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Utah strikes deal to reopen national parks as other states weigh cost to taxpayers

Courtesy of Zac and Kelly White via AP, file

"Delicate Arch" in Arches National Park, a short drive from Moab, Utah. The natural sandstone arch is one of the more popular arches, set off from the main road and reachable by a short hike.

Utah has struck a deal with Department of the Interior to reopen eight of the state’s National Parks and monuments as other states that depend heavily on the tourism dollars generated by the outdoor attractions considered similar measures amid the ongoing government shutdown.

The state agreed to pay $1.67 million to get people back in the parks for up to 10 days, with any leftover funds to be returned if lawmakers in Washington bring the budget impasse to a resolution, according to Thursday release from Gov. Gary Herbert’s office.

The announcement came after the Obama administration said on Thursday that states would be given the option to spend their own money to reopen some of the parks shuttered by the lapse in government funding. The Utah parks could open as early as Friday and may be fully up and running by Saturday, according to the release.

“Utah’s national parks are the backbone of many rural economies and hard-working Utahns are paying a heavy price for this shutdown,” Herbert said in a statement on Thursday. On Oct. 8, Herbert wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to reopen the state’s five national parks, and the governor’s office estimated the total cost of the shutdown to Utah at $100 million.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard first proposed using state workers to open parts of Mount Rushmore, spokesman Tony Venhuizen said.

Late Friday, Daugaard announced a deal with the National Park Service to reopen the monument.  The governors of Arizona andNew York reached similar deals late Friday to reopen the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty.

The tourism industry is taking a nosedive in towns near national parks thanks to the government shutdown. NBC's Jay Gray reports.

Other states, including Colorado, have expressed interest in getting parks in their states back open, and not just to net sightseers’ dollars. Colorado would like to reopen Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park to allow access to the town of Estes Park, which is working to recover from recent flooding, Eric Brown, a spokesman for Gov. John Hickenlooper, said in an email on Friday.

Just over 400 national parks were shut down after government funds were cut off amid congressional bickering, and about 20,000 park service employees have been furloughed, Reuters reported.

In Wyoming, Gov. Matt Mead said he would not use taxpayer money to reopen the state’s parks, which includes the majority of Yellowstone National Park.

“Gov. Mead did ask about the federal government’s plan for national parks and was told the shutdown order prohibited any state from reopening a national park,” Mead spokesman Renny MacKay wrote in an email to local newspaper the Casper Star-Tribune. “While the Department of Interior’s position may have changed, Wyoming’s position has not.”

In Nevada, Gov. Brian Sandoval has said no thanks to the idea of spending state money to reopen the park, saying there are more pressing concerns for his constituents as the shutdown drags on.

Julie Jacobson / AP

Tourist Ryszard Skrzypek, of Vienna, Austria, takes a photo of his wife Walendowska Malgorzata in front of a sign near the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park on Oct. 4. Skrzypek and Malgorzata had traveled from Austria with the Grand Canyon as the main stop on their vacation only to find it closed when they arrived. The two opted for a helicopter tour later in the afternoon.

“Nevada is already making critical funding decisions on programs such as food stamps, unemployment insurance, programs for women, infants and children, and dozens of others,” spokesman Mary-Sarah Kinner said in an email to NBC News on Friday. “With so many Nevadans facing real consequences, the state simply cannot afford to reopen federal parks at this time. Nevada state parks, however, are open and experiencing record visitation.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott also said he would not use state funds to open National Parks in the Sunshine State, said Deputy Communications Director Frank Collins.

"It's the federal government's obligation to reopen and cancel restrictions on Florida's natural treasures, and Florida taxpayers will not foot the bill to cover Washington's failure to negotiate and compromise," Collins said in a statement.

The requests to reopen the parks have extended to the county level in some areas that depend on them for tourism dollars. Mayor Ed Mitchell of Blount County in north-eastern Tennessee sent a letter to Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell offering to foot the bill if parks in his area were allowed to reopen, according to local newspaper The Daily Times.

“The federal government’s decision to shut down the Great Smoky National Park and, in particular, Cades Cove and the Foothills Parkway, will have a tremendous impact on the citizens of Blount County,” Mitchell said, according to the newspaper. “This is the peak time for park visits by tourists from all over our country.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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