States help run U.S. National Parks in federal government shutdown

(Reuters) – While U.S. National Parks will generally remain open with a skeleton staff through the federal government shutdown, Republican governors in at least two states are working to make sure public restrooms get cleaned and visitor centers stay open.

FILE PHOTO: The Colorado River runs through the west rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, U.S. February 28, 2018. Picture taken February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi/File Photo

The government shutdown of all but essential federal services due to a fight on Capitol Hill over funding for U.S. President Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border comes at the height of the Christmas travel season.

The National Park Service said this week that parks “will remain as accessible as possible,” in the same way as happened during a three-day government shutdown in January, when the gates to about two-thirds of national parks and monuments remained open.

“However services that require staffing and maintenance such as campgrounds and full-service restrooms will not be operating,” Jeremy Barnum, the National Parks Service chief spokesman, said in a statement.

The Republican governors of Utah and Arizona have promised to step in to fill some of the breach, in part to protect local businesses in and around some of the country’s most spectacular natural landscapes that depend on tourist spending.

“Regardless of what happens in Washington, the Grand Canyon will not close on our watch,” Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said in a statement on Friday. The Arizona Office of Tourism will help ensure that restrooms are cleaned, trash is collected and shuttle buses operate throughout the shutdown, Ducey said.

All five of Utah’s national parks will remain open, and the three most popular ones will have maintenance costs underwritten by the state during the shutdown, according to Vicki Varela, the Utah Office of Tourism’s managing director.

Zion National Park alone drew 107,000 visitors between Dec. 22 and Dec. 27 a year ago, Varela said.

“This time of year is the most remarkable time of year to experience it because the snow against that red rock is just breathtaking,” she said in a telephone interview.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert authorized the temporary funding for custodial and visitor center services, which will cost an estimated $18,000 to $19,000 for Zion. “It’s really modest on the part of the state to protect the quality of the experience for visitors,” Varela said.

In New York, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island closed down for a day during the January shutdown before Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, ordered state tourism funds be used to reopen them. His office did not respond to questions about whether he would repeat the exercise this weekend, and National Park Service officials in New York declined to discuss their plans.

Some conservationists warned that it was safer to shutter the parks entirely, as happened under Barack Obama’s presidential administration during a 2013 shutdown, rather than have them open with skeleton staff.

During the January shutdown, a pregnant elk was killed in Zion and tourists in Yellowstone drove snowmobiles dangerously close to the Old Faithful geyser, said Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association.

“It’s unrealistic and dangerous to think that parks can remain open with only a skeleton crew and continue with business as usual,” Pierno said in a statement.

Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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