States pay to reopen national parks closed by federal shutdown

Citing economic losses from closures, several states strike deals with the federal government

The Statue of Liberty, one of New York's premier tourist attractions, is viewed from the Staten Island Ferry in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Several states have accepted the Obama administration's offer to allow states to reopen national parks as long as they foot the bill, despite an ongoing standoff between President Barack Obama's administration and the House Republican majority that has shut down the government, which includes a halt to federal funding for national parks.

Governors in several states had asked for authority to reopen parks within their borders, citing economic losses from closures. 

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper struck a deal with federal officials to reopen one of its national parks, becoming the second state to accept the offer to send money to the federal government to save lucrative tourist seasons.

Federal officials announced Friday that Colorado has agreed to pay about $360,000 to reopen Rocky Mountain National Park through Oct. 20.

Utah was the first taker, with Gov. Gary Herbert wiring $1.67 million to federal officials to temporarily reopen five national parks and other national park units by Saturday.

In Arizona, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer announced Friday night that her state reached a deal with the Interior Department to pay for Grand Canyon National Park to completely reopen using state and local funds. Arizona will pay the National Park Service $651,000 to keep the Grand Canyon open for seven days. The National Park Service said that entrances to the park will open to the public at 8 a.m. Saturday.

Figures compiled by a coalition of retired park service workers indicate that some 700,000 people a day would have been visiting the 401 national park units, and that the surrounding areas are losing $76 million in visitor spending daily.

The park service said it is losing $450,000 per day in revenue from entrance fees and other in-park expenditures, such as campground fees and boat rentals.

New York officials also reached an agreement with the federal government Friday to reopen the Statue of Liberty. In the deal between Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the National Park Service, the state will pay about $61,600 daily to open Liberty Island National Park to visitors beginning this weekend.

"We will not allow this international symbol of freedom to remain closed because of the dysfunction and gridlock of Washington," Cuomo said in a release.

The National Park Service, which has had to furlough more than 20,000 employees, said the agreement allows for the park on which the Statue of Liberty stands to open Saturday and remain open through Oct. 17 for about $369,000.

"This is a practical and temporary solution that will lessen the pain for some businesses and communities in New York during this shutdown," Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.

Click for the latest analysis on the government shutdown

New York has 33 sites under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, and they have been shut since Oct. 1. The sites include the statue and nearby Ellis Island, which has been closed for repairs since Hurricane Sandy last year.

Local businesses have complained the shutdown has stifled sales and forced layoffs as tourists have been turned away.

Nearly 4 million people visited Lady Liberty in 2011, generating $174 million in economic activity, the park service said.

Bradford Hill, president of the company that operates the gift shop and food service at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, said his company has temporarily laid off 110 employees because of the shutdown. He estimated that 152,000 potential visitors have been unable to visit, costing his firm $750,000 in lost sales.

The statue is normally open seven days a week. The company would like to bring its staff back immediately and could reopen Saturday morning, Hill said.

Statue Cruises, which in conjunction with the National Park Service runs boats from the southern tip of Manhattan to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, transports about 7,000 to 10,000 passengers a day. Employee Nancy Hine said the boats are seeing about 3,000 passengers daily since the shutdown. All they can offer now is a one-hour tour of the harbor, which includes floating near the statue so tourists can take pictures.

Tourist Manish Tripathi, from Delhi, India, took one of the abbreviated cruises.

"You could not even get that close to get a good picture," she said. "When we see America in the movies it was always the Statue of Liberty. Without the statue, it doesn't feel totally like America."

In Wyoming, meanwhile, Gov. Matt Mead's office said the state would not pay to reopen two heavily visited national parks or the Devil's Tower national monument.

"Wyoming cannot bail out the federal government and we cannot use state money to do the work of the federal government," Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said.

In South Dakota, 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.

Hundreds of tourists had complained that park rangers blocked drivers from pulling over to take photos of the South Dakota monument, which features the stone-carved faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Interior Department spokesman Blake Androff said the government does not plan to reimburse states that pay to reopen parks. Costs could run into the millions of dollars.

The Associated Press

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