The Grand County Council voted 4-0 on Oct. 15 to form a three-person study committee that will develop operating guidelines in the event of a prolonged federal government shutdown.
Council members Patricia Holyoak, Jim Nyland and Elizabeth Tubbs were absent from the meeting.
The new committee, which includes council members Rory Paxman, Lynn Jackson and Nyland, will try to map out a process that could give the county the authority to reopen federally managed sites for the duration of a shutdown.
All five of Utah’s national parks, along with three other federal sites, are once again open to the public. But that’s only because Gov. Gary Herbert stepped forward with an infusion of operating money from the state. However, there’s no guarantee that state officials would be there to help out in the future, and Grand County Council member Ken Ballantyne said the county should be prepared for such possibilities.
“I think the only wise thing to do is to have a game plan if the situation repeats itself, which it likely could do,” he said.
Grand County Council chair Gene Ciarus suggested that the committee could take its time to come up with new guidelines, now that the parks are operating with state money.
“If it takes months, fine and dandy. There’s no emergency now,” he said. Jackson, a former U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employee, called the contingency plan a good idea.
“I hope that we will never have to use it,” he added.
His concern, he said, is that this issue is far more complex than simply collecting keys from federal employees and opening gates at national parks.
For one thing, the county has to consider the financial costs that even short-term management would carry. It also has to think about the potential liability issues that it could face in the event that someone were injured, he said.
While officials in other counties voiced support for the idea of taking over public lands that closed when the federal government shut down on Oct. 1, Jackson didn’t embrace the idea: “I think we’d have been sued by the federal government if we’d done that.”
People can’t just jump into those kinds of situations without considering the possible ramifications ahead of time, he said.