As I walked up from the Kolb Studio and arrived at the El Tovar on the South Rim, the Grand Canyon’s Park Superintendent greeted me with a broad smile and a gentle fist bump. Dave Uberuaga’s great delight over the reopening of Arizona’s treasured landmark emanated from him like a beacon. We joined a crowd of perhaps 100 individuals–park rangers, other park employees, community leaders, and tourists—who’d begun to assemble in anticipation of the arrival of Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer.
Brewer emerged from the hotel, stepped up to a podium that bore the emblem of the National Park Service, and uttered her first words: “Right in the sun. Feels good. Arizona sun . . . We have reopened the Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World! The Grand Canyon is open for business. We just refused to let wrong-headed policies deny people the use of this park.”
Just over 400 national parks, recreation areas and monuments—including Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone—were closed on October 1 because of the government shutdown. More than 20,000 National Park Service employees were then furloughed along with thousands of other individuals who work for the parks’ hotels, restaurants, retail shops, outdoor outfitters, tours, and transportation companies.
The state of Arizona has committed $93,000 a day, for a total of $651,000, to keep the park open through October 18. Tusayan Mayor Greg Bryan joined the Governor at the podium and handed her a check for $426,500 on behalf of the businesses in the gateway community that sits just outside the south entrance to the park. Bryan noted that, through the 11 days of the shutdown, his town had lost millions in revenue. Superintendent Uberuaga estimated river operators, alone, lost $900,000 over these days.
Four other states have also stepped up to reopen the national parks within their borders. Utah is spending $1.67 million to keep five of its national parks open for 10 days. The Statue of Liberty will reopen today thanks to the state of New York. Colorado is chipping in $360,000 to reopen Rocky Mountain National Park and South Dakota will reopen Mount Rushmore on Monday. Legislation has been introduced, by some members of Congress, to refund these state dollars within 90 days, but nothing is assured at this point.
Some 18,000 people on average visit the Grand Canyon each day at this time of year. On the Saturday of reopening, we saw a steady stream of visitors who were absolutely thrilled at being able to see the canyon. I chatted with one family who, after saving for two years to fund a 60th birthday trip for Dad, had landed in Denver excitedly looking forward to seeing many of the national parks. The only park they were able to visit before their flight back to England was Grand Canyon.
Other individuals told me how they’d waited in hotels outside the park hoping the announcement of the reopening would come in time for them to get in before they had to return home. Still others had given up hope of seeing the canyon but, when they heard the news on TV on the evening of October 10, turned their vehicles around to make the dash to the park. I had conversations throughout the day with folks from dozens of countries and dozens of states. I was delighted to hear so many speak so elatedly about their visit.
The closure had not only spoiled the dreams of the many who save for years to visit the national parks; the closure had also proved devastating for many who depend on receiving regular paychecks from the parks. A community of 2,000 to 3,000 live and work, for example, in Grand Canyon and the hardship for some had been severe enough to prompt St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix to deliver 600 boxes of non-perishables and additional quantities of bread and produce. Xanterra, one of the largest employers in the park, has been feeding its furloughed employees three meals a day during the shutdown. The Grand Canyon Association, the park’s non-profit partner and the organization for which I work, has managed thus far to keep its people steadily employed doing a variety of projects during the shutdown.
During the press conference, Brewer was asked if she expects any checks anytime soon from the national government. She replied with unveiled derision, “Uh, no.” But, she added, “Arizona should not have to pay the tab; that’s the responsibility of the national government.”
The final question field by Brewer was posed by a woman who, through tears, hinted at the challenges she has faced in taking care of her family through the shutdown. “How am I supposed to pay my bills?” she asked.
Brewer replied, “Contact your congressional delegation and the federal government. The President and Congress should step up. The state is stepping up [by reopening the park]. If this is not resolved, we are going to be facing probably a calamity.”
For a video of the press conference, see: