State officials debate paying to reopen national parks

The main entrance to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona remains closed to visitors on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. Under pressure from several governors, the Obama administration said Thursday it will allow some shuttered national parks to reopen -- as long as states use their own money to pay for park operations. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

TUSAYAN, Ariz. Robert and Jayne Miller are on a three-week road trip across America, hoping to take in the sights along Route 66 as they head from California to Washington. But they hit a wall when they got to Grand Canyon National Park.

The Australian tourists are now just hoping the iconic landscape is accessible before they have to move on, optimistic that it could come as soon as this weekend after the Obama administration said it would allow states to use their own money to reopen some shuttered national parks.

Governors in at least four states have asked for authority to reopen the parks within their borders because of the economic impacts caused by the closures. All 401 national park units -- including such icons as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Zion -- have been closed since Oct. 1 because of the partial government shutdown. More than 20,000 National Park Service employees have been furloughed, and lawmakers from both parties have complained that park closures have wreaked havoc on nearby communities that depend on tourism.

"It's like someone just turned around the closed sign here in America," said Jayne Miller, standing alongside her husband as they checked into a hotel on the south rim of the Grand Canyon on Thursday.

Utah's Republican governor, Gary Herbert, said late Thursday he had wired money from state taxpayers that will open Utah's five national parks. He said he was inking a deal with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that provides $166,000 a day in funding for the five red rock parks and other units of the national park system, starting Saturday. He said that will keep them open for 10 days, and the state can buy extra days as needed.

Jewell said the federal 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. Jewell called on Congress to act swiftly to end the government shutdown so all parks can reopen.

Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said she'd consider paying for a partial reopening of Grand Canyon National Park but is rejecting the Interior Department's insistence that state money pay for the whole operation - a daily cost of $112,000 - adding yet another element of uncertainty.

"It gets too complicated when you're trying to do sections of park and you still have areas barricaded off," said National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst.

The Grand Canyon draws about 18,000 people each day this time of year who pump an estimated $1 million daily into the local economy.

The town of Tusayan, just outside the park's South Rim entrance, and area businesses have pledged $400,000 to help reopen the canyon, but Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder said it's unclear if the Interior Department could even accept private funds.

He said there's now no time frame for a reopening on the state's dime.

That's not good news for people like Julie Aldaz, general manager at Tusayan's Red Feather Lodge.

"This is our last big weekend," Aldaz said, explaining the hotel has already lost about $135,000 since the park closed. "I'm skeptical, but still hopeful. What more can we do?"

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.

Governors in South Dakota and Colorado have made similar requests to reopen some or all of their parks.