SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert reached a breakthrough with federal officials to reopen Utah’s five national parks, his office said Thursday.
Utah would have to use its own money to staff the parks, and it will cost $50,000 a day to operate just one of them, Zion National Park, said Ally Isom, Herbert’s deputy chief of staff.
It’s not clear if the federal government would reimburse Utah. Isom said that and other details need to be worked out, and that the Utah Legislature would have to convene in special session to appropriate the money.
The Obama administration said earlier Thursday that it will allow states to use their own money to reopen some national parks that have been closed because of the government shutdown. Governors in at least four states — including Arizona, Colorado and South Dakota — have asked for the authority.
Herbert has been working with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in phone conversations that started Wednesday and continued Thursday, Isom said.
“We reached a breakthrough agreement to open the national parks, but the state has to work out some details with Legislature and our congressional delegation,” she said.
Herbert asked Jewell to pay back Utah for loaning the money to operate parks. Jewell said she didn’t have the authority to obligate the government with debt, and Utah will carry that request to Congress, Isom said.
Utah has $288 million in its rainy-day fund that the Legislature could make available to pay federal salaries at the parks, which were shut down Oct. 1.
State and county officials have been making noise about dismantling barricades to occupy the closed parks. Herbert doesn’t support it — “we’re law-abiding people in Utah,” he said Wednesday. But one state official said Thursday’s development won’t stop plans for a protest march Saturday into Zion National Park.
“We’re just going to walk through the park,” said State Sen. Stephen Urqhart, R-St. George. “I’m happy people are talking. I’m hailing all sides,” but he said he was fed up with the federal government for a number of reasons.
Urqhart said his group will “just walk through” the fee station at Zion. He was uncertain how park rangers would respond.
“They should just wave hello to us,” Urqhart said. “I’m bringing them doughnuts and hot chocolate. This isn’t their fault. This is our quarrel with federal government.”
Another elected official said San Juan County will stand down from a threat to occupy Natural Bridges National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
“I’m thrilled to get these parks back open. That was our main objective. I’m proud of Governor Herbert stepping up,” County Commissioner Phil Lyman told The Salt Lake Tribune by phone Thursday from Hall’s Crossing on Lake Powell. “We would have been opening those today.”
Businesses in gateway communities outside Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks say the closure was ruining them during the popular fall tourist season. The redrock parks are broiling in summer.