The State of Utah has taken the financial initiative of reopening national parks closed within the state due to the federal government shutdown. While most states were scratching their heads concerning how to address the negative economic impacts of the debacle, Utah leaders were about finding solutions. Proudly, the Kane County Commissioners were among those at the forefront.

Kane County Commission

“We cried a lot at first,” said Commissioner Dirk Clayson, of the commission’s reaction to the parks’ closures. Being over the travel council made him keenly aware of the revenue impact. The Kane County Commission formed an alliance with Washington, Iron, San Juan and Garfield counties in Utah, along with Coconino County, Arizona, and Commissioner Lena Fowler, to come up with a remedy.

Monday, October 7

The counties declared a State of Emergency due to economic impact. Clayson credited Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner for heading the events, utilizing their county attorney. Clayson said all the counties were willing to contribute to the reopening of the parks. As for Kane County, they were going to use resources from the Volunteer Center, Office of Tourism, and the Sheriff’s Office, for both volunteers and funding revenue.

“We stated that we would reopen parks with county resources,” said Clayson. On Monday afternoon, each county made plans to staff and fund the parks.

Tuesday, October 8

Kane County had its sheriff’s office meet with the parks. The thought being, if key park personnel could help with initial discussion, the county would be able to move forward. The proposal wasn’t received warmly, and the interaction was forwarded up the chain of command. The park staff responded with concerns about liability, civil disobedience, resource protection, etc. If the county staffed the park, access to facilities would be prohibited, and a video would be made of the volunteers’ activity.

Wednesday, October 9

“We petitioned the State of Utah, since it has a stronger authority than the counties,” explained Clayson. They asked Attorney General John Swallow to support them, as well as numerous others. The response was negative. There was a concern that the counties were over-stepping their bounds.

The Kane County Commission, represented by Commissioner Clayson, and numerous other involved parties, called for a teleconference with the governor’s office to plead their case.

The proposal didn’t fall on deaf ears, because Governor Herbert went to work to find funding to reopen the national parks. The plain fact is Utah’s national park tourism largely adds to state coffers!

“Our county appreciates the actions taken by the governor,” said Clayson. “We’re very grateful for the governor’s support and ideas.”

Thursday, October 10

Becky Lockhart, Speaker of the House, and Mike Mower of the governor’s office, announced at a press conference in St. George, that after consulting with Sally Jewell (head of the Department of the Interior), she was receptive to other resources paying for parks to be open ‘with’ park employees. Interesting to note – the $1.7 million for funding comes from the Utah Division of Natural Resources.

“This is a practical and temporary solution that will lessen the pain for some businesses and communities in Utah during this shutdown,” said Secretary Jewell in a press release. “We want to re-open all of our national parks as quickly as possible for everyone to enjoy, and call on Congress to pass a clean continuing resolution to open the government.”

Governor Herbert finished executing an agreement for the eight national parks to be opened temporarily for 10 days, beginning Friday, October 11, at 3 p.m. A special Utah Legislative Session was to begin October 16. Clayson said further funding of the parks will be on the agenda.

“The commission needs a huge pat on the back,” shares Kane County Travel Director Ken Gotzenberg. “The commission went the extra 10 miles for the county on this one.”

Kane County Travel Council/Visitor Information Center

The national park closures were a nightmare for a county almost entirely dependent on tourism (fourth in the state, with Garfield first). But Kane County addressed the problem, and hit the ground running with a proactive approach.

“The closure impacted local motels and restaurants dramatically,” said Travel Director Gotzenberg. He added, October is a key tourism month in Kane County due to senior visitation, fall color, and those wanting to visit the North Rim before its closure. (October 15 is the date when the concessionaire leaves. But the park will be open until December 1 or the first big snow.)

“At first we were affected by bus tour cancellations and then later individual trips. Most businesses were down 10-12 percent,” said Gotzenberg, of what happened post-shutdown.

The Kane County Visitor Information Center staff got proactive! The staff brainstormed and developed a list of places to visit or what you could do without national park access. “I am so proud of our crew. I can’t say enough good about them. They made this personal. People come here from around the world to spend their money; we want them to have a good vacation. Our staff made it a point to feature and focus on the best Utah sites outside of the parks. And, they were so good with people who came in to the Travel Center. Everyone left with a good feeling about Kanab.”

“We tried to give it (the closure) a positive spin,” said Assistant Director of Tourism Jennifer Sullivan. “We sent out mass e-mails and created an information pamphlet on what was available outside the parks as alternatives.”

Gotzenberg related one particular incidence of lemons into lemonade happening due to the shutdown. The Arizona Department of Tourism and Quantas Airlines had put together a fam (familiarization) tour for the Grand Canyon South Rim area. The participants, all top travel sales people, had nowhere to go since the park was closed. A call was made to the Kane County Travel Council concerning whether they had tours to offer. They quickly responded to the affirmative!

“We took them to Coral Pink, and hooked them up with James Gilcrest’s ATVs. We showed them the highlights of Kane County outside of the national parks!” said Gotzenberg. “Jennifer drove them to Best Friends. And then, our national parks opened! We took them to Zion. They were blown away by the beauty. I’m sure they’ll be developing tours for this area now.”

“The temporary funding for the parks was great news,” said Gotzenberg, but added that it was only for 10 days. “We’re just taking it a day at a time.”