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Utah County Offers To Take Over National Parks

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As the government shutdown keeps national parks closed, authorities in one southern Utah county are taking matters into their own hands.

Officials in San Juan County have proposed taking over national parks during the federal government shutdown in order to save the region’s tourism-reliant economy.

“How do we let local businesses starve to death?” Rick Bailey, the county fire marshal, asked National Public Radio (NPR).

San Juan is among several counties that have declared a state of emergency in response to the shutdown’s economic damage on local economies.

San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge and County Commissioner Phil Lyman told the Salt Lake Tribune that county officials proposed removing barricades and providing the necessary resources to run part of Canyonlands National Park, Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments, and Lake Powell – all part of the National Park system.

“This is not going to be a showdown or a standoff,” Eldredge said. “This is something that’s going to be done peacefully. We just want to take over as far as law enforcement, EMS, and search and rescue, and get those parks open.”

During an emergency meeting on Wednesday, commissioners decided to mobilize firefighters, EMTs, sheriff’s deputies, search and rescue volunteers, garbage trucks, portable toilets and three mobile command centers, NPR reported. County commissioners had planned to remove barricades at Natural Bridges National Monument as early as Thursday but decided to delay that move while Utah Governor Gary Herbert, a Republican, discusses the matter with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

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“Having [the state’s] backing and resources is important,” Rick Eldredge told the Tribune. “It’s as if we’ve had a natural disaster, like a flood. We have to petition the state for help to be able to cope with this and get tourism flowing again through our counties.”

Rick Bailey said that 70 percent of the county’s businesses depend on visitors to regional National Parks, Recreation Areas and Monuments, in addition to public lands managed by the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

“It’s really the economy of our county,” Lyman said. “We’re watching one of our prime months fade away from us. It’s really painful, and [the federal park officials] get that.”

County officials have told park superintendents their plans, and the last thing the county wants is for this to be a surprise, Lyman told the Tribune.

“We’re begging [park officials] for any information they’re willing to give us, and they’re passively resistant,” he said. “Philosophically, they may agree with what we’re doing, but they can’t come in and say, ‘Let’s work out a deal,’ and they can’t accept any help from the state.”

The National Park Service advised the county that the takeover would be against the law, although the Service did not say they would “make arrests or stop people,” Bailey said.

“We don’t want to threaten or intimidate federal employees,” an unidentified commissioner said in a recorded conference call, according to NPR. “We’re not strong-arming anybody. We’re just getting people into these places.”

In their Wednesday meeting, commissioners discussed staging photo ops and trying to maximize media attention. They said they would explain their takeover by saying “we as a county are trying to do what is in the best interests of the public.

Gov. Herbert also told reporters on Wednesday he is willing to utilize state funding and workers to open more of the state’s National Park areas and has asked President Obama to authorize state funding and/or staffing.

“This is just … common sense,” Herbert said. “And frankly we ought to be finding solutions to keep them open rather than saying why they have to be closed.”

Update: Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday night he had reached a deal with the U.S. Department of the Interior that will allow Utah to open the parks in its state – as long as the state pays for it. But it won’t be cheap and will cost about $166,000 a day, and the federal government says it won’t reimburse any of the money. The price could prevent some states from reopening their parks. In Arizona, where Grand Canyon National Park resides, a spokesman for Gov. Jan Brewer said the state will consider paying for reopening the park once it sees the costs – but that it wants to be reimbursed by the federal government.

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