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Burns & Gambo

Updated Oct 10, 2013 - 1:46 pm

Feds to let states pay to open parks, Arizona eager to reopen Grand Canyon

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration says it will allow states to use their own money to reopen some national parks that have been closed because of the government shutdown.

Governors in at least four states have asked for authority to reopen national parks within their borders because of the economic impacts caused by the park closures. Arizona's Jan Brewer was denied in her effort to do exactly this last week.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a letter Thursday to governors in Utah and other states that the government will consider offers to pay for park operations, but will not surrender control of national parks to the states.

A spokesman for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said the Republican governor is committed to finding a way to reopen the Grand Canyon, one of the state's most important economic engines

"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," said spokesman Andrew Wilder.

Brewer and state legislative leaders have said they would make state funding available, but "the state cannot pay the federal government's bills indefinitely," Wilder said. Businesses outside the Grand Canyon have pledged $400,000.

October is a peak month for tourism in many parts of the West. Grand Canyon visitors bring about $1.3 million to surrounding communities each day.

About 2,200 employees at the Grand Canyon and its hotels were furloughed. Nearby towns have also been suffering from the lack of business. Some of the funding was through private donations.

The Tusayan town council had authorized the use of $350,000 in an effort to get the Grand Canyon park reopened.

U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona issued a joint statement before the reversal, noting that "About 18,000 visitors are being turned away from the Grand Canyon each day and those spotted in the Park are being issued citations and ordered to appear before a federal court.

"Food banks in Arizona are rushing food to the 2,200 government and tourism employees stranded inside the Park as restaurants and resorts close and lay off hundreds of workers. Colorado River rafting companies that provide visitors with once-in-a-lifetime Grand Canyon experiences are being forced to cancel reservations and close early for the season. The Town of Tusayan - the gateway to the South Rim - reports that its businesses are losing more than $200,000 a day."

Governors of South Dakota and Colorado also have made similar requests to the government.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said in a letter Tuesday to President Barack Obama that the shutdown of national parks has been devastating to individuals and businesses that rely on park operations for their livelihood. Utah is home to five national parks, including Zion, Bryce and Arches, which attract visitors from around the world.

Herbert, a Republican, estimated the economic impact of the federal government shutdown on Utah at about $100 million.

His office said it would cost $50,000 a day to operate just one of the parks.

Blake Androff, a spokesman for Jewell, said the Interior Department will consider agreements with governors who "indicate an interest and ability to fully fund National Park Service personnel to re-open national parks in their states."

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

Figures compiled by a coalition of retired park service workers indicate that some 700,000 people a day would have been visiting the parks and that the surrounding areas are losing $76 million in visitor spending per day.

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.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the Obama administration was playing "political games" with national parks.

"It appears they are truly just making this up as they go along," Hastings said.

In Wyoming, Gov. Matt Mead's office said the state would not pay to reopen two heavily visited national parks or the Devil's Tower national monument.

Meanwhile, the park service said it is reopening to tourists a highway pull-out area that can be used to view and photograph Mount Rushmore from a distance following complaints that the agency was intentionally blocking viewing areas.

The national memorial in South Dakota has been closed because of the government shutdown. Hundreds of tourists have complained that park rangers have placed cones along an area highway to stop drivers from pulling over to take photos of the iconic monument, which features the stone-carved faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

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