Utah's national parks, Lake Powell to reopen Saturday

Published: Thursday, Oct. 10 2013 12:15 p.m. MDT

Cloud formations are visible at Bryce Canyon National Park hike on Navajo Loop, Sept. 14, 2007. There has been debate on whether recreation areas and national parks in Utah should be opened and run by the state during the federal government shutdown.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's five national parks will reopen Saturday morning after the state reached an agreement with the Department of the Interior late Thursday to run them for as many as 10 days.

Also set to reopen with Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks are Cedar Breaks and Natural Bridges national monuments and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes Lake Powell.

The governor's office and legislative leaders worked all day Thursday to complete the deal after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell gave Gov. Gary Herbert the go-ahead in a morning phone call.

"Come on down to southern Utah. The parks are open in Utah," the governor said after signing the contract.

Utah agreed to pay the park service up to $1.67 million — $166,572 a day — to re-open the eight sites for up to 10 days. If the federal government shutdown ends before then, the state would receive a refund of unused funds.

The governor said Jewell told him the park service could have the sites up and running within 24 hours of the state wiring the money.

“Utah’s national parks are the backbone of many rural economies, and hardworking Utahns are paying a heavy price for this shutdown,” Herbert said. “I commend Secretary Jewell for being open to Utah’s solution, and the world should know Utah is open for business and visitors are welcome.”

The Obama administration said Thursday it will allow states to use their own money to reopen some national parks. Governors in Utah, Arizona, Colorado and South Dakota asked for that authority because of the impact the closures are having on their local economies.

The Utah Division of State Parks will put up the initial money for the agreement. Herbert also intends to call state lawmakers into special session next week for any further action on the parks and to address other issues associated with the shutdown.

"The Legislature needs to be in the loop," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.

Lawmakers need to know what kind of commitment the state is making with taxpayer dollars and how it would be reimbursed, she said.

Jewell made it clear that she can't obligate the federal government to pay the state back, Herbert said. He said he asked Utah’s congressional delegation to pursue repayment.

Herbert called on the president in a letter Tuesday to reopen the state's five national parks and several national monuments, historic sites and recreation areas. On Wednesday, he told Jewell that Utah would lend the federal government money and use state and local resources to get the parks running again.

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said he talked with the governor Wednesday about the possibility of a special session and taking $5 million from the state's Rainy Day Fund. He said he supports the governor moving forward because the most important thing is opening the parks.

Okerlund said he expects the Legislature to hold a special session next Wednesday to "make an appropriation if we need to and finish it up. It might take a little bill to tie everything together."

Either way, he anticipates lawmakers would consider legislation in the general session next year to set aside money and outline a plan for the state to run the parks in the event of a future federal shutdown.

House Minority Assistant Whip Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said she understands the economic hardship facing those whose livelihood depends on the parks.

"But there may be other issues related to health, safety and people getting fed that we might have to step forward and provide state resources to offset what we're not getting from the feds," she said.

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