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Federal government agrees to let states pay to reopen national parks

WASHINGTON – Under pressure from governors, the Obama administration said Thursday that it will allow some shuttered national parks to reopen – as long as states use their own money to pay for park operations.

Governors in at least four states – but not New Mexico – have asked for authority to reopen national parks within their borders because of the economic effects caused by the park closures.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the government will consider offers to use state money to resume park operations, but will not surrender control of national parks or monuments to the states.

A spokesman for New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said Thursday that the governor does not plan to ask for approval to reopen the state’s 11 national parks and monuments. “This is firmly the responsibility of the federal government, and their inability to perform even basic functions like funding government operations is a sign of the terrible dysfunction and inability to work together in Washington,” said Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell, who pointed out that New Mexico’s state parks remain open.


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Meanwhile, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said his state would accept the federal offer to reopen Utah’s five national parks. Utah would have to use its own money to staff the parks, and it will cost $50,000 a day to operate just one of them, Zion National Park, said Herbert’s deputy chief of staff, Ally Isom.

It was not clear whether the federal government would reimburse states that pay to reopen parks. Costs could run into the millions of dollars, depending on how long the shutdown lasts and how many parks reopen.

Governors of Arizona, South Dakota and Colorado have made similar requests.

A spokesman for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said the Republican governor is committed to finding a way to reopen the Grand Canyon, one of the state’s most important economic engines.

“It’s not ideal, but if there’s something we can do to help reopen it, Gov. Brewer has been committed to trying to find that way,” spokesman Andrew Wilder said.

Brewer and state legislative leaders have said they would make state funding available, but “the state cannot pay the federal government’s bills indefinitely,” Wilder said. Businesses outside the Grand Canyon have pledged $400,000.

October is a peak month for tourism in Arizona and other parts of the West.

In South Dakota, a spokesman said Gov. Dennis Daugaard is considering the government’s offer but wants to see how much it would cost. Daugaard, a Republican, “appreciates the federal government’s willingness to evaluate other options,” said Dusty Johnson, Daugaard’s chief of staff. “When we get the numbers, he’ll consider it more fully.”

Herbert, also a Republican, said in a letter Tuesday to President Barack Obama that the shutdown of national parks has been devastating to individuals and businesses that rely on park operations for their livelihood. Utah is home to five national parks, including Zion, Bryce and Arches, which attract visitors from around the world.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the Obama administration was playing “political games” with national parks.

Meanwhile, the park service said it is reopening to tourists a highway pull-off area that can be used to view and photograph Mount Rushmore from a distance after complaints that the agency was intentionally blocking viewing areas.