On Thursday, the Obama administration changed its tune about allowing states to reopen federal parks with their own funds, following pressure from at least four governors.
Arizona, Colorado, South Dakota, and Utah governors asked permission to reopen key national parks to keep crucial tourism cash flowing. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the government will consider allowing states to foot the bill for the parks, money that will not be reimbursed by the federal government.
In Arizona, administration officials initially denied pleas from the state to allow it to reopen the Grand Canyon, despite funding pledges from private businesses. This time of year, visitors to the Grand Canyon bring in about $1 million a day to the local economy. Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, said the government’s about-face is a small help: “It’s not ideal, but if there’s something we can do to help reopen it, Gov. Brewer has been committed to trying to find that way.”
Colorado’s Estes National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park were just recovering from massive flooding when the shutdown came on Oct. 1. Estes Park Mayor Williams Pinkham told the Denver Post News: “Someone just said to me, ‘We were just getting up and running, then we got a sucker punch.’ People just felt incredibly empty.”
The Denver Post reported that after Thursday’s announcement, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said he was working with the Department of the Interior to reopen a major road running through the Rocky Mountain National Park. Hickenlooper spokesmen Eric Brown told them: “We are working on whether we are able to open all or part of the park or not.”
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, also wrote to President Barack Obama for permission to re-open federal parks with state dollars. After closing Mt. Rushmore, Park Service rangers even blocked highway viewpoints that would have allowed tourists to snap pictures of the iconic carving.
But Thursday’s promise is not final. Dusty Johnson, Daugaard’s chief of staff, said the governor appreciates the gesture from the Obama administration, but has to see how much it will cost the state: “When we get the numbers, he’ll consider it more fully.”
And South Dakota’s woes don’t end with the shuttered federal park. Ranchers also are hurting after a record blizzard swept over the state, destroying tens of thousands of cattle. Due to the shutdown, they will not get the normal federal indemnity funds for lost livestock.
Utah’s Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, told Obama the shutdown had been “devastating” to economies that rely on his state’s five national parks.
“The current federally mandated closure is decimating the bottom line of bed-and-breakfast business owners and operators in Torrey, outfitters at Bryce Canyon City, and restaurant owners in Moab," he wrote in a letter sent to Washington.
Herbert has offered to provide $166,000 in state funds per day for 10 days to help put the parks back in business.
The Obama administration’s offer to re-open federal parks sparked heated comments from lawmakers like Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. He called it another example of “political games” the administration is playing: “Why now, after more than a week of refusing to allow states to pay to keep national parks open, is the Obama administration suddenly reversing course? It appears they are truly just making this up as they go along.”