SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's House members are urging the U.S. Department of the Interior to take emergency measures to resume full operations at Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks during the federal government shutdown.
A letter, signed by Utah Reps. Rob Bishop, Chris Stewart and John Curtis, thanks the department for its efforts to keep national parks open during the shutdown but states, "We believe the administration has the authority to do more."
The more outlined in the letter dated Friday to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is invoking at exception to an act prohibiting agencies from general operations when funds aren't available.
"It can easily be an emergency," Bishop said. People "can die in national parks. It's not necessarily the safest place in the world so it needs more than a skeleton crew, and it needs more than just being open."
The newest member of Utah's congressional delegation and the only Democrat, Rep. Ben McAdams, sent a similar letter to Bernhardt Saturday, saying he joins in asking for an alternative approach to keeping the parks open.
"We've got to make sure we maintain these parks, safe, in a respectable condition," McAdams said. "We're got to get government back open, but in the meantime, we've got to maintain what we've got."
Money ran out for a number of federal agencies just before Christmas, when Congress and President Donald Trump hit an impasse over a temporary funding measure because it did not contain funds for the president's border wall.
Since then, the state has spent $55,000 to help keep three of the national parks in Utah — Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches — open through the end of the year by paying for minimal staffing.
Additional state dollars are being spent this week to maintain such services as cleaning restrooms at Zion, along with money from St. George, Washington County and the non-profit Zion Forever Project. Similar efforts are underway at Bryce Canyon.
Arches, however, is no longer getting assistance.
"These entities all have limits on their resources and the state has yet to be reimbursed for their financial investment in the parks during a previous government shutdown," the letter from Bishop, Stewart and Curtis says.
They point out the Antideficiency Act makes an exception for "emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property" and that national parks qualify because "pubic safety and property are at heightened risk."
They say hundreds of emergency incidents are responded to in Utah parks each year, and note Zion has a surge of visitors in the winter, with as many as 11,000 people visiting in a single day, despite the current skeleton crew available.
McAdams makes the same argument, citing southern Utah's mild winters and uses Arches as an example because the park road was not plowed during a recent snowstorm.
He said he plans to talk with Bishop about why he was not asked to sign the letter alongside Utah's Republicans in Congress. McAdams said he first learned of the letter on Twitter.
"I decided I'm going to be on Team Utah and not wait to be asked to sign the letter," he said of sending his own version. "I've always been someone to put Utah before party."
McAdams said he voted to reopen the government, supporting legislation in the newly Democratic-controlled House that was opposed by most Republicans including members of Utah's delegation.
Bishop, who lost his chairmanship of the House Natural Resources Committee when Democrats became the majority, said he asked only Stewart and Curtis to sign the letter because the parks are located in their districts.
He said he also wanted to move quickly because other states, including California, are making the same type of request.
"Not only is there is legitimate argument for it, this administration is willing to accept that argument right now," Bishop said. "My hunch is, this administration, this Department of Interior, wants to be as helpful as they possibly can."
The effort to get emergency funding, which may mean bringing back park service employees without pay until the shutdown is resolved, should include all of the state's national parks and hopefully national monuments as well, he said.10 comments on this story
Curtis praised Gov. Gary Herbert for the state's efforts to keep the parks open.
"We need to do all we can to help him," he said, adding that the shutdown is particularly hard on rural Utah, where local economies are already struggling. He said the shutdown needs to end.
"It should. There's no reason for it to go on. We really don't have that big of a divide going on right now," Curtis said. "I'm hopeful we'll be able to put something forward very quickly."
Contributing: Alex Cabrero