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What Is Utah's Plan To Keep National Parks Open In Case Of A Shutdown?

Photo of Zion National Park entrance.
Zion National Park is the busiest in Utah. The park saw 170,000 visitors during this time period last Christmas according to Utah's director of tourism.

Utah tourism officials were braced  for a partial government shutdown that threatened to close the gates at the five national parks in the state – Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Zion. KUER’s Judy Fahys spoke with Vicki Varela, director of tourism for Utah, about preparations in case of a shutdown, which ultimately did begin over the weekend.

Vicki Varela: Yesterday we convened an emergency call with the superintendents of the national parks in Utah and participants from the Bureau of Land Management. We just talked through the practicality that it looks like there's a good chance the government will shut down again. We're all invested in protecting the quality of the experience in our five national parks. We want our Utah residents and our visitors who have planned critical Christmas activities.

Judy Fahys: What’s your strategy, as senators debate whether to accept the House-passed budget plan?

VV: Fortunately, the national parks will not shut down the way they did in 2013. People can still drive into the national parks. They can still go on their hikes, have their drives, experience that beautiful red rock country over the Christmas season. In addition to that, in brainstorming with the national park superintendents, we felt like it was very important that visitor services be maintained as well. So, we're gathering information from [the parks] right now to find out how much it costs to keep basic staffing continuing through the holidays at key national parks. The big one is Zion. They got 170,000 visitors during this time period last Christmas. I've been authorized to provide up to $80,000 that would provide front-line services available at Zion and potentially at Arches and Bryce as well.

JF: Why is it so important to Utah to keep the parks open?

VV:One [reason] is stewardship. I feel, as the director of tourism for the state, that I'm not doing this for the short term. I'm doing this to create a predictable quality of experience both for our residents and for our visitors that, when they come to Utah — to use our branding — that they have a ‘life-elevated’ experience. Another part of it is very practical. The overall tourism economy was about $9.1 billion in spending last year. Tourism is one of Utah’s 10 major industries, and it's been growing very quickly.

...if you and I did not have tourists coming and going, we would be paying $1,375 dollars in some other form of taxes — property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes — in order to support our schools and our roads and so forth.

The easiest way to understand that is the tax relief per Utah household. It's $1,375 of tax relief per Utah household from the tourism economy. So, if you and I did not have tourists coming and going, we would be paying $1,375 dollars in some other form of taxes — property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes — in order to support our schools and our roads and so forth.

JF: The state of Utah hasn’t been reimbursed for about $1 million that it spent keeping national parks open during the 8-day 2013 shutdown. How have you and other state leaders communicated your concern about the costs of another shutdown?

VV: These political debates that are going on in [Washington] D.C. right now are so complex and involve so many issues beyond tourism and the national parks that it's not my role to try to influence all of that — other than the hope that we all have as Americans, that we can work through these things because I think it's reasonable to expect, as citizens of our democracy, that we find a way to keep our government running. It's important for people to know that they can get updated information on our website. Visit [where] we're providing all the information we can get as quickly as we can get it, so people can go there to find whatever they need to maintain the quality of their experience.

This transcript was edited for clarity and length.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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