rescue operations and firefighting to help not just visitors, but about 2,500 park workers, concession employees and other residents protect the park’s property.
Joëlle Baird, the park’s public affairs specialist, said funding from the state of Arizona “maintained almost everything as usual” during the closure five years ago. She said hotels and restaurants remained open.
John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, said funding the parks is a federal responsibility that states should not take on.
“We understand states’ interest in keeping our parks open when the government closes, as they are proven economic drivers, generating more than $50.3 billion and creating more than 378,400 jobs annually,” Garder said. “But ultimately it’s Congress’s responsibility to ensure they stay funded and open.”
The association declared the shutdown could influence more than 400 locations in 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa.
In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem was considering the potential impact of a closure on national parks, including Mount Rushmore, which Noem spokesman Ian Fury called “the heart of South Dakota’s tourism industry.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order Thursday directing the state’s Department of Natural Resources to develop a plan for continued operations and resource protection of Colorado’s national parks. Rocky Mountain and the state’s other three national parks contributed $804 million to the local economy last year.
In Washington state, home to Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks, Gov. Jay Inslee has no plans to give the national parks more funding or staff in the event of a closure. Inslee’s aides said much of the governor’s discretionary spending this year is needed for cleanup and rebuilding from wildfires in Spokane County.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office did not say whether the state would spend money to keep Glacier or Yellowstone national parks open. But his aides said the Republican governor’s budget team is working with state agencies “to prepare for a possible shutdown in the event that Congress cannot get its act together.”
Most of Yellowstone is in Wyoming, but three of the five entrances are in Montana.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon is waiting for more information from Interior Department and White House officials to better understand the state’s options, spokesman Michael Pearlman said.
Pearlman said the Republican governor is also in contact with officials at Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and is aware that closures “could have a significant economic impact on Wyoming families who live and work in our gateway communities.”
Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration said this week that it does not plan to keep national parks open if the federal government closes because they are not under state jurisdiction and the state will have to make difficult budget decisions this year.
Associated Press writers Ed Komenda in Olympia, Washington; Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Montana; Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana; Jesse Bedayn in Denver; Tran Nguyen in Sacramento; and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.