How Arizona and the Federal Government Could Keep the Grand Canyon Open
Humans have been in the Grand Canyon for at least 4,000 years. Mother Nature can’t keep us out, but now our Federal Government has. In 1995, many of the current folks here at HighGround were then working for Governor Fife Symington when the State of Arizona made the effort to keep the Grand Canyon National Park open during the last Government shutdown. Below is the testimony that Governor Fife Symington provided to the House Natural Resources Committee in 1995. What he had to say then is still very relevant today.
PREPARED TESTIMONY OF FIFE SYMINGTON GOVERNOR OF ARIZONA BEFORE THE HOUSE RESOURCES COMMITTEE ON HR 2677 FOR HOUSE RESOURCES COMMITTEE
Thank you for the chance to come here today to discuss the merits of HR 2677. I’ve had the chance to review this bill and the bill drafted by Arizona Senators Kyl and McCain. I applaud both chambers for responding so quickly to this problem, and I am confident that we can keep the parks open in the event of a second budget impasse. Today, I’d like to outline for you the importance of Grand Canyon National Park to Arizona, recap the steps we took last month in a bid to reopen the park, and underscore some of the critical questions the legislation needs to answer.
In the wake of the federal government shutdown last month, some folks asked in jest: if the news media hadn’t told you the government was closed, would you have noticed? While this question reflects a healthy indifference toward both Washington and the press, the answer unfortunately for us in Arizona was yes.
The administration’s decision to close Grand Canyon National Park on November 15th, two days after the general government shutdown, was a jolt to many in my state. We estimate that visitors to the Grand Canyon spend $250 million in Arizona each year. This activity sustains communities in Northern Arizona and generates about $12.5 million annually in sales tax revenue for the state, roughly the cost to operate the park.
Besides the economic consequences of the closure, I was disturbed by the way it hit a number of individuals. Visitors come to see the canyon from around the country and the world. We in Arizona pride ourselves on being good hosts. Thus, I really was annoyed when a couple from New Zealand who had spent $10,000 to visit the park was turned away at the gate. It’s a little arrogant I think to seal off one of the natural wonders of the world while our federal government squabbles over its continuing fiscal excess.
In response to the closure, Arizona asked the federal government to let us reopen the park using state resources. We backed up our offer by going to the park the next day with the manpower necessary to do the job. The caravan I led on November 17th included State Parks staff, employees from our Department of Public Safety, and unarmed National Guardsmen. We had come to work, not to fight.
Upon arrival, I met with Park Superintendent Rob Arnberger. He was somewhat uneasy about our campaign. However, he relaxed enough to point out to me a fact that clearly illustrates the absurdity of this episode. He mentioned that there is evidence of human habitation of the Grand Canyon that goes back 4,000 years. So while Mother Nature could not in 4 millennia keep people out of the Canyon, the federal government managed to drive them out last month.
While we were at the park, the administration declined our offer to reopen it. They cited several concerns. I urge you today to view these as legitimate but surmountable obstacles. I think we can craft legislation to keep the parks open that addresses these issues. Please consider these points as you go into mark-up.
The first hurdle cited by the Interior Department in rejecting my offer involved the responsibility of the Secretary to operate parks in “a safe and sound manner, consistent with federal law and regulations, and to manage their resources in such a way as to preserve them for future generations.” Legislation should give states an option. Let us open parks by paying the salaries and benefits of federal employees or by using state employees. I am concerned that the Department is going to urge you to bar the use of state employees by establishing arbitrary standards of experience or training. Don’t buy into this Washington-knows-best mentality.
In connection with this issue, please also consider the opportunities we have to serve the public through partial reopenings of various parks. Consider, for example, the possibilities at Grand Canyon National Park. The federal government had the flexibility during the first two days of the budget deadlock to keep the park open but close the visitors’ center. In the event of a second budget impasse this month, the state of Arizona might at a minimum reopen Mather Point. Please turn your attention to the map of the park we’ve provided. During last month’s budget impasse, the federal government blocked access to the road that goes out to this overlook. Removing this roadblock and allowing visitors to enjoy perhaps the best view of the canyon, as shown in the picture before you, would not be hard. It would not entail putting the full contingent of 200 or so “non- essential” park employees back on the job. It would require only a handful of employees in relatively simple positions.
A second objection raised by the Interior Department involves the Antideficiency Act. Under this law, the federal government cannot obligate funds that have not been appropriated. On the basis of this, the Department rejected our offer to reopen the Grand Canyon National Park because we did not discuss covering the incremental costs of things such as power and water supplies arising from an expansion of park operations beyond the “essential” level. This objection highlights only a minor flaw in our original proposal, as non-salary expenses account for only about 10 percent of the park’s operating budget. I propose that you consider adding these infrastructure costs to the definition of essential services, so the Interior Department can keep paying them. Alternatively, at least let states cover these costs along with salaries when making a bid to keep a park open.
The third problem the Department had with Arizona’s offer concerned liability at times when a state would provide services to the federal government. I think we can deal with this by clarifying the issue in legislation. One acceptable solution that I understand is taking shape would involve indemnification of a state for any liability to the United States arising from the actions of a state employee. In any case, I think our society is eventually going to paralyze itself with fears and threats about legal liability. When God gave us the Grand Canyon, I don’t think he ever intended for the lawyers to rope it off and secret it away.
In addition to addressing the Administration’s concerns, I would ask you to consider in legislation the issue of compensating states for expenses. This could be done through a fee sharing arrangement as we had proposed or through reimbursement once the federal government resumes normal operations.
Last week, at a meeting of the Western Governors’ Association, we passed a resolution in support of your efforts to keep the parks open. Because the west is home to most of the key holdings of the National Park System, we need to be heard on this issue. In our view, the decision to close the parks was a good sign of the need to transfer responsibility for important matters closer to home.
I urge you to move this bill forward promptly, so we can be prepared to keep the parks open in case budget talks again deadlock.
Thank you again for the opportunity to testify.