- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2014

When federal officials closed national parks during last year’s government shutdown, it meant nearly 8 million fewer visits to the parks and cost local communities more than $400 million in economic activity, the National Park Service said Monday.

The parks garnered an outsized amount of attention during the shutdown as park officials closed off open-air sites and barricaded parking lots, particularly around the nation’s capital. Critics accused the parks of making the 16-day shutdown more painful than it needed to be, and a handful of states even paid to reopen their biggest park sites early.

Nearly five months later, those states are still waiting for reimbursement from the federal government.

Grand Canyon National Park, which Arizona paid to have reopened a few days before the shutdown ended, likely lost more than 160,000 visitors and the surrounding area lost $17 million in visitor spending, the park service said in a report that compared October 2013 to the previous three years.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park reported the biggest drop, with nearly 330,000 fewer visitors than usual in October and a drop of $25.6 million in spending.

The National Park Service and Interior Department, which oversees the agency, said their report should show Congress and the public how important their operations are to local economies.

“The very unfortunate government shutdown of October had one silver lining, and that is communities realized just how much benefit they got from having national parks open,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

However, some parks reported increases in visitation during the shutdown. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park got a nearly $1.3 million boost in local economic impact from higher visitation this October.

The park service calculates that for every $1 invested in national parks in 2012, it paid back $10 in economic activity — food, gas sales, lodging and the like — near those sites.

The shutdown report excluded parks within the District of Columbia “due to varying access issues during the shutdown.”

Officials were roundly scolded for closing open-air monuments and memorials on the Mall, and some lawmakers argued that it took more manpower to keep the monuments closed than it did to open them.

A number of people were ticketed for trespassing in national parks during the shutdown, including river runners in the Grand Canyon and joggers or leaf-peepers at parks in the East.

Six states were so keen to have national park sites reopened that they arranged to pay for operations themselves. Utah paid nearly $1 million to have five national parks, three national monuments and one national recreation area opened six days early. The park service said that produced $10 million in economic benefits to nearby communities from 153,398 visitors who otherwise would have been shut out.

Arizona paid $465,000 to reopen the Grand Canyon five days early, helping 49,436 visitors who spent $5.1 million.

Messages seeking comment from the Arizona and Utah governors’ offices Monday afternoon weren’t immediately returned.

Ms. Jewell said that when she signed agreements allowing the states to pay for their parks to be reopened, there was no guarantee they would be reimbursed. She said it is up to Congress to decide whether to give back money to the states.

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