March 20th, 2014
03:29 PM ET
4 years ago

Congress seeking refunds for parks affected by shutdown

(CNN) – Spring officially starts Thursday. And as the snow melts, waterfalls gush, and plants begin to bloom, the country's national park system once again becomes a playground for millions eager to get back outside after a long, brutal winter.

Hundreds of those park sites were closed for more than two weeks during the federal government shutdown last fall. Five months later, some states are still dealing with unresolved financial costs related to the closures.

During the second week of the 16-day shutdown, six states tapped into their own coffers to pay the federal government about $2 million to reopen several locations–and those states are still waiting to get their money back.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a bill last week that would reimburse the states, but the bill's future is uncertain.

Opinion: Parks take the hit for Congress' failure

The shutdown started at the beginning of October, a time known as the fall "shoulder season" when tourists flock to national parks before the off-peak period kicks in. Acadia National Park in Maine especially gets busy in October for its fall foliage, while park guests in the American Southwest want to experience the desert climate in the cooler weather.

All told, the National Park Service closed 401 locations–including the 59 specially designated national parks–across the country and furloughed more than 20,000 employees. Businesses that rely on park tourism lost an estimated $500 million in visitor spending, according to a report by the Office of Management and Budget.

Worried about the crippling effects the closed parks were having on local economies, several governors reached an agreement to pay the NPS to put staff back into park sites and manage the locations as normal.

Arizona, Colorado, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah each doled out cash to the federal government to open 13 sites from a range of one to five days, until the shutdown ended on October 16.

The states wired money to the NPS under the stipulation that reimbursement could only come with Congressional approval.

Tennessee paid $60,100 to reopen Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the country with more than 9.35 million visitors last year.

"The Smokies closing was like a BP oil spill for the Gulf, especially for places like Sevier and Blount counties, where the success of many small businesses relies on our country's most-visited national park," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, said in a statement.

Of the six states, Utah paid the most, dishing out $999,432 to open parks for six days.

As with other funds spent during the shutdown, however, Congress was under no obligation to pay back the states.

"The states knew there was no guarantee they would be reimbursed, but they judged that risk to be worth taking in light of the enormous economic importance of national parks to state and local economies," said Theresa Pierno, the chief operating officer of the National Parks Conservation Association.

She added that Utah saw a return of 10:1 on the money it invested.

Months later, Congress still working on repayment

The new piece of legislation isn't the first attempt by lawmakers to reclaim federal funds for their states. A similar bill was introduced in the House and passed by the Natural Resources Committee by a voice vote in December, but it hasn't been taken up on the floor.

Republican leadership aides said the bill is still being reviewed and they have nothing new to announce for the schedule at this point.

A Senate version of the House bill, introduced by Alexander and co-sponsored by fellow Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado, was referred to committee last fall and was awaiting consideration when the new bill was introduced last week.

How are the two bills different?

The new legislation has more sponsors. Introduced by GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, the bill is also backed by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Mike Lee of Utah, and Bob Corker of Tennessee. That's in addition to the four senators who co-sponsored the earlier bill.

Unlike the previous bill, the new legislation includes what's known as a "pay-for," a provision that explains where the $2 million would come from–making its prospects for moving ahead much higher. The senators propose that the National Park Service should foot the bill.

Rhea Suh, assistant secretary for policy, budget and management at the Interior Department, which oversees the NPS, said she would support reimbursing the states if Congress approved such legislation. Her support came in a written statement last month to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

She's currently awaiting confirmation to a different post at the department–assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks.

"If confirmed, I commit to working with you and to other Members of Congress on legislation that would authorize reimbursement to the states for these donated funds," she wrote.

Sponsors of the new bill also hope to bypass the committee and bring the measure directly to the Senate floor.

But even if it does pass, it would still need to go through the House.

'Symbol for the entire government'

The national parks system became the face of the shutdown last fall. Outrage over "closed" signs and barricades at popular sites, reminded Americans again just how much they love their parks, a system that's often called "America's best idea."

As former NPS Director Denis Galvin testified in a House hearing in October, the parks receive outsized attention during a shutdown and "become the symbol for the entire government."

"They are an easy media target with powerful visual images and dozens of examples of unintended consequences," he said. "Yet the NPS budget is 1/15th of one percent of the total federal budget."

This wasn't the first time dysfunction in Washington led to such closures, and few believe it will be the last.

The previous major shutdown occurred in 1995-1996 during the winter, a far less busy time for most national parks. But thousands were still furloughed. The National Parks Conservation Association estimates local businesses lost $14 million per day, and parks were closed for 27 days.

Negotiations to have some states reopen national parks, like the agreements reached last fall, were cut short when the government itself got back to business.

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Rudy NYC

    How much did the government shutdown cost last year? Remember when Pres. Bush declared a national day of memorial in honor of former Pres. Ronald Reagan's funeral for all government workers? That alone was said to have cost over a billion dollars.

    March 20, 2014 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  2. sonny chapman

    Send the damn bill to John Boehner & the Repub Party who HATES ALL Govt.!!

    March 20, 2014 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  3. sonny chapman

    I wonder if THIS Story will make it to Fox News ??

    March 20, 2014 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  4. salty dog

    Again, the gop adds insult to injury, by admitting they recognize the local economy depends on the Parks they closed for revenue, priceless. Tired of being insulted yet, you should be by now.

    March 20, 2014 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  5. Rick McDaniel

    Obama did those closures to make his point........he will punish any and all Americans, when he does NOT get his way.

