Once again, taxpayers and non-profit organizations in Utah are saving national parks.
State transport workers cleared roads on Thursday at Arches and Canyonlands, cut by recent snowfall that the National Parks Service could not erase because of the close of the federal government of almost three weeks.
The Utah Department of Transportation sought help from Utah's Mighty Five National Parks for the duration of the closure.
"We view national parks as part of our state's identity and want to make sure that visitors have an enjoyable experience," said UDOT spokesman John Gleason. At the request of park officials, the agency has sent four plows, two to Arches and two to the Island in the Sky part of Canyonlands. He will also send plows to Capitol Reef if necessary.
Not only should the park's roads be passable on Friday, but the Arches and Canyonlands Visitor Centers will also be able to host staff for the first time in more than a week, thanks to the Financial assistance from the Canyonlands Natural History Association, a non-profit partner of the federal government. managers in southeastern Utah.
"We are signing an agreement," Roxanne Bierman, the group's chief executive, said on Thursday. "We need a vote of our council to spend these funds. Our mission is to provide visitors with educational and interpretative information, which we can not do if visitor centers are closed. "
During the first 10 days of the shutdown, the Utah Tourist Board allocated $ 80,000 to the federal treasury to cover the operating costs of clean information centers and toilets in Arches National Parks. , Zion and Bryce Canyon, the three busiest in the state. The Arches Visitor Center has been closed since January 1st, when the state's dollars have been exhausted. Things got worse on December 31 when 6 inches of snow fell on Moab, to force park managers to close the Arches and Canyonlands gates.
The Bryce Canyon Natural History Association has been servicing visitors to this park since January 1 in 10-day increments. When a new cycle begins on Friday, the group payment will decrease to cover only the two people needed by the host center staff.
In the coming days, national parks that normally charge entry fees – no such fees are collected during closure – will start using their previous revenues to fund basic operations, such as garbage collection, law enforcement, emergency interventions and road maintenance. Interpretation services not included, private groups will always be invited to inject money to maintain visitor centers.
"There's a lot of discussion about visitor access and helping them to have a positive experience, but not a lot about the impacts and getting people to manage those impacts on natural and cultural resources," said Emily Sweet , Director of Budget and Credits. for the National Parks Conservation Association, or NPCA.
According to emergency plans developed by the Secretary of the Interior, now ousted, Ryan Zinke, the National Parks Service has left access to most of his 417 units during the stop period. This is in direct contrast to the way the service responded to the 16-day closure in October 2013, at the height of Utah's fall tourism season, when it blocked access to all of its parks, landmarks and landmarks. and recreational areas.
But park advocates, including former National Park Service (NPS) director, Jonathan Jarvis, say keeping the parks open, but lack of staff, endangers visitors and may cause irreparable damage to park resources.
"Political pressure on park managers forces them to follow an irresponsible, short-sighted plan," said NPCA President Theresa Pierno. "This action blatantly ignores the fundamental obligations of Park staff, who have dedicated their careers to ensuring that the most valuable natural and historical places in our country are appreciated not only today, but also for years to come."
A total of 21,000 NPS staff of 24,000 were fired. Of the approximately 3,000 still employed, those performing essential security and life support tasks are required to work without pay.
By order of Bernhardt, some of these employees could soon be paid, as well as those who are returning to their jobs for the first time since December 22nd.
Meanwhile, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who advocates for legislation to clear up the backlog of park maintenance, sent a letter to Bernhardt asking him to provide the rationale for redirecting revenue from duties. hosting.
It is unclear exactly how much of these funds the parks department reserves to cover park operations during the closure, nor how exactly they will be used in Utah's parks. Inquiries were forwarded to agency spokesman, Jeremy Barnum, who was not immediately able to provide this information.
Park managers are submitting their plans this week to the Interior Department, which could approve some as early as Friday.
Entry, camping and other fees were expected to generate $ 312 million this year. Under the legislation, these funds are dedicated to deferred maintenance, visitor facilities, restoration of natural and cultural resources, and teaching and interpretation programs.
A large part is already spoken. the Proposed budget of the parks of the Ministry of the Interior For the 2019 fiscal year, it is planned to spend close to $ 166 million in deferred maintenance, $ 45 million in interpretation and visitor services and $ 13 million in habitat restoration.
Modernization of Bryce Lodge Loop and Sunset Point roads ($ 2.7 million) and expansion of the Zion gateway ($ 1.7 million) required to reduce wait times for access to Utah's most popular park are some examples.
Critics say the use of this money for base operations compromises the parks' ability to deal with the $ 11 billion backlog of maintenance and improve the visitor experience. However, some community groups who support the parks have welcomed the use of recreational funds at the closure.
"It's a brilliant move that should have been done a long time ago," said Gayle Pollock of the Bryce Canyon Natural History Association, who has paid to keep the lights on and clean toilets in this park.
While snow has forced the closure of some parks, Bryce has been able to keep enough access road to service its two most popular winter destinations, Sunrise and Sunset, overlooking the Bryce Amphitheater. Bryce receives an abundant snowfall and rises to an altitude of 1000 meters. It is a popular winter destination for visitors who can ski or hike along the canyon and enjoy the view of the park's characteristic hoodoo formations, steeped in the snow.
Bryce Canyon officials had already identified snow removal as an essential service that could be funded at a stop, according to Pollock. But the road leading to the south end of the park rises to 9,000 feet and is usually closed for winter beyond Rainbow Gate, a few miles south of the entrance of the park.
Meanwhile, the closure prevents the parks from collecting fees of all kinds. According to Lyman Hafen of the Zion Forever project, Zion lost about $ 500,000 in entrance fees in the first 10 days of the closure. During these 10 days, the park generated $ 100,000 in retail sales at the Visitor Center, a federal source of revenue made possible through external support.