On Saturday, the barricades at Utah's Natural Bridges National Monument will disappear, allowing visitors to return to the tourist draw despite the ongoing federal government shutdown. They will come down at Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, Arizona's Grand Canyon and New York's Statue of Liberty.
What began as a sort of modern Sagebrush Rebellion -- with Utah county commissioners threatening to bring in a posse and dismantle federal barricades themselves -- has become an intense negotiation between Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and governors across the nation, who are eager to reopen public lands that generate valuable tourism revenue.
The push by some of the most conservative governors to get federal workers back on the job comes as President Barack Obama and congressional leaders struggle with how to resolve the budget impasse.
In an interview Friday, Utah's Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said he and Ms. Jewell worked out the agreement in the course of three or four conversations in recent days. After initially seeking permission to reopen the park and staff it with volunteers and others provided by the state, he agreed to pay for federal employees to return, in order to revive the tourism that sustains several local communities near federal lands.
"This is, for them, their livelihoods. It's not just a little bit of it; it's all of it," said Mr. Herbert, adding that he has gotten calls from governors around the country seeking his advice. "And it's seasonal. Once you lose October, you can't make it up in January."
By Friday night, Ms. Jewell managed to strike deals with leaders in four states to reopen iconic sites, with states fronting the money to operate them.
National Park Service director Jon Jarvis signed an agreement with the state to provide nearly $1.7 million for 10 days of operation at eight federal properties: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks, along with Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Cedar Breaks and Natural Bridges national monuments.
Colorado signed a similar pact, offering to pay the federal government $362,700 to reopen Rocky Mountain National Park for 10 days. Arizona will pay $651,000 to operate the Grand Canyon for seven days, while New York agreed to pay $369,300 to reopen the Statue of Liberty for six days.
All four states will likely seek reimbursement from the federal government once the shutdown ends, but such payments would have to be specifically authorized by Congress.
While the Park Service had originally resisted the idea of accepting donations from outside groups or individual states to reopen sites, the Interior Department reversed course as the shutdown dragged on, and state and local leaders warned that their economies were in peril. Five Utah counties declared a state of emergency in the wake of the parks' closures.
On Thursday, Ms. Jewell spoke with Mr. Herbert and three other governors: Republicans Jan Brewer and Dennis Daugaard of Arizona and South Dakota, respectively, and Democrat John Hickenlooper of Colorado. All raised the idea of funding Park Service operations in their states.
"The Interior Department has begun conversations about how to proceed as expeditiously as current limited resources allow," Interior spokesman Blake Androff said in a statement. "We continue to call on Congress to act swiftly to enact appropriations for the entire government, so that we can re-open all 401 national parks for the American people."
Earlier in the week, some local officials were preparing for combat. Utah's San Juan County commissioners threatened to remove the barricades at Natural Bridges National Monument. Washington County commissioner Alan Gardner -- whose county includes part of Zion National Park -- convened a meeting of a dozen Utah and Arizona county officials in an effort to pressure Mr. Obama to reopen the park system.
Pat Cluff, mayor of Springdale, Utah, which abuts Zion, said she was "elated" that the park began to reopen Friday morning during a traditionally busy season for her town's hotels, restaurants and art galleries. The mayor said the town has lost 40 percent to 60 percent of its business during the government shutdown.
During the federal shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, only one national park, Grand Canyon, was allowed to reopen after Republican then-Gov. Fife Symington mobilized the state National Guard and threatened to physically take over parts of the South Rim.
First Published October 11, 2013 8:00 PM