The Grand County Council unanimously approved an emergency declaration on Oct. 8 due to the economic disruptions that followed last week’s closures of Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
“I think it’s a wise step we can take to help mitigate some of the effects that the closure of the [federal] government has on our local people [and] our local businesses,” Grand County Council Member Ken Ballantyne said.
The county’s commercial businesses alone have lost more than $2.6 million in revenue since the U.S. government shutdown took effect on Oct. 1, according to estimates from Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Marian DeLay. By her count, they’ll continue to lose $380,000 for each day that the two parks and other federally managed recreation areas in and around Grand County remain closed to visitors.
October turns out to be a crucial time of year for the county’s tourist industry, which is responsible for an estimated 76 percent of local economic activity during an average one-year period.
More than 90,000 visitors typically pass through Arches National Park this time of year, and the hunting season on other federally managed lands is in full swing, according to the county’s proclamation.
Most of those people also fill up motel rooms, restaurants and shops that employ local residents and generate substantial tax revenues for the county.
“This is a critical thing for our community,” Grand County Council Chairman Gene Ciarus said. “There are substantial dollars being lost due to the closures … People’s livelihoods are in jeopardy.”
The council’s action came less than 24 hours after county leaders from southern Utah and northern Arizona discussed the potentially significant toll that the federal shutdown is taking on local economies throughout the region. Commissioners in Washington County went on to pass an emergency declaration that served as the model for Grand County’s proclamation.
Regional leaders also explored the possible steps they could take to re-open national parks and other public lands on their own, barring a quick resolution to the partisan budget stalemate in Washington, D.C.
One such option could give county sheriffs the authority to open national park entryways to the public.
State law currently limits that authority to lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), according to a memo on the regional county meeting. But the counties could ask Gov. Gary Herbert to seek legislative changes that might extend those state-recognized powers to National Park Service lands, as well.
Ciarus cautioned that the council should wait and see how the governor responds to emergency proclamations from Grand County and its neighbors.
If Herbert doesn’t take any action and the shutdown continues indefinitely, Ciarus suggested that the council could review its options. But each of those would have financial impacts on the county, he said.
“Everything comes with a cost,” he added. “We just have to make a wise decision how we’re going to do that.”
Grand County’s neighbor to the south is hoping to act sooner rather than later.
San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman said on his official Facebook page that his county postponed its Oct. 9 plans to reopen national parks within its borders, but only by 24 hours.
Commissioners and sheriffs in other counties asked for the delay, and Lyman indicated that some now plan to act at the same time.
“There is a real power in unified action,” he said in the Facebook posting.