ST. GEORGE — As a partial shutdown of the federal government continues well into its second week, local officials are working to keep Zion National Park open for at least another week.
As many federally managed parks have been forced to close their boundaries to all visitors, Zion has remained partially operational thanks to funding from the state of Utah and the Zion Forever Project. However, that funding runs out Saturday.
Assuming the shutdown continues past Saturday, St. George Mayor Jon Pike announced Thursday that plans are in place to keep the park partially operational for an additional week — until Jan. 12.
The cost to keep the park operational on a “bare-bones” level will be split four ways among the city, Washington County, the Utah Office of Tourism and continuing support from the nonprofit Zion Forever Project.
“We have said, ‘Look, this is significant for us,’” Pike said. “It’s important to us to make sure that we maintain at least some basic level to keep that park open.”
Each entity is pledging $7,327 – a total of $29,308 – to keep some park rangers on duty and allow restrooms to remain open and trash collection to continue, along with some other basic services.
Lyman Hafen, executive director of the Zion Forever Project, said their main concern is “the welfare and the well-being of this great treasure.”
“(We’re) trying to do the best we can to not only give the visitor a good experience but also maintain and sustain the park itself during this time,” Hafen said.
As long as the shutdown continues, entrance fees will not be collected and backcountry permits will not be issued. Whether the shuttle system remains operational or visitor centers stay open past Saturday has yet to be announced.
“With the issues with the partial government shutdown, it’s left our national parks in some pretty difficult situations,” Pike said.
The shutdown has furloughed around 800,000 federal employees, including those working for the U.S. Department of the Interior in the National Park Service. Many parks have been forced to curtail services and close park entrances in the face of trash buildup, reckless behavior on the part of some visitors and scattered human waste. However, Hafen said things aren’t as bad at Zion.
“We’ve seen reports of really sad situations across the country, and we feel fortunate that here in Zion, at least for the most part, we’ve been able to stay on top of things,” Hafen said. “But you have to give credit to the visitors too, because they’re being good stewards and are trying to treat the park the way it ought to be treated.”
While Zion’s visitation numbers during the shutdown are not yet available, Hafen estimates that the park has seen the same number of visitors as it normally would the first week of January, possibly more. But without charging entrance fees, the park stands to lose an estimated $500,000 in gate revenue – money that helps pay for shuttle services and other park operations.
State, city and county officials cite the importance of tourism on the Southern Utah economy as one of the driving factors in keeping Zion open on some level.
“We are doing our part to help,” Pike said. “I think that’s important to us for many reasons, but of course, the least of which is not our businesses here – our restaurants and hotels who are housing people who have made plans to come to the park even during the off-season.”
St. George’s monetary contribution will come from the city’s Economic Development Fund, and Washington County’s donation will be drawn from transient room tax revenue.
“We had some excess funds there, so we don’t have to make any changes to our budget at this point,” Pike said.
If the shutdown still isn’t resolved by Jan 12, Pike said the City Council might consider additional funding.
Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox said the county will consider continuing to offer additional funding on a week-by-week basis, depending on the number of visitors and whether the other three entities will contribute.
“I think we need to kind of have an idea of how many guests are visiting the park and how many people are coming to St. George, coming to the county, and making sure that those dollars we’re investing are being well invested,” Cox said.
St. George News reporter Mikayla Shoup contributed to this report.
Updated Jan. 4 at 9 a.m. with comments from Lyman Hafen and Dean Cox.
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