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Utah’s national parks remain open during government shutdown

Utah is a paradise for a lover of the outdoors.  From hot deserts to a chilly alpine high point of 13,528 feet elevation above sea level, Utah has plenty of opportunity for boating, fishing, hiking, hunting, skiing, rock climbing and anything else done outside.  Considering the shear natural beauty and scale of undeveloped land, it’s not surprising that Utah is also home to 13 National Park Service Units, including five national parks and three national monuments administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Deseret News reports that there are 35,033,603 acres of federal land in Utah, making up 66.5% of the state as of 2012.  According to the National Park Service, it’s 13 units in Utah saw a total of 15,152,428 visitors in 2017 alone and that doesn’t include the National Monuments managed by the BLM.  Utah is also home to 44 of its own state parks, some of which are spectacular in their own right.  Utah was also until recently, host to Outdoor Retailer, the largest national trade show for outdoor retail companies.  That last part changed as the political fight over federal lands heated up after Trump was elected.  

Patagonia and other brands in the outdoor industry pushed to move the Outdoor Retailer Show from Salt Lake City Utah to Denver Colorado due to what was an unfriendly attitude by Utah’s state government towards federal land conservation.  Even as Utah enjoys more visitors to its parks than most of its neighbors, even as it profited from the Outdoor Retailer trade show, PBS reports that the state has done more than any other to win back control of federal lands.

In 2012, Utah legislature passed a law demanding the federal government give it back 30 million acres of land, in 2017 a Utah congressman introduced a bill to sell more than 4,600 square miles of federal land before pulling it.  After Trump’s administration proposed severely slashing Bear’s Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the government of Utah seemed to cheer.    

As late as November of this year, Deseret News reported that Utah legislators were planning on tallying up the amount of revenue that would be made if the state’s federal lands were managed privately.  After calculating the number, Utah planned to bill the federal government for the difference. This year, the US Department of the Interior already gave Utah $40.7 million in lieu of federal taxes, but the state’s government suspects the land managed by the department is worth much more.  Utah has a long history of opposition to the federal government, including federal lands. During the civil war, the US stationed troops in Utah because of the state’s suspect loyalty to the union.  As much as Utah seems to chafe over the federal management of its lands, something interesting has happened during the current partial government shutdown.

As Trump and Congress continue their stalemate over funding for his border wall, many national parks are closed, leaving employees in a difficult position.  USA Today reports that National Parks websites no longer have up to date information on conditions.  This means that you won’t have flood, fire or storm warnings on parks you may visit. Access may change without notice as well.  Trails, roads or other services may be closed without any warning. Besides this, many National Parks are simply completely closed.  Other parks have no trash or toilet service, some offer the golden opportunity for a free visit without staff to collect fees. Big Bend National Park in Texas posted signs that the park itself remains open during the shutdown but offers no visitor services, NPR reports.  

Some states have stepped in to fill the gaps left by the federal government.  Arizona is paying for trash services and trail snow removal crews in the iconic Grand Canyon National Park.  Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee is partially open thanks to the state.

Along with the others, some of Utah’s National Parks will remain open.  Arches, Bryce and Zion National Parks with have custodial services paid for by the state of Utah.  The Utah Office of Tourism is even updating information on the parks on its own website,  Not only National Parks are kept running in Utah, ski resorts are sometimes operated on US Forest Service land are to remain open and fully operational.  However, even Utah’s funding for parks is set to run out as costs pile up.

An article in the Salt Lake City Tribune worries about the consequences of keeping parks open to visitors with delayed emergency response times and lack of visitor services.  It’s interesting that in Utah the people and the government seem more interested in capitalizing on the land and protecting people from it than protection of the land.  The goal of environmentalism and perhaps conservation is to protect the environment itself and promote an intimate relationship between humans and that environment.

Sometimes intimate relationships are messy.  Instead of loving the land, the government of Utah seems to only understand profiting from it.  The parks that remain open in Utah remain open to make money, no other reason. As to the other parks with open gates, roads and trails made dangerous in the absence of rangers, I say enjoy the land but fear for its future.  I’d like to end this article with a quote from a man made famous in his irreverent love of the land in Utah and throughout the US southwest. In his book, Desert Solitaire, Ed Abbey wrote about people enjoying the outdoors:

“A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches – that is the right and privilege of any free American.”

If the government is set on anarchy, the least we can do is make the most of it, as Utah is soon set to join the rest of the nation in ending National Park Services.                                  

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer     

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