SALT LAKE CITY — A group of frustrated, concerned and even some angry Utah lawmakers agreed Wednesday to sound off over a federal proposal to set aside more than 2,000 acres of state park property in Kane County to protect a species of beetle.
The proposal would shut out the more than 50,000 campers, wildlife watchers and off-roaders who visit the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park each year — mostly visitors from out of state who eclipse the county's population seven times over.
"The tiger beetle has the potential to close down the park," Utah Division of State Parks and Recreation Director Fred Hayes told members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee. "The economic fallout to Kanab and Kane County will be immense."
A survey done based off of 2009 visitor numbers show that the park helped generate more than $1 million in revenue in the area due to hotel stays and supporting payroll of local business employees.
"It would be a huge blow to our economy here," said Ken Gotzenberger, executive director of tourism for the Kane County Visitor's Bureau.
Potential closure of one of Utah's state parks looms even as the once-struggling parks and recreation division has survived consecutive rounds of budget cuts to generate an additional $1.5 million in revenue in the last fiscal year — emerging above painful layoffs and belt-tightening to operate out of the red.
Hayes bemoaned what he said would be the sure-fire death knell of not only the park — but the beetle itself — should it be forced to close after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed earlier this month to list the species as threatened.
While the actual classification is a year off and public comment on the proposal is being accepted through early December, opponents fear their efforts to dissuade the federal government against taking such action could fail.
As it is now, state park employees monitor the beetle populations, which Hayes said inhabit an area far from the dunes where off-roading occurs. The division, he added, has offered to put up fencing and has already worked to mitigate any impacts from the park's visitors, but a federal designation would essentially boot the division off the land.
"If we pull out, the beetle will be lost," he said.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, asked the committee chairmen to agree to write a letter to weigh in on the proposal. After some discussion, members agreed that copies of the letter will also be distributed to Utah's congressional delegation and candidates in the upcoming general election in affected districts, as well as Gov. Gary Herbert's office.
"I guess I am really frustrated at the number of jobs being lost and now we are affecting recreation," Noel said, lamenting that cumbersome federal regulations have stripped the state of its ability to manage its own land and people.
"To go in and shut down a state park people have used for years and years because of a stinkin' beetle, I cannot believe. It absolutely appalls me. We have gone absolutely nuts in this country."