(Photo: Mike Stewart, AP)
WASHINGTON - With the partial federal government shutdown still unresolved, the Obama administration said Thursday it will allow states to use their own money to reopen national parks that have been shuttered during the impasse.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told state officials that she would consider agreements with governors who are willing to fully fund National Park Service personnel to reopen the 401 parks nationwide that have been closed since Oct. 1.
Jewell has spoken in recent days to officials from four states - Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah - who had previously expressed interest in opening national parks with state and donated funds.
Blake Androff, an Interior Department spokesman, stressed that the state's payments would be viewed as donations and would not be reimbursed unless Congress passed legislation to do so.
Some Republicans said the conditions set by the Interior Department - including that parks be entirely reopened and fully staffed - may be impractical for states that are scrambling to soften the blow that nationals park closures are having on their local economies.
"The requirement to 'fully fund National Park Service personnel' is an arbitrary and costly burden forced on these governors to, once again, maximize the political pain of the National Park Service's own decisions," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
In South Dakota, Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard had previously offered to pay for a partial reopening of Mount Rushmore. Under Daugaard's plan, the monument's gift shop, restaurant and museum would remain closed, but visitors would have been able to use the parking lot and view the iconic sculpture of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The governor also wanted to staff the monument using state employees.
On Thursday, Daugaard was told by Jewell that South Dakota could pay to reopen the monument, but only if it opened the monument in its entirety and National Park Service employees would have to be used, said his spokesman, Tony Venhuizen.
"He is very pleased in this change in approach," Venhuizen said. "But we really need to see the details of their proposal before he can evaluate it."
In Washington, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said about 18,000 visitors are being turned away each day from the Grand Canyon, and restaurants and resorts that rely on tourists visiting the park have laid off hundreds of workers. The Town of Tusayan - the gateway to the South Rim - reports that its businesses are losing more than $200,000 a day.
During the 1995 government shutdown, the park was partially reopened at a cost of $17,000 per day to Arizona, which was eventually reimbursed by Congress.
"If it is a good-faith offer by the administration, the Park Service must be willing to at least agree to a partial reopening similar to the agreement reached with the State of Arizona during the 1995 government shutdown," McCain said.
In Utah, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert's staff was scrambling to put together a proposal for Interior to reopen some or all of its parks. The state has five major national parks, and was attempting to figure out how much the state could afford, said Ally Isom, deputy chief of staff for the governor.
Just one park, Zion National Park, costs $50,000 per day to operate, Isom said. But closure of the park since the start of the shutdown has cost nearly $3.5 million to the local economy and 72,000 visitors have been kept away, according to a report from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
It is possible the Utah Legislature would have to convene a special session to appropriate the money, Isom said.
"We certainly can't afford it in the long term, but we weigh it against all the other considerations during this shutdown," Isom said.
Contributing: Gregory Korte and Fredreka Schouten