National parks open despite government shutdown. Why the change of heart?

National parks open in Utah Saturday, despite the government shutdown, after the state cut a deal with federal officials: $166,000 a day for 10 days to help save the lucrative October season.

Charles Platiau/Reuters/File
Visitors enjoy the view of the Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, August 19, 2012. Utah will reopen its national parks and monuments under a deal with the US Department of the Interior, which closed the sites and other parks across the country as part of the partial federal government shutdown that began on Oct. 1.

After declaring that national parks closed by the government shutdown could only be reopened by Congress, federal officials on Thursday relented under pressure from the vista-viewing public – agreeing to open parks as soon as Saturday if states like Utah foot operating tabs until the shutdown ends.

The closing of 401 national parks and hundreds of other federal facilities such as boat ramps and wildlife refuges has become a major political flashpoint of the ongoing shutdown, now on its 10th day, as veterans breached war monument barricades and Western tourists threw aside National Park Service traffic cones and sawhorses blocking access to federal lands.

Such public pressure pushed the governors of Western states including Utah, Arizona, and Colorado to offer state funds to reopen at least partial areas to rescue the height of the leaf-peeping season, which is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to rural communities whose economies depend on park traffic at sites ranging from the Grand Tetons to the Great Smoky Mountains.

Operating cash offers were made by several states even before the Oct. 1 shutdown began, but all were rebuffed by federal officials. The stance fueled speculation that the Obama administration wanted the parks padlocked out of spite rather than necessity, in order to focus animosity toward Republicans in the House who refused to sign off on the budget without modifications to Obamacare.

Then, suddenly, on Thursday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the federal government had reached a deal with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to reopen that state’s awe-inspiring red rocks areas. Utah, which has already wired the money to the U.S. Treasury – just under $1.7 million for 10 days’ operation – says it will ask for the funds back once Congress resolves the budget impasse and an oncoming debt limit crisis.

“Utah … has one sheriff that was going to go in there with his boys and force the Park Service to open, but cooler heads have prevailed, including this idea that states give money to the Park Service, so that rangers can do their Park Service stuff, including allowing visitors,” says John Freemuth, a Boise State University political scientist, former Park Ranger, and author of “Islands Under Siege: National Parks and the Politics of External Threats.”

It was not clear what, exactly, precipitated the change of heart at the Department of the Interior, though mounting criticism of the usually benevolent and well-regarded National Park Service and its rangers may certainly have played a role. Business interests, too, have ramped up complaints, given that October revenues for many tourist-dependent park communities are critical for many businesses to survive through the winter.

In a series of editorials this week, the conservative Weekly Standard magazine excoriated the Park Service for going to such lengths as barricading scenic pull-offs next to sites like Mount Rushmore so tourists couldn’t even stop outside the parks to gawk.

“It’s one thing for politicians to play shutdown theater. It’s another thing entirely for a civil bureaucracy entrusted with the privilege of caring for our national heritage to wage war against the citizenry on behalf of a political party,” the magazine wrote. “The National Park Service has every man, woman, and child in America on its enemies list.”

Pointing out that the closure shut out Tennesseans who had given up land, including family cemeteries, to the federal government, Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell says, “It’s hard for me to understand how people in a role of servitude to the people of this country can do this.”

At the same time, he says he believes the Park Service got the raw end of the deal. “I think they’ve been played on this one,” he says. “The federal government used [rangers] as a pawn to do their dirty work.”

Among the parks to reopen as soon as Saturday are Utah’s stunning red rock areas, including Bryce, Zion, and Arches, as well as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Cedar Breaks National Monument.

In a statement, Secretary Jewell said Washington will not surrender control of the parks to the states. She also urged Congress to quickly end the shutdown so that all federal lands can reopen without stipulations.

Governors in Arizona and Colorado have made similar requests to reopen some or all of their parks. Other governors, including South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, are mulling the idea, while yet others have balked at the strategy, since there’s no guarantee that states will get paid back.

"It's the federal government's obligation to reopen and cancel restrictions on Florida's natural treasures, and Florida taxpayers will not foot the bill to cover Washington's failure to negotiate and compromise," Frank Collins, communications director for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, said in a statement.

In Utah’s case, the state will pay $166,000 a day for at least 10 days to pay the federal rangers. The Antideficiency Act forbids the Treasury to write checks for non-essential government services, which includes guidance and interpretation at national parks.

The cost-benefit for Utah, at least, seems a no-brainer. For its $1.66 million commitment for the next 10 days, Utah will reap at least parts of the $100 million in tourism spending that happens in the state every October – the month seen by many as the peak of the year.

In New York, meanwhile, talks to reopen the Statue of Liberty reportedly were under way Friday, with the Associated Press citing unnamed officials in Albany as saying that state and federal parks officials were discussing the cost of such a move.

The Interior Department’s reversal reinvigorated a running debate about whether the Obama administration has been playing political games by closing parks and monuments that were not closed during shutdowns in 1995 and 1996.

Engineering a workaround solution certainly helps ease the political uproar against the White House, says Richard Seamon, a law professor at the University of Idaho, in Moscow. The solution “provides the funds needed to ensure safe operation of the parks,” he writes in an e-mail. “At the same time, it relieves the public pressure on the Obama administration that this particular aspect of the shutdown was causing quite acutely.”

Indeed, as the shutdown has wore on, the political reality has forced federal officials to renegotiate shutdown plans that had already been filed, per law, before Oct. 1, when funding ended for non-essential services, and tens of thousands of federal employees were furloughed.

“The idea that government, in a crisis, won’t stumble and fumble a couple of things is hardly surprising,” says Mr. Freemuth, at Boise State. “It’s harder to explain how there’s no budget to do anything.”

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