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Utah's national parks, Lake Powell to reopen Saturday

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's five national parks will reopen Saturday morning after the state reached an agreement with the Department of the Interior late Thursday to run them for as many as 10 days.

Also set to reopen with Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks are Cedar Breaks and Natural Bridges national monuments and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes Lake Powell.

The governor's office and legislative leaders worked all day Thursday to complete the deal after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell gave Gov. Gary Herbert the go-ahead in a morning phone call.

"Come on down to southern Utah. The parks are open in Utah," the governor said after signing the contract.

Utah agreed to pay the park service up to $1.67 million — $166,572 a day — to re-open the eight sites for up to 10 days. If the federal government shutdown ends before then, the state would receive a refund of unused funds.

The governor said Jewell told him the park service could have the sites up and running within 24 hours of the state wiring the money.

“Utah’s national parks are the backbone of many rural economies, and hardworking Utahns are paying a heavy price for this shutdown,” Herbert said. “I commend Secretary Jewell for being open to Utah’s solution, and the world should know Utah is open for business and visitors are welcome.”

The Obama administration said Thursday it will allow states to use their own money to reopen some national parks. Governors in Utah, Arizona, Colorado and South Dakota asked for that authority because of the impact the closures are having on their local economies.

The Utah Division of State Parks will put up the initial money for the agreement. Herbert also intends to call state lawmakers into special session next week for any further action on the parks and to address other issues associated with the shutdown.

"The Legislature needs to be in the loop," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.

Lawmakers need to know what kind of commitment the state is making with taxpayer dollars and how it would be reimbursed, she said.

Jewell made it clear that she can't obligate the federal government to pay the state back, Herbert said. He said he asked Utah’s congressional delegation to pursue repayment.

Herbert called on the president in a letter Tuesday to reopen the state's five national parks and several national monuments, historic sites and recreation areas. On Wednesday, he told Jewell that Utah would lend the federal government money and use state and local resources to get the parks running again.

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said he talked with the governor Wednesday about the possibility of a special session and taking $5 million from the state's Rainy Day Fund. He said he supports the governor moving forward because the most important thing is opening the parks.

Okerlund said he expects the Legislature to hold a special session next Wednesday to "make an appropriation if we need to and finish it up. It might take a little bill to tie everything together."

Either way, he anticipates lawmakers would consider legislation in the general session next year to set aside money and outline a plan for the state to run the parks in the event of a future federal shutdown.

House Minority Assistant Whip Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said she understands the economic hardship facing those whose livelihood depends on the parks.

"But there may be other issues related to health, safety and people getting fed that we might have to step forward and provide state resources to offset what we're not getting from the feds," she said.

Chavez-Houck said she also finds it ironic that Republicans who complain about the federal government not paying its debts would trust it to pay Utah back for what it might spend to run the parks.

"We'll trust them to do that, yet for some reason we can't move forward with Medicaid expansion because we're concerned about whether the federal government is going to meet its promises," she said. "There are pressing needs all across the board, and there are a number of Utahns who are in crisis right now."

Herbert said the shutdown is "decimating" bottom lines for motels, restaurants and outfitters around the state's national recreation areas.

"I'm very, very concerned about those in rural Utah that are impacted in such a negative way because of the closure of these parks. We need to do everything we can to help them," the governor said.

Dean Cook, general manager of the Best Western Zion Park Inn, estimates revenue dropped 15 percent the first week of the shutdown, and he expects to lose as much as 33 percent this week.

"We have lost significant dollars in these 10 days that unfortunately we'll never be able to recoup," he said. "October is a big month for us, usually one of the top three in a given year."

Cook, president of the Zion Canyon Visitors Bureau, said opening the park won't make up for the losses but will give local businesses a better chance to get through the slow winter season.

Zion National Park lost 72,876 visitors in the first 10 days of the shutdown, costing local communities $3.5 million, according to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

Jewell spokesman Blake Anderoff said the Interior Department will consider agreements with governors who "indicate an interest and ability to fully fund National Park Service personnel to reopen national parks in their states," according to the Associated Press.

Decisions about which parks to reopen and for how long have not been made, Anderoff said.

"If we need to have somebody in charge there that's a federal government employee, we'll pay their salary," Herbert said Wednesday. "We'll make sure that they get a paycheck."

Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said this is a good thing for Utah businesses that are heavily dependent on federal public lands for their financial livelihood.

"However, it is clearly not sustainable. We urge Gov. Herbert and local officials to press Sen. Mike Lee and the other members of the Utah congressional delegation to pass a clean continuing resolution and fund the federal government,” Bloch said.

Contributing: Peter Samore


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