The U.S. Interior Department announced Sunday it will take the extraordinary step of using entrance fees for daily operations during the partial government shutdown.
The move comes just days after Utah’s four congressmen pressed the Trump administration to start treating national park closures as a safety emergency.
“I am grateful for the quick response to our letter and the extraordinary steps the Department is taking to ensure our Utah Parks are protected and open for visitors,” U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart said in a statement.
Stewart co-signed the emergency-request letter with fellow Utah Republicans, John Curtis and Rob Bishop. U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams, a Democrat, sent a similar letter to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Saturday that urged “immediate emergency measures to resume operations to the fullest extent allowable under the law.”
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a New Mexico Democrat and new chairman of the House Resources Committee, was quoted in the Washington Post questioning the legality of using the maintenance funds for operations.
Entrance fees are normally divided under a congressionally-mandated formula and used for maintenance projects, such as updating campgrounds and improving trails. The National Park Service’s to-do list has grown to nearly $12 billion.
But the shutdown, now in its 17th day, has furloughed thousands of National Park Service employees who staff visitor centers, police the backcountry, clean the bathrooms and empty garbage cans.
Visitors like Sherry Gray, a retired professor from Minnesota, applauded efforts to ensure the parks are open. Having planned her Utah trip six months ago and finding so much redrock country closed when she and her husband arrived, she said she was angry about the shutdown.
“This is an obligation of government,” she said. “These parks don’t belong to the government. They belong to citizens. They belong to us. We have a right to get into these parks.”
The state of Utah has teamed up with nonprofits, including the Zion National Park Forever Project and the Bryce Canyon Natural History Association, and local government, such as Washington County and the City of St. George, to offer skeleton services.
But those partnerships end next week, while visitors keep streaming in by the thousands. Three people have died in national parks since the shutdown began more than two weeks ago.
In a memo, Bernhardt directed the National Park Service to use available entrance fee money to maintain restrooms, sanitation and roads, collection trash, operate campgrounds, staff entry gates and put law enforcement and emergency personnel back on the beat. The directive does not say when the selected parks might reopen or which parks will be included.
Adele Underwood, an environmental restoration contractor, and her sister, Lauren, a Salt Lake City art teacher, said they’d turned around on roads that were unsafe with unplowed snow. They’d seen people hiking on closed trails and litter that included human waste.
“We picked up the trash to bring to the trash cans,” Underwood said. “But I felt bad throwing it away in those trash cans, because they’re already so full and who knows when they’ll get emptied.”