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SALT LAKE CITY — A new report shows Utah received a significant financial return on its money by stepping up and offering to pay for the operation of its national parks during last October's government shutdown.
The report released Monday by the National Park Service shows that for the nearly $1 million the Utah Legislature agreed to pay to keep the parks open during a six-day period, nearly $10 million was spent at the parks and in local gateway communities.
"This report only confirms the pain that we knew people were experiencing when the parks shut down," said David Nimkin, senior regional director for the southwest region of the National Parks Conservation Association.
"October is prime time and this only reinforces and underscores the value of our parks. ... It raises the question of what was the point, what was the purpose of this sort of political monkey business."
During that six-day period, visitors dropped an estimated $1.6 million in the parks in direct spending and nearly $8.4 million on surrounding "gateway" communities, bolstering local economies. The eight national park units in Utah saw 153,400 visitors during that time frame.
The lapse in appropriations led the U.S. Department of Interior to close all 401 of its national park units, including visitor centers, in-park hotels, campgrounds and park roadways beginning Oct. 1.
This look back at the impacts is derived by an analysis that estimates the overall total change in visitation and spending impacts and is not based on primary data. The National Park Service looked at past October national parks visitation and spending in gateway communities to arrive at numbers the agency said have been peer-reviewed by internal agency specialists and independent academic experts.
Overall, national parks lost 8 million visitors and forfeited $414 million in visitor spending during the 16-day government shutdown.
In particular, the report noted gateway communities in California, Arizona, North Carolina, Wyoming and Virginia were hit hard, losing more than $20 million apiece in national park spending. Utah also suffered some losses, with three national parks and one national recreation area experiencing financial hits of more than $2 million.
Those impacted were: Arches National Park, down 38 percent in visitation and $3.9 million in revenue; Bryce Canyon National Park, down 41 percent in visitation and $3.6 million in revenue; Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, down 46 percent in visitors and $3.4 million in revenue; and Zion National Park, down 23 percent and $3.1 million in revenue. The losses put Utah as one of the 10 states across the country that suffered the highest declines in visitor-related spending due to the shutdown.
The report notes that during the federal government's hiatus, the National Park Service entered into agreements with the governments of six states — Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New York, South Dakota and Tennessee — to reopen and temporarily operate 14 park units. The rest remained closed.
Utah was the first state to enter into the agreement, rolling on a political momentum that began with the gateway communities, filtered up to a push by county government urging the parks to stay open and ultimately leading to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert negotiating the parks' reopening with the Interior Department.
A near showdown with the federal government had some tourist-starved towns on the fringe of initiating action on their own, and nine counties declared local emergencies because of the economic upheaval.
In San Juan County, officials were prepared to remove barriers on boat ramps at Lake Powell and take control of Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments.
The shutdown analysis was released the same day as a national report that detailed 2012 numbers and national parks, including estimates that put visitation up by 4 million visitors that year.
“National parks like Yellowstone and Gettysburg are places of unimaginable beauty and powerful history that help tell America’s story while connecting us with nature,” said Sally Jewell, Interior Department secretary. “At the same time, our national parks help propel our nation’s economy, drawing hundreds of millions of visitors every year who are the lifeblood of the hotels, restaurants, outfitters, and other local businesses that depend on a vibrant and reliable tourism and outdoor recreation industry supported by our public lands.”
In Utah, more than 9.5 million people visited national parks, monuments or recreation ares and spent nearly $614 million in 2012. The parks supported 9,416 jobs.