Grand Canyon to reopen Saturday; operating costs to paid for by State of Arizona - East Valley Tribune: Politics

Grand Canyon to reopen Saturday; operating costs to paid for by State of Arizona

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Posted: Friday, October 11, 2013 6:42 pm | Updated: 6:45 pm, Fri Oct 11, 2013.

The Grand Canyon National Park is set to reopen Saturday.

Under a deal hammered out Friday, Gov. Jan Brewer agreed to wire $651,000 to the Department of Interior. That's the amount the agency figures it takes to operate the park for seven days.

Park officials said the gates should be open by 8 a.m., though not everything will be operating fully.

But the state's 20 other national parks and monuments will remain closed during the federal government shutdown.

The deal came after Brewer dropped her initial demand that the state be allowed to fund only a partial operation of the park, as was done during the last government shutdown in 1995. Gubernatorial staffers had pegged that figure at close to $30,000 a day, versus the $93,000 price tag in the pact.

It also came after the governor no longer insisted that the Department of Interior guarantee that any funds Arizona puts up will be reimbursed once the federal government is operating again. Brian Androff, spokesman for the federal agency, said that was beyond the power of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Instead, gubernatorial press aide Andrew Wilder said Brewer will ask members of the state's congressional delegation to support special legislation.

That already is in the works. Arizona Republican Congressman Paul Gosar is cosponsor of legislation introduced Friday by a colleague from Wyoming to require that states which pony up the funds for park operations get reimbursed within 90 days of funds becoming available. And an aide to Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, whose district includes the canyon, said she supports the Gosar measure.

Gubernatorial press aide Andrew Wilder said the state will take $500,000 from the budget for the Arizona Office of Tourism, money he said was earmarked to promote the state. Another $200,000 was already appropriated by the town of Tusayan which sits on the park's south entrance and has been hard hit by the shutdown.

Wilder said there are funds within the state Parks Department. But he said it would take legislative approval to borrow them, something not necessary with the tourism dollars.

Less clear is what happens if there is no resolution to the federal budget by late next week.

The agreement allows the state to "donate'' additional funds to keep the park open beyond midnight next Friday night, with the requirement that minimum additional payments must be made in two-day packages of $186,000.

But if Brewer wants to keep the park open beyond next Friday, she may have to have money in hand long before that.

In signing the pact, the governor acknowledged the statement by Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, that it takes at least two days to shutter any park. And the agreement allows the federal agency to start phasing down operations "unless the state maintains a two-day balance in the donation account at all times.''

Wilder said questions of park operation beyond next Friday will not be addressed now.

"The state will continue to assess the situation and assess options for additional funding if necessary,'' he said.

One option is tapping private dollars.

Businesses in Tusayan had pledged close to $200,000 this week. But Wilder said Brewer was not considering those funds, at least not now.

"Those are commitments and that's great,'' he said.

"We certainly look forward to having that come through,'' Wilder continued. "But we can't count on that until it's there,'' especially with the requirement to immediately wire the dollars to Washington.

One thing that probably helped cement a deal is that $93,000 daily cost is about $19,000 less than Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga initially had estimated he would require to reopen.

The difference, said spokeswoman Kirby-Lynn Shedlowski, is that the park will be open on a "constrained staff schedule,'' with fewer workers than would normally be on duty. And the park's North Rim will be open only to day visitors, something that usually does not occur this early in the year.

But Shedlowski said the difference should be "fairly invisible'' to the approximately 18,000 visitors who come to the park each day at this time of year -- at least once operations are in full swing.

That could take a few days.

One of the most visible differences initially will be difficulty in getting a meal or a room in the park.

"It's going to be up to two days on the lodges,'' Shedlowski said.

"And it's going to be the same for food,'' she continued. "Now that it's a holiday weekend it's going to take them a little bit of time to get those deliveries in.''

But Shedlowski said the businesses in Tusayan have been open all along and should be well stocked.

Perhaps overstocked.

Clarinda Vail, manager of Red Feather Properties, said her 220-room hotel normally is close to 100 percent full, even at this time of the year. She said 70 to 75 percent of the rooms have been vacant since the government shut the park on Oct. 1.

Shedlowski also said it may take a few days to get all three bus routes through the park operating on a regular schedule while drivers are being called back.

The agreement contains some protections for the state.

For example, the Park Service has to use any cash it gets from the state only for reopening, operating and managing the park. There is a specific prohibition against using any of those dollars for capital improvement "or for other-than-routine maintenance.''

And if Congress gets its act together before next Friday, the state will get back any money the Park Service no longer needs.

The deal comes slight more than 24 hours after Jewell backed down from the Obama administration's initial refusal to even consider offers by states, suffering a loss of tourists and their dollars, to use their own funds to reopen the parks.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was first in line, wiring $1.67 million to the Department of Interior Friday. That 's enough for one week of operations at five national parks, including Bryce Canyon, Zions and Arches, along with two national monuments and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

The Utah dollars for that last site actually helps Arizona: Lake Powell straddles the border between the two states and two of the boat launches on the Arizona side near Page.

Ally Isom, Herbert's chief of staff, said her boss was convinced that the best way to get action was by personally contacting Jewell.

"So he phoned her directly and said, 'Surely, we can find a solution here,' '' Isom said. "And within 24 hours of an agreement, contracts were drawn up.''

Isom said Herbert, like Brewer, hopes to get reimbursed. But she said he also understands there is no promise from the Department of Interior that will happen.

"Sally Jewell made it very clear to the governor that she cannot obligate the federal government to repay us,'' Isom said. "But we feel pretty comfortable with the assurances from our congressional leaders that they're going to work to get us reimbursed.''

Isom said it also will help now that Arizona and other states are in the same position.

"So we will obviously lock arms with them and make sure the states get taken care of,'' she said.

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