PHOENIX — The superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park said Thursday it will not reopen during the government shutdown, even if others come up with the operating cash.
Dave Uberuaga said the decision was made by the Department of Interior that running a federal park is a “core operation that can only be funded by federal appropriations.” The willingness of some state officials and private groups to finance day-to-day operations during the stalemate in Washington, he said, is irrelevant.
“Until we have federal appropriations, the National Parks Service is not opening any parks,” he said.
Uberuaga said this isn't something aimed only at the Grand Canyon, where there already have been offers of financial assistance.
“It's not the Statue of Liberty, it's not Grand Canyon, it's not the Washington Monument,” he told Capitol Media Services.
Uberuaga acknowledged that the last time government came to a standstill in 1995, then-Gov. Fife Symington negotiated a deal to provide $17,000 a day in state and private funds to the Department of Interior to keep at least part of the park open. Donors got reimbursed following the 21-day closure.
He said, though, things were different then.
“It was, I think, what I would call a negotiated agreement because of the individual pressure on the park,” Uberuaga said.
That could be an understatement.
During an earlier closure that same year, Symington showed up in Northern Arizona with National Guard troops, Department of Public Safety officers and staffers from the state Parks Department in tow.
“I marshaled the troops and basically said we're going to open the canyon and I threatened them to open the canyon,” he recalled on Thursday. “There was sort of a drama there.”
While Symington withdrew his forces, it did result in Ron Arberger, who was park superintendent at the time, paving the way for higher-level talks between Symington and officials at the Department of Interior.
That ultimately led to a written agreement to open the park to Mather Point, Grand Canyon Village and the hotels and concessions. But visitors were not allowed to hike into the canyon or float down the Colorado River.
“At that time it wasn't a bad decision,” Uberuaga said Thursday. “But it was something that we're not going to have go on this time.”
The position makes moot the $25,000 pledge by Red Feather Properties which runs a lodge in nearby Tusayan, along with claims by some state legislators the state should pony up the funds.
Current Gov. Jan Brewer earlier this week had shown no interest in the issue, saying the state had higher priorities. Since that time, Brewer said her office had made two proposals to the federal government but both had been “shot down.”
Uberuaga said the park normally gets between 16,000 and 18,000 day visitors at this time of year, going up as high as 20,000 on weekends. “We're getting into the peak of the hiking season,” he said.
He said occupancy at the park's approximately 1,000 hotel rooms tends to be full year round.
The last shutdown actually led several members of Congress to propose a measure authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to accept donations of qualified state employee services during any period of federal government shutdown. It got 254 votes, more than a majority — but not the two-thirds necessary to push through any measure without going through the normal procedures.