Mon, Jan. 20

Strings attached to fed offer to allow states to reopen parks

PHOENIX -- Federal officials said Thursday they're willing to reopen national parks with state dollars -- but only in a way that may make it financially impossible.

Blake Androff, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Interior, said his agency will "consider agreements with governors who indicate an interest and ability to fully fund National Parks Service personnel to reopen national parks in their states.' The next step, he said, is working out the details.

But Androff told Capitol Media Services that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will entertain only offers where states agree to open the entire park. He said proposals for partial reopening will not be considered.

Dave Uberuaga, superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, said the exact figure for full reopening is still being worked out. But he said it is "north of $100,000 a day.'

For the moment, that includes the North Rim, which remains open. Full shutdown does not occur until snows make it impassible, something that Uberuaga said did not occur last year until after Thanksgiving.

Andrew Wilder, spokesman for Gov. Jan Brewer, said while his boss is willing to find funds to open the gates, that all-or-nothing approach could make Jewell's offer meaningless.

"If that ends up being what their change in policy is, that would only serve to show how absolutely unserious they are in seeing the Grand Canyon reopen,' he said, calling the demand "unnecessary.'

"A partial reopen would accomplish what most people want, and that is getting tourists back into the park to see the bulk of what they're there to see, which is the majestic views of the Grand Canyon,' he said. And Wilder said there is precedent, with the Department of Interior agreeing to a $17,000-a-day deal from the state in 1995 to keep the park open only to Mather Point.

That's not the only roadblock.

Androff said the idea would be to have entrance fees collected in a state-financed park, just as they are now. But he said there is no guarantee that Arizona would get its money back once the federal government reopens, as happened in 1995.

"The donation would not be reimbursable, unless Congress passes legislation to do so,' he said.

And getting federal lawmakers to approve such a measure is far from a sure thing. Even U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, whose district includes the canyon, was unwilling to commit to pushing reimbursement legislation after the government reopens.

"I'd have to see how much that is and where we are,' she said. "We've got our own problems with the federal budget right now.'

But Kirkpatrick said while there may be some bugs to be worked out, she considers the offer to be "progress.'

"We're still pushing for a swift opening just because the economy is taking such a hard hit,' she said. And Kirkpatrick said she'll leave the details, including questions about finances, up to Brewer and governors of other states which have made similar requests to allow use of local funds.

"I don't know what their resources are,' she said. "They've asked us to open the door to this kind of negotiation, which we've done.'

The possibility of an all-or-nothing deal also concerns Tusayan Town Manager Will Wright where the council has pledged $200,000 to reopen the park.

"If we only reopen this thing for a few days, then we do actually more harm,' he said. "Then nobody will trust anything we come out with.'

Red Feather Properties, which owns a hotel in Tusayan, has pledged another $25,000 according to spokesman Mike Scerbo, with another $171,000 from other area businesses.

Wright figures that it might be possible to generate $1 million locally.

"And if the governor will put in some from the state, then we might be able to weather this for a few weeks until they work everything out in Washington,' he said.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said he's willing to support state funding. And he said that a bipartisan agreement ahead of time could make that happen in a one-day special session.

Kavanagh said he's not concerned there is no promise of reimbursement.

"I think the economic loss (from closure) is so great, and the chance of repayment so high, that it's a reasonable thing to do,' he said.

How much the state should provide, though, is another question -- especially if the only offer the federal government will accept is for full operation of the park.

"I'd have to see some really legitimate tax revenue figures from our budget people before I committed to that,' Kavanagh said.

In a report earlier this year, the National Park Service said the Grand Canyon's 4.3 million visitors a year spent more than $467 million and supported 7,361 jobs in Arizona in 2011, the most recent figures available.

Legislative budget staffers said they have no figures on how much that ends up putting directly and indirectly into state coffers through tax dollars.

Wilder said no one -- including Jewell who chatted with Brewer on Thursday -- has provided details of exactly what the Department of Interior is demanding. But Wilder said his boss has yet to be convinced that it makes sense to use money from Arizona taxpayers to reopen the whole park when what most visitors want is access to the area immediately around the lodge and Mather Point.

And Wilder said it's a "harder case' for Brewer to use state tax dollars without some assurance of reimbursement, as happened in 1995.

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