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Utah Tourism Chief Talks National Park Funding, Bears Ears

Julia Ritchey, KUER
Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, talks to Vicki Varela, state director of tourism, on the latest data and trends in Utah tourism.

Utah’s top tourism official says at a time when the number of people visiting national parks is skyrocketing, the Trump administration and Congress should step up their funding of the National Park Service.
“The federal government needs to make an investment,” says Vicki Varela, director of the state’s office of tourism, film and global branding.

Varela oversees Visit Utah’s campaign for the Mighty 5 national parks and Life Elevated brand. She says there’s no doubt visitation is increasing at all the state’s national parks, but funding for them has not kept apace.

Take Zion’s National Park, which saw a record 4.3 million visitors last year, becoming the fifth most visited park in the United States.

“[That’s a] 40 percent increase in visitation over the last five years, accompanied by a 5 percent cut in budget. That’s not a strategy for ‘America’s greatest idea,’ to quote Wallace Stegner,” says Varela.   

She says the National Park Service, too, could be more creative in finding ways to manage the congestion and crowds that have overwhelmed some local communities. She suggested strategies like raising prices on some annual passes or automating entry.

Varela spoke at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute’s monthly newsmaker breakfast Wednesday, discussing tourism trends, Utah’s liquor laws and the controversial Bears Ears national monument.

Varela says she attended a dinner with Secretary Ryan Zinke last Sunday as he began his tour of Bears Ears, part of the Trump administration’s 45-day review of national monuments.

“I am highly optimistic that whatever specifics go into this, that we can count on the fact that outdoor recreation — public access to outdoor recreation — and that cultural resources will be protected,” she says.

Varela says although there’s an information page on Visit Utah about Bears Ears, they’re not ready to promote the monument as a tourist destination because it lacks infrastructure, clearly marked trails and staff support.

Credit Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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