Park closures would deliver economic blow to Utah

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — With five national parks and seven national monuments, Utah stands to lose big if the federal government shuts down Friday night amid failed budget talks. Tourism officials say they could lose millions of dollars in visitor revenue if the parks close as families with kids on spring break change their plans and head elsewhere. Business owners in small towns like Springdale in southern Utah, with just about 500 residents – a gateway to Zion National Park – say closures would severely cut into the start of their busy season. About 2.6 million people visit Zion each year, with the numbers starting to increase around now. “Our town relies completely on tourism, so closing the national parks would be a huge blow to our economy,” town manager Rick Wixom said Wednesday. “The government always talks about job growth, but doing this would hurt the economy in a lot of small cities. It would be a step backward.” Utah is home to some of the nation’s most iconic national parks, including Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef. As the parks in southern Utah gear up for their peak season, which starts around Easter, locals are worried the potential closures – or just talk about them – will scare away tourists. “We have tour groups coming from all over the world, so this could be a huge deterrent for their visit,” said Melva Benson, general manager of the Majestic View Lodge in Springdale. “Even when there was road construction in the parks, tourists would be hesitant about coming.” In 1995, Wixom said, when parks closed for nearly a month due to a federal government shutdown, visitors called weeks after the parks had reopened to ask if they were operating. Business owners are also upset that the potential closure would happen at a time when tourists are starting to return as the weather warms. In 2010, more than 6 million people visited national parks in Utah, and visitation from January through February of this year was up nearly 12 percent from the previous year, according to the state Office of Tourism. In Moab, a gateway community to Canyonlands and Arches national parks, officials fear they could see millions of dollars in losses if the closures last more than a few days, said Ken Davey, the town’s economic development specialist. “During our busiest months from April to July, Moab sees up to 100,000 visitors a month,” Davey said. “The closures would definitely have a negative impact on businesses here.” Officials say it’s still not clear how much access visitors will have to the parks if the closures do occur, but they say numerous hiking, biking and off-road activities outside the parks would hopefully remain a draw. “We offer canyoneering and Jeep tours outside of the park, but most tourists who come here also want to visit Zion, as well,” said Jill Woods, who owns Zion Rock and Mountain Guides in Springdale. City officials are looking for ways to keep the tourists coming, even considering gathering up volunteers to help run some of the park’s essential services. “We remain hopeful that there will not be a government shutdown,” the U.S. Interior Department said in a statement. “However, as President Obama stated, in the unfortunate event there is a shutdown, the National Park System will be closed.”

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