National parks are closed. Utah has a creative way to keep the Mighty 5 open.

When the federal government last paused, in December 2018, the state of Utah thought it had a solution to keep the gates open to its five national parks, the mainstays of its tourism industry. Millions of dollars were sent to Washington for this purpose. Then it waited for the government to distribute it.

Getting the money where it needed to go at the right time proved more difficult than anyone in the state had imagined. In fact, a government employee once almost had to drive from Sandy to Springdale in a snowstorm to drop off a check on time.

“There were crazy situations where the national parks couldn’t get the money until a bunch of calculations were done because it’s the federal government and it’s very bureaucratic,” said Vicki Varela, the director of the Utah office of tourism. “And then they needed it right now. And it couldn’t be wired. And so we found ourselves in situations where we were thinking about having team members make these frantic drives in the middle of winter to deliver checks in person.”

To make matters worse, almost half of the funds provided were never paid back to the state. About $1.6 million is still owed.

With another government shutdown looming this weekend, Gov. Spencer Cox has promised the state will take renewed action to keep Utah’s national parks open. It’s the third time in as many closures that the state has taken on the role of life raft for the parks, which receive a total of 13 million visitors and generate an estimated $1.66 billion annually. But from past experience, local leaders and tourism officials have learned some lessons.

So this year, Utah will take a different tactic — if the federal government allows it and the state can afford it.

When the Interior Department announced Friday that a government shutdown would force national parks to close, it left open the possibility that states would pay to keep all or parts of their parks open. This time, however, the states will not receive any money back.

According to a senior Interior Department official, “Parks may enter into non-refundable donation arrangements to fund the full operation of a single park site or to specify services that clearly benefit the park and the public.”

As he reiterated Thursday the state’s willingness to support Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks during the closure, Gov. Cox indicated he expects to get the money back. In a statement he texted to the Tribune after the Interior Department’s announcement, he said Utah will continue to keep its parks open.

“We are extremely disappointed in Congress and the administration for putting the nation in this position,” Cox said. “We still hope they do the right thing and compensate the states, but we will do good for our rural communities and the state’s economy by keeping the national parks open.”

The governor’s office estimates that Utah’s local economy will lose $7.1 million for each day the federal government remains closed. Neither Varela nor Cox’s offices could provide information on the daily costs of keeping all five parks open. They said this varies depending on the park, the number of services offered, the time of year and the length of the closure. However, during the 16-day closure in 2013, an expert told the New York Times that Arches National Park cost Utah $7,662 a day to operate. At the same time, according to the expert, the operation of the Grand Canyon cost Arizona $ 93,000 per day.

The state has allocated $5 million to operate the parks, Varela said. This money will come from the Industrial Assistance Account maintained by the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity. It provides funding for “unusual, timely opportunities or challenges,” Varela said.

However, if Utah is putting so much money into the parks, Varela wanted to make sure she didn’t have to send her employees on 250-mile errands over icy roads to get the money to them. This time the state is taking an alternative path.

Varela said the state plans to bypass the federal government and hand over funds to cover basic operating costs to various foundations that have established themselves as stewards of the parks. With the foundations as intermediaries, the money can flow more freely, she said, but emphasized that the foundations do not operate the park. However, they will work with the parks, the state and the Interior Department to create a list of essential services, which may or may not include amenities like the Zion and Bryce Canyon shuttles.

The devil, she said, is in the details.

“For better or worse, we’re getting a lot better at it,” Varela said of navigating a federal shutdown. “We learned a lot from it. And one of the many important lessons is to work very closely with the national park foundations that support each of these parks so that federal money flows through those foundations.”

The Interior Department appeared to support Utah’s approach.

“States may wish to enter into their own arrangements with charities to fund donations that are inherently non-refundable,” the senior official said. “I certainly expect some creativity from the states in stepping into the breach that Congress has created if Congress cannot fully fund the parks.”

Even with the state’s support, Utah’s Mighty 5 will be slightly less powerful. Visitors should not expect rangers to give them directions or lecture about nature. Trash collection and restroom cleaning will be less intensive and some visitor centers may not open.

As Varela said, “It will be very bare.”

But naked is better than nothing for many business owners and city residents who rely on tourism from the parks.

For the past two decades, Jason Taylor has served as operations manager for Utah-based Western River Expeditions, which operates bus tours of Arches under the name Moab Adventure Center. He said the government’s support of the parks during the closure was greatly appreciated and critical.

Taylor said October is one of the busiest times of the year in Moab. The month is the sixth-busiest month of the year for visits in Arches and the third-busiest in Canyonlands, but Taylor said for outfitters, “It’s our Black Friday.” The parks’ closure in October 2013 impacted other businesses. The state eventually stepped in and reopened the Mighty 5, but the effort came too late to prevent the creation of an economic chasm almost too steep to climb out of, even months later.

“People didn’t know how long it was going to take, and so they’re canceling reservations a month in advance because they just didn’t know,” he said. “Once the parks opened, things didn’t really get going again. The momentum took a lot of time [and] for people to start coming back because so many people have made other arrangements or canceled.”

This year, despite so much uncertainty, feels a lot less hectic. When concerned national bus company officials call Taylor, he can tell them to take a deep breath.

“Luckily we can say, ‘Hey, it’s business as usual,'” Taylor said.

“Now,” he added, “it’s just a matter of getting the word out that the parks are open.”

Justin Scaccy

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