Ty Markham: Lack of national parks funding causes Utah's gateway communities to suffer

By Ty Markham

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, March 30 2014 4:31 p.m. MDT

A visitor takes in the view at the Natural Bridge viewpoint at Bryce Canyon August 13, 2007.

Kristin Nichols, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

There is an important triangular relationship between Congress, a national park and its gateway community. A gateway community’s economic engine is fueled by their nearby park and the park depends on Congress for the fuel to stay open and in good condition. Each plays a vital role in the overall success of the region.

As a business owner and elected official in Torrey, Utah, the town adjacent to Capitol Reef National Park, I know first-hand the importance of national parks to local communities and counties. Since Capitol Reef was designated a national park in 1971, Torrey’s population has more than doubled to serve the now more than 670,000 visitors annually who pass through on their way to the park, spending millions of dollars at our restaurants, hotels, gas stations, retail shops and other businesses. Whether they stay a night, a week, or just stop for gas and a meal, Torrey’s businesses provide the services they need to fully enjoy our corner of the world. In turn they are a primary driver for our local economies.

When the federal government shut down last October, it put an immediate strain on gateway community businesses nationwide. In southern and south central Utah the timing was particularly difficult since our communities and counties depend on autumn visitors to help sustain them through the leaner winter months. Thankfully, Utah was able to step in and temporarily fund the operation of most national park units in the state, including Capitol Reef. This ensured that roughly 2,700 visitors continued to visit and spend about $183,000 into our local economy daily, with a large portion of them staying here in Torrey.

Congress is entrusted with a responsibility to insure our national parks are open and properly funded. But even before the shutdown, national parks got the short end of the stick, suffering from multiple budget cuts and aging infrastructure. This has led to fewer visitor services, less funds for maintenance, and less rangers. If this poor funding continues to be a reality, visitors may turn away from our national parks as chosen destinations. What does this mean for gateway communities? Well, it won’t be good.

This is not the vision the National Park Service laid out for national parks when it was established in 1916. These treasured places were preserved to welcome visitors and as a recent report by the National Park Service points out, for every dollar invested into our national parks there is a $10 return for local economies.

Torrey’s residents and business owners are praising the recent appointment of Leah McGinnis as superintendent at Capitol Reef. Ms. McGinnis and her staff are eagerly working with local communities to raise the profile of the park both locally and nationally. But it takes more than the efforts of National Park Service employees and local communities to ensure that we both thrive. It takes the courage of congressional members to not only verbally praise the parks, but to take the necessary action to ensure their vitality — funding must be on the top of Congress’s list.

I was encouraged to hear that my congressman, Rep. Chris Stewart, has been appointed to the House Appropriations Committee. This is a great opportunity for him to use his position to advocate for adequate funding and support for national parks, and I urge him to do so as deliberations begin on the president’s FY 2015 budget.

If Rep. Stewart and his colleagues in Washington, D.C., will make park funding a priority, then a brighter day is on its way for Capitol Reef and all of Utah’s national parks and gateway communities.

Ty Markham is a Torrey Town council member and owner of Torrey Schoolhouse Bed & Breakfast.

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