On Saturday, the barricades at Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument disappeared, allowing visitors to return to the tourist draw despite the government shutdown. They also came down at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, Arizona’s Grand Canyon and New York’s Statue of Liberty.
What began as a sort of modern Sagebrush Rebellion — with Utah county commissioners threatening to bring in a posse and dismantle federal barricades themselves — has become an intense negotiation between Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and governors across the country eager to reopen public lands that generate valuable tourism revenue.
The push by some of the most conservative governors in the nation to get federal workers back on the job comes as President Obama and congressional leaders struggle with how to resolve the budget impasse.
In an interview Friday, Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) said he and Jewell worked out the agreement in the course of three or four conversations in recent days. After initially seeking permission to reopen the park and staff it with volunteers and others provided by the state, he agreed to pay for federal employees to return in order to revive the tourism that sustains several local communities near federal lands.
“This is, for them, their livelihoods,” said Herbert, adding that he has gotten calls from governors around the country seeking his advice. “It’s not just a little bit of it, it’s all of it. And it’s seasonal. Once you lose October, you can’t make it up in January.”
By Friday night, Jewell had managed to strike deals with leaders in five states to reopen iconic sites, with states fronting the money to operate them.
National Park Service director Jon Jarvis signed an agreement in which Utah provides nearly $1.7 million for 10 days of operation at eight federal properties: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks, along with Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Cedar Breaks and Natural Bridges national monuments.
Colorado signed a similar pact, offering to pay the federal government $362,700 to reopen Rocky Mountain National Park for 10 days. Arizona will pay $651,000 to operate the Grand Canyon for seven days, while New York agreed to pay $369,300 to reopen the Statue of Liberty for six days. South Dakota will reopen Mount Rushmore on Monday, paying $152,000 to operate it for 10 days.
All five states will likely seek reimbursement from the federal government once the shutdown ends, but such payments would have to be specifically authorized by Congress.
While the Park Service had originally resisted the idea of accepting donations from outside groups or individual states to reopen sites, the Interior Department reversed course as the shutdown dragged on and state and local leaders warned that their economies were in peril. Five Utah counties declared a state of emergency after the parks’ closures.
On Thursday, Jewell discussed park operations with Herbert and three other governors: Arizona’s Jan Brewer (R), Colorado’s John Hickenlooper (D) and South Dakota’s Dennis Daugaard (R).
“The Interior Department has begun conversations about how to proceed as expeditiously as current limited resources allow,” Interior spokesman Blake Androff said in a statement. “We continue to call on Congress to act swiftly to enact appropriations for the entire government so that we can re-open all 401 national parks for the American people.”
Earlier in the week, some local officials were preparing for combat. Utah’s San Juan County commissioners threatened to remove the barricades at Natural Bridges National Monument themselves. Washington County commissioner Alan Gardner — whose county includes part of Zion National Park — convened a meeting of a dozen Utah and Arizona county officials in an effort to pressure Obama to reopen the park system.
“I guess I’m the culprit there,” Gardner said.
Springdale Mayor Pat Cluff, whose town abuts Zion, said she was “elated” when the park began to reopen Friday morning and hoped that word was getting out to thousands of tourists who had been canceling visits during a traditionally busy season for her town’s hotels, restaurants and art galleries.
The mayor said the town has lost 40 to 60 percent of its business during the government shutdown. A typical October day brings 10,000 visitors to the park, usually a more affluent group than during the hot summer months, she said. The town of 527 year-round residents has 950 hotel rooms just outside the park.
During the last series of federal shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, only one national park — Grand Canyon — was allowed to reopen after then-Gov. Fife Symington (R) mobilized the state National Guard and threatened to physically take over parts of the South Rim. Bruce Babbitt, then the Interior secretary, negotiated an agreement under which Arizona raised state and private funds to operate the park for a month.
Rob Arnberger, who served as Grand Canyon’s superintendent between 1994 and 2000, said he received a call from Jarvis at the beginning of the week “trying to recollect what happened” in the mid-1990s so Interior could include the same legal requirements in any agreement struck this time around. Arnberger noted that federal officials insisted on being shielded from any legal liability during the shutdown and insisted an entire park — rather than portions of it — be reopened.
Arnberger, who hails from a three-generation Park Service family, said he was disappointed that some of the politicians pushing hardest for the parks seem to value only the tourist dollars they draw. He noted that while Brewer pushed to reopen the Grand Canyon, she paid scant attention to Arizona’s nearly two dozen other national parks.
“What about Petrified Forest National Park? What about Saguaro National Park?” he asked. “I find it distressful the discussion of parks focuses only on their economic value.”
Herbert, however, takes another lesson from the experience.
“What we’ve proved here in Utah is that if people will sit down and resolve their problems rather than call each other names, you can get things done in a way that’s the proverbial win-win,” he said. “That’s what they’re forgetting about in Washington.”
Darryl Fears contributed to this report.