SALT LAKE CITY — A Salt Lake-based international linen and uniform rental company is forking out $100,000 to keep Utah's busiest national parks open through President's Day weekend.
"It is the 'Utah way' for public and private partners to come together and solve Utah's problems," Vicki Varela, director at the Utah Office of Tourism, said Thursday. She said the actions of Alsco Inc., are unprecedented throughout the United States during the also unprecedented, 35-day federal government shutdown, which began Dec. 22.
Alsco, which has numerous clients in the hospitality and restaurant industry that serves tens of thousands of Utah's park visitors, is the first private corporation to step forward with so much for the good of national parks. Delta Air Lines paid $83,000 to open its headquarter city of Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park on Martin Luther King Jr. Day last week.
"Days like this make me proud to be a Utahn," said Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who helped coordinate Alsco's donation. "We are taking a different path than most other states by bringing public and private partners together to solve a hard problem — a problem that is big enough to see and small enough to solve."
The donation from Alsco — which has offered linen, towel and uniform rental and cleaning services since 1889 — will cover expanded services, including for visitor experience and additional custodial services, at Zion, Arches and Bryce Canyon national parks through at least President's Day weekend, and through March 9 at Zion National Park.
"The national parks staff have been operating at bare-bones levels for more than a month," said Bob Steiner, co-CEO at Alsco, who wants the donation to help keep the parks clean and free of trash.
"This will help maintain the natural resources and pristine experience," Steiner said.
The fourth-generation, family-owned business leader had read that the parks were struggling and he wanted to help.
"With all the fighting they're doing about the wall, it feels unifying to do something good," Steiner said. The parks, though far from Alsco headquarters, he said, "are a prominent part of Utah."
The $100,000 contribution will be distributed to three nonprofit foundations that support the national parks. The largest portion, $62,300, will go to the Zion National Park Forever Project, supporting Zion National Park. Canyonlands National History Association, which supports Arches National Park, will get $19,600, and the Bryce Canyon Natural History Association will receive $18,100 for Bryce Canyon National Park.
The money ensures that "these parks will continue to be clean and welcoming to visitors," McCay said.
During February 2018, visitation was 127,900 at Zion, 40,325 at Arches and 37,132 at Bryce Canyon. Visitation to the state's "hot spots" starts to pick up for the year during the holidays in February, according to the state Office of Tourism.
Tourism, including visitors to Utah's five national parks, contributed $9.1 billion to Utah's economy last year, McCay said, including $1.35 billion in state and local tax revenues, which he said is "critical."
When federal officials couldn't balance their budget on Dec. 22, federal services throughout the country were halted, as workers and facilities haven't been supported since and all non-essential employees are furloughed. State and local governments have stepped in to fund basic services (a skeleton crew) at various national parks in Utah, including the parks Alsco is opting to help.
Varela said that the Utah parks and the famous vistas throughout them have, so far, been spared from the bad behaviors and resulting damages seen at other parks, including at Joshua Tree National Park in California. She said that, thankfully, the country's beautiful national parks will exist long after "the dysfunction in Washington," and therefore must be cared for.
She said Alsco's donation and others are helping to "patchwork" for the federal government.
"National Parks folks are on the front lines doing the hardest work they've ever done to keep the parks operating as they should," Varela said.
But a lack of sufficient funding has caused park operations to fall further and further behind, Lyman Hafen, executive director with the Zion National Park Forever Project, said.
"This is a wonderful gift from Alsco," he added. "It will make a great difference in our ability to continue to welcome visitors to Utah and to protect the state's precious national parks."
Under the shutdown, Zion National Park is mandated to remain open, but federal funds are not available for operations and no fees are being collected at the gates. The visitor's center is open, as are a limited number of restrooms throughout the park, Hafen said.
His group has been working tirelessly to maintain park operations at Zion.
"It's been exasperating," Hafen said, "but it's also been encouraging to see how much people care, and this tremendous contribution from Alsco puts a huge exclamation point on that support."
Varela said Alsco's donation will permit facilities to reopen at Zion's popular Angel's Landing trail, further preserving visitor experience as well as the environment.
If the federal government shutdown ends before Alsco's donation is used at the designated national parks, Alsco will work with the nonprofit groups to apply remaining funds toward high-priority park programs.