These agencies are willing and able to wield tremendous influence in a manner that serves the political ambitions of the few at the expense of the many. This raises a number of questions about the nature and extent of federally owned land, questions we need to address here in Congress. —Sen. Mike Lee
SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert called on the president Tuesday to allow Utah to run national parks and monuments in the state that sit closed due to the government shutdown.
"The unwarranted shutdown of the national parks and other federal facilities is devastating individuals and businesses that rely on these areas for their livelihood," Herbert wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama.
"These closures must end immediately."
Herbert wrote that the executive branch has the power to reopen Utah's five national parks and several national monuments, historic sites and recreation areas. He asks the president to authorize Utah — absent federal funds — to use state, local and private money to reopen and manage the parks.
"We have a solution in place. We just need, literally, the keys to the gates," the governor said.
Meantime, the U.S. Forest Service is closing all concrete boat ramps, outhouses and campgrounds, including those at popular Flaming Gorge, Strawberry and Pineview reservoirs. Roads through the forests will stay open, and anglers should be able to fish from the shore and small boats launched by hand, according to the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources.
Congress has shown no signs of ending the shutdown, which on Wednesday will reach its ninth day.
Former Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett said the Senate has become much more ideological than practical, and some senators are more interested in making a point than getting things done, he said.
"They've backed themselves into a corner, and now the country is being hurt," Bennett said. "It's ironic that these people who got elected because they were complaining that the government wasn't doing anything and wasn't responsive have made the government far less responsive than even before they came here."
Bennett acknowledged his successor, Sen. Mike Lee, as a central figure in the budget impasse. Tea party Republicans ousted Bennett at the 2010 state convention.
"It's not something I would have done if I were still in the Senate," Bennett said, adding that he would vote to reopen the government.
Herbert said the shutdown is decimating communities that depend on tourism and recreation, noting that several counties have declared local emergencies.
"All businesses are unfairly suffering the consequences of inaction and lack of leadership in Washington," he wrote.
The Sierra Club's Tim Wagner said he's "amazed at the hypocrisy" shown by the governor on public lands issues.
"Why should the president take serious such an offer from the state to open up these areas?" he said.
If Herbert really wants improve the situation, he should write to members of his own party who the public knows are really responsible for the shutdown, including Lee, rather than pile on more political theater, Wagner said.
"It’s OK to continually blame the federal government for all of our state ills with rhetoric about 'federal control,'" he said. "It's that federal control that came from the people of Utah and every state that resulted in those federally owned parks, monuments and wilderness areas that have benefited generations of Utahns."
Herbert's letter comes in the midst of Utah's prolonged fight with the federal government over management of public lands.
In 2012, the Legislature passed and Herbert signed a bill demanding the federal government relinquish more than 30 million acres, excluding national parks and monuments and designated wilderness areas, by 2014. The federal government controls about 66 percent of the land in Utah.
Lee, R-Utah, a leader in the fight that led to the budget impasse in Congress, accused federal agencies of using public lands to make a political point during the shutdown.
"These agencies are willing and able to wield tremendous influence in a manner that serves the political ambitions of the few at the expense of the many," he said in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meeting Tuesday. "This raises a number of questions about the nature and extent of federally owned land, questions we need to address here in Congress."
Lee added that "public land becomes very unlike public land when it is closed by people who arbitrarily say, 'Because of a shutdown, we’re going to exclude you.'"
Noting that the National Park Service reopened the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for a rally Tuesday, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, called on the Senate to pass a bill reopening national parks nationwide. The House passed the bill last week.
"If they make exceptions for a few, they should make exceptions for all," he said.
A poll of 500 Utahns by the conservative Libertas Institute found 68 percent support the state funding operation of national parks during the shutdown. It also found 48 percent support "civil disobedience" such as removing traffic barriers and cones to enter national parks.
Contributing: Andrew Wittenberg
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