The Obama administration’s willingness to reopen national parks shuttered by the government shutdown came with a big caveat: States must foot the bill with money they likely won’t see again.
So far, only Utah and Colorado has jumped at the deal. Governors in other states were trying to gauge what would be the bigger economic hit – paying to keep the parks operating or losing the tourist money that flows when the scenic attractions are open.
In New York, state and federal officials were discussing the possible reopening of the Statue of Liberty, while Arizona officials weighed whether to pay the federal government to reopen Grand Canyon National Park.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday rejected calls to use state funds to open closed federal parks.
Federal officials announced Friday that Colorado has agreed to pay about $360,000 to reopen Rocky Mountain National Park through Oct. 20.
Utah was the first taker, with Gov. Gary Herbert wiring $1.67 million to federal officials to temporarily reopen five national parks and other national park units by Saturday.
Federal workers rushed to reopen the five parks for 10 days with the hope of saving its lucrative tourist season.
Zion National Park superintendent Jock Whitworth said staff members began opening gates and removing barriers and expected to have the park fully operational Saturday.
“This is a practical and temporary solution that will lessen the pain for some businesses and communities in Utah during this shutdown,” Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.
It was welcome news for beleaguered shop owners in the small town of Springdale adjacent to Zion. Hotels have been vacant and retail and rental shops have seen sales plummet during the shutdown.
“It’s going to be awesome,” said Jenna Milligan of Zion Outfitters, an outdoor gear rental shop. “A lot of businesses have suffered severely because of the government. I just hope it does stay open through autumn.”
Just over 400 national parks, recreation areas and monuments – including such icons as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite – have been closed since Oct. 1 because of the partial government shutdown.
More than 20,000 National Park Service employees have been furloughed, and lawmakers from both parties have complained that the closures have wreaked havoc on communities that depend on tourism.
Interior Department spokesman Blake Androff said the government does not plan to reimburse states that pay to reopen parks. Costs could run into the millions of dollars.
Figures compiled by a coalition of retired park service workers indicate that some 700,000 people a day would have been visiting the 401 national park units and that the surrounding areas are losing $76 million in visitor spending daily.
The park service said it is losing $450,000 per day in revenue from entrance fees and other in-park expenditures, such as campground fees and boat rentals.
Meanwhile, the park service said it is reopening to tourists a highway pull-off area in South Dakota that can be used to view and photograph Mount Rushmore from a distance.
Hundreds of tourists had complained that park rangers blocked drivers from pulling over to take photos of the South Dakota monument, which features the stone-carved faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
Officials in some states were not happy about paying to have the parks reopened.
In Arizona, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer balked at spending about $112,000 a day for a full reopening of the Grand Canyon. She said a partial reopening would be much cheaper while allowing tourists to visit and businesses to benefit.
“The daily cost difference is enormous, especially without assurances that Arizona will be reimbursed,” said Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for Brewer.
At this time of year, the Grand Canyon draws about 18,000 people a day who pump an estimated $1 million a day into the local economy.
The town of Tusayan, just outside the South Rim entrance, and area businesses have pledged $400,000 to help reopen the canyon, but Wilder said it was unclear if the Interior Department could accept private funds.
Interior Department spokesman Blake Androff said the government does not plan to reimburse states that pay to reopen parks.
In Utah, Herbert estimated the economic impact of the federal government shutdown on his state at $100 million.
In South Dakota, Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, was considering the federal government’s offer but wants to see how much it would cost.
“It’s the federal government’s obligation to reopen and cancel restrictions on Florida’s natural treasures, and Florida taxpayers will not foot the bill to cover Washington’s failure to negotiate and compromise,’’ said Frank Collins, Scott’s deputy communications director. He said federal agencies are attempting to “make the government shutdown more painful” by targeting Florida families “with added restrictions and closures of federal parks.”
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said his state can’t afford the cost of reopening parks when it is already facing critical funding decisions on dozens of programs, including food stamps, unemployment insurance and aid to women, infants and children.
In Wyoming, Gov. Matt Mead’s office said the state would not pay to reopen two heavily visited national parks or Devil’s Tower national monument.
“Wyoming cannot bail out the federal government and we cannot use state money to do the work of the federal government,” Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said.