With the federal government still shut down, states across the country inked deals to reopen national parks within their state borders, seeking to stop further losses to local economies anchored by park tourism.
The Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park, and all of Utah’s national parks reopened Saturday. The Statue of Liberty will welcome visitors Sunday, and starting Monday, tourists can once again gaze up at the presidents on Mt. Rushmore.
The source of money for these efforts varies: New York is dipping into its tourism budget, while Arizona is using state funds along with money pledged by municipalities. South Dakota said the $152,000 bill to run Mt. Rushmore will be paid with donations by nonprofit groups and private companies.
State leaders are hoping to get reimbursed for funding the federally run parks, but there’s no guarantee that will happen. Congress would have to pass a resolution to secure repayment.
Typically operated with funds appropriated by the Congress to the Department of Interior, the country’s 401 national parks were closed after the budget impasse forced the shutdown of nonessential government services on Oct. 1. More than 20,000 parks employees were put on furlough.
Although parks employees felt the pinch from the loss of a salary and vacationers have had to scrap or reorganize holiday plans, the closures have particularly affected parks’ so-called gateway towns, which rely on tourists’ dollars for business and tax revenue.
In October, the Grand Canyon daily draws about 18,000 people, who collectively spend an estimated $1 million a day at local businesses.
According to the National Park Service, the Statue of Liberty draws about 10,000 people per day, who annually pump more than $174 million into the local economy.
And in Utah, where October is a peak tourism season, Gov. Gary Herbert said the month brings in $100 million in tourism-related revenue.
“Utah's national parks are the backbone of many rural economies, and hard-working Utahns are paying a heavy price for this shutdown,” Herbert said in a statement.
States ponying up money to run federal parks is one of the latest ad hoc funding schemes to emerge since a budget impasse put more than 800,000 federal employees on furlough.
Private donors pledged to make up some of the funding shortfall for federal programs, such as Head Start. Offers by private foundations to cover the death benefits for deceased service members prompted President Obama to restore that funding Thursday.
And for the 389 other national parks that remain closed, the continuing economic loss has galvanized municipal officials to petition state leaders and congressional representatives to secure temporary park reopenings.
In Tennessee — home to nation's most-visited park, Great Smoky Mountain National Park — Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters has headed an effort to reopen the park, calling it “vital to the economic health of the county.” Sevier County is a tourism hub for the park, which draws about 10 million visitors a year, almost double the number of visitors to the second-most popular park, the Grand Canyon.
But reopening Great Smoky Mountain National Park is complicated by its geography: Part of the park extends into neighboring Kentucky and Missouri, and federal officials have refused to allow partial openings of the park. Officials and Tennessee and Missouri are reportedly considering plans to reopen the park.
And several states have refused to divert state funds or seek external donors to finance national parks. A spokesman for California’s Department of Finance, H.D. Palmer, said, “The state has no plans to front general funds in order to reopen national parks.” Wyoming’s lawmakers were opposed to milking a tight budget to finance Yellowstone National Park’s operations, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.
Announcing the park openings, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell called the arrangements a “practical and temporary solution that will lessen the pain for some businesses and communities.”
“We want to re-open all of our national parks as quickly possible for everyone to enjoy and call on Congress to pass a clean continuing resolution to open the government.”