State, local funding opens parks
by Nathaniel Smith
The Times-Independent
Jan 17, 2019 | 2741 views | 0 0 comments | 108 108 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A park ranger closes the gate after entering Arches National Park on the morning of Jan. 11 while state transportation workers continued efforts to clear the road of snow.
Photo by Doug McMurdo
A park ranger closes the gate after entering Arches National Park on the morning of Jan. 11 while state transportation workers continued efforts to clear the road of snow. Photo by Doug McMurdo
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Though the partial shutdown of the federal government drags on indefinitely, Arches and Island in the Sky have reopened to visitors, thanks to help from the State of Utah and a local nonprofit organization. Park roads had been plowed as of last weekend and the two visitor centers were being staffed, following more than a week of closures.

Moab’s two nearby parks remained accessible for the first ten days of the shutdown, with money from the Utah Office of Tourism keeping the Arches visitor center open. However, a snowstorm that coincided with a lapse in state funding forced officials to shutter both parks as the calendar flipped to 2019. With no resources or personnel to plow the snow-covered roads, the National Park Service had no choice but to close the gates.

Roads remained closed until Jan. 12 in Arches and Jan. 13 for Canyonlands, when workers from the Utah Department of Transportation finished clearing the roads and parking areas. UDOT dispatched four plows to the Moab area, two to Arches and two to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands.

UDOT promised assistance to each of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks for the duration of the shutdown, reported The Salt Lake Tribune. “We see national parks as part of our state’s identity and want to make sure visitors are having a pleasant experience,” UDOT spokesman John Gleason said.

As visitors gained entry into the parks, an agreement was made between Canyonlands Natural History Association and the Park Service to staff the visitor centers at Arches and Island in the Sky. Roxanne Bierman, executive director of CNHA, said the organization’s eight-member board of directors unanimously decided to support the Park Service.

Explaining the board’s rationale, Bierman said, “We want to help the Park Service preserve the natural resources. If they’re going to have the gates open and have visitors into the park, then we’re trying to be there for them to provide information for safety and for preservation.” Bierman noted it will be important to continue to let visitors know what they can and cannot do in the park as well as to provide vital information about road conditions and other factors that could affect their trip.

Bierman estimated that keeping both visitor centers open costs CNHA about $2,000 a day, not including wages of CNHA’s employees working in the bookstores within the visitor centers. She said the agreement is similar to the one made between the Park Service and the State of Utah and that it includes “no expectation of reimbursement.”

Bierman pointed out that the Park Service is now able to use reserve funds from entrance fee revenue to pay for basic operational costs like maintenance, trash pick-up and restroom cleaning. Fees collected under Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act cannot be used for visitor centers or other interpretive services, said Bierman. Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt made the controversial decision 16 days into the shutdown to allow parks to dip into their reserve funds to pay for rudimentary services. The Salt Lake Tribune noted those funds were previously meant to go towards visitor services and that critics contend using the fees now may hurt the parks down the road, given the massive maintenance backlog of the NPS.

In addition to dipping into reserve funds to maintain basic visitor services, the Park Service is not collecting entrance fees from those who are still visiting. Fortunately, with the shutdown occurring during Moab’s slowest season, there is relatively less revenue being lost. PT Lathrop, an NPS supervisor of Interpretation and Visitor Services, estimated that in January of 2018, an average day would bring about 450 visitors. Lathrop also noted that the park was “not even close to being fully staffed.”

The Park Service has posted intermittent updates on the Arches webpage and twitter account. One post states the Arches visitor is operating under its normal winter hours, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and that “Rangers will be on duty to answer questions, but may not be able to offer all services.” Another post warns, “Sidewalks will be icy and slippery. Expect icy conditions on all trails. Traction devices are essential for all hikers.”

While the accounts may be updated with emergency information, the Park Service notes that the accounts will not be monitored and it will not respond to questions.

Elaine Gizler, executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council, said lots of visitors have contacted her office looking for information during the park closures. She said her staff warned tourists about how the bad weather makes traveling in the parks difficult and that they suggested other options like Dead Horse Point State Park, the area’s scenic byways and dinosaur track sites like Mill Canyon.

Gizler noted that the Travel Council has continued its advertising and promotion efforts despite the uncertainty surrounding the parks. “We’re trying to convince people to stay,” she said, noting how some visitors to Moab cancelled or cut their trips short due to the parks being closed. Gizler said the Travel Council canvassed local hotels and found that many of them “were experiencing cancellations and people leaving early.”

The Travel Council is telling people the parks have reopened, while also making sure they know they need to exercise extra caution due to the shortage of emergency services, said Gizler. She claimed, “We will advise people when we know the weather conditions because we really don’t want to encourage people to go into the park if the roads are snow-covered and icy.”

Gizler mentioned that she heard the natural history association for Bryce Canyon has agreed to support that park being open at least until March if need be. She also thanked CNHA and the State of Utah for their efforts to keep Arches and Island in the Sky open. “It’s wonderful,” Gizler said, “especially for visitors who have traveled thousands of miles to come here.”

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