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Skeleton Services Continue At Some National Parks Despite Shutdown

Photo of Capitol Reef closed.
Visitors to Capitol Reef National Park on News Years Day found the scenic-drive gate closed, along with the visitor center and bathrooms. As the partial shutdown appears likely to continue, the state is coordinating plans to provide skeleton services.

As the partial government shutdown appeared likely to enter its third week, Utah’s tourism office assembled plans to fund another week of skeleton services at the state’s two busiest national parks.

Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said Thursday that the city of St. George and Washington County will be chipping in the money for some basic services, such as emptying garbage cans, staffing visitor centers and keeping a few bathrooms open. The state itself has spent $66,000 of $80,000 budgeted on the national parks since the shutdown began Dec. 22. Two nonprofits, the Zion National Park Forever Project and the Bryce Canyon Natural History Association, have also provided funding for basic services.

“In Utah, we still have problems that are big enough to see and small enough to solve,” Varela said. “We pick up the phone and we call each other and figure out ways to get through these difficult times.”

Around 130,000 visitors are expected at Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks in January, and Varela said her agency is determined to make sure park visitors have a good time despite the budget fight over border security in Washington.

It costs about $2,000 to $4,000 each day to provide basic services at each park, and Varela said the state has learned from experience that the spending is worthwhile: during the eight-day federal shutdown in 2013, the state government amassed a $1 million bill. The state hasn’t been repaid but state officials remain committed to making sure visitors are not disappointed with what the five national parks in Utah have to offer.

Varela said that for each $1 the state spends to keep the national park experience pleasant, tourists pump $3 back into hotels, restaurants and other expenses during their visits. It’s a significant factor in a top-10 industry that contributes more than $9 billion to the state’s economy annually.

Varela said visitors have reached out to say they support the efforts that have been made to accommodate them. And her office hasn’t fielded any complaints about damage to the natural resources during the shutdown.

Three of the national parks in Utah are seeing fewer visitors than Zion and Bryce Canyon, so they are not getting the same attention. State funding helped keep the visitor center at Arches National Park open from Dec. 22 through Dec. 31. Now the main roads into Arches and nearby Canyonlands National Park have been closed because of unplowed snow.

Utah author Stephen Trimble, who spent the Christmas-New Year holiday at Capitol Reef National Park, said the bathrooms, the visitor center and the road to the scenic drive were closed, but many visitors were exploring the park anyway.

Trimble said that, in his opinion, the closures are another sign of how Americans pay lip service to loving their national parks while actually neglecting them. He also accused President Donald Trump of weaponizing park funding in a quest to support his reelection bid.

“And with this current shutdown, the president has demonstrated one more time that he doesn't care about the details,” Trimble said. “He only cares about the votes in his base and he's giving no thought at all to the consequences of cutting off funding.”

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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