    March 20, 2014 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  6. salty dog

    And how many rwnj went on complaining about the workers crying when they will be paid for sitting home, I guess I just don't have what it takes to be a Republican, thank god.

    March 20, 2014 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  7. salty dog

    And how about this liberal media, the headlines are to make you think the Democrats are the hold up, just plain sad.

    March 20, 2014 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  8. wendel

    totally stupid republican congress shuts down the government causing the problem now they want to pass a bill to pay the parks for what they lost. How screwed up is this, So in other words republicans are spending more money . Isn't this one of the things they complain about?? What part of the budget will this come from?? Or will they just take it out of a food or unemployment program. What a bunch of idiots. The republican party is made up of a bunch of jerks. Vote these trolls out.

    March 20, 2014 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  9. Wake up People! Many Rivers to cross.....

    Send the bill to the GOP ATTN: Turd Cruz. They campaigned on it and followed through with it. Then turned around and blamed the POTUS.

    March 20, 2014 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  10. Rudy NYC

    sonny chapman

    I wonder if THIS Story will make it to Fox News ??
    ....not before they put it threw the washing machine and the wringer.

    March 20, 2014 04:10 pm at 4:10 pm |
  11. Thomas

    Make Ted Cruz pay !

    March 20, 2014 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  12. Wake up People! Many Rivers to cross.....

    So Rick, you hate Lincoln because without him there wouldn't be an Obama right?? And we would know our places correct??

    March 20, 2014 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  13. Gurgyl

    Collect that shut down money from that damn Ted Cruz, the idiot that caused this shut down.

    March 20, 2014 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  14. rs

    Rick McDaniel

    Obama did those closures to make his point........he will punish any and all Americans, when he does NOT get his way.
    You are delusional, and it did not go down that way. The Congress- controlled by the GOP own the shutdown, no one else!!!

    March 20, 2014 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  15. Anonymous

    "Hundreds of those park sites were closed for more than two weeks during the federal government shutdown last fall. Five months later, some states are still dealing with unresolved financial costs related to the closures."

    Isn't this what the tea party wants? States picking up the tab and not depending on federal funding? Send Amy Kremer chair of the Tea Party Express the freaking government shutdown tab.

    March 20, 2014 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  16. rs

    Perhaps the GOP members of Congress should take up a collection for their misdeeds and pay this out of their pockets instead of adding this bill to the $24 billion they already cost our nation.

    March 20, 2014 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  17. jinx9to88

    Really? Do you mean the shutdown that was caused Congress?

    March 20, 2014 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  18. Gurgyl

    GOP is very nasty. Shut-down is voluntarily caused to hamper ACA Law. Very pathetic. Remove all republicans in next election.

    March 20, 2014 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  19. John in Brooklyn

    Those states shouldn't get reimbursed. The GOP shut the government down, so the parks should have been shut. If the stats wanted to foot the bill to open them, great.

    March 20, 2014 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  20. Norma Vessels

    Rick McDaniel .. for Pete's sake, can't you read? President Obama was against shutting down the Government! I don't know of a single President that has wanted to shut down the Government! Let the blame rest where it belongs, to the Republicans in the House, that voted to shut down the Government, therefore, all the national parks went down with it .. and don't let any Republican say otherwise, unless they are too busy blaming Paul Ryan for the shutdown this last time. He is partially to blame, but it took the votes of all the Republicans in the House to shut it down. Now, do you understand?

    March 20, 2014 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |
  21. Norma Vessels

    Sorry, meant to say Ted Cruz ... they are so much alike, hard to tell the difference.

    March 20, 2014 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  22. ThinkAgain - Don't like Congress? Get rid of the repub/tea bag majority.

    @sonny chapman: "I wonder if THIS Story will make it to Fox News ??"

    Oh, it will, and fox will blame President Obama. Again. And the RWNJ trolls who watch fox will all nod their bobble heads in agreement. Again. And will vote against their own self-interest in November. Again.

    This is why Dems need to VOTE on November 4, 2014: It's the least you can do to protect your country from the gop/tea bags.

    March 20, 2014 04:43 pm at 4:43 pm |
  23. ThinkAgain - Don't like Congress? Get rid of the repub/tea bag majority.

    the shutdown was caused by 32 repub members of Congress – 32 out of a total of 435 U.S. Representatives. Nowhere except in the delusional right-wing universe is this a majority, nowhere except in their persecution-complex petty little minds is this representative of the "will of the people."

    This should make a pretty good Dem candidate ad in the coming months...

    March 20, 2014 04:44 pm at 4:44 pm |
  24. Wallace Cleaver

    @Rick McDaniel
    Obama did those closures to make his point........he will punish any and all Americans, when he does NOT get his way.

    Rick, you are either delusional or an idiot. Take your pick.

    March 20, 2014 04:44 pm at 4:44 pm |
  25. ThinkAgain - Don't like Congress? Get rid of the repub/tea bag majority.

    The shutdown was a result of the GOP making a small rule change to their procedures that not only guaranteed there would be a government shutdown, but made it impossible for anyone except the House Majority Leader (Eric Cantor)
    able to call for a vote on the continuing resolution that would end the shutdown.

    Here's the added language:
    "Resolution 59 may be offered only by the Majority Leader or his designee.”

    Previously, clause 4 of rule XXII could be brought up by any member of the House of Representatives to push a bill forward despite disagreements.

    So these supposed "defenders of freedom" changed the rules so no one but Cantor could call for the vote on the continuing resolution that would have stopped the government shutdown – and kept these parks open – and saved all these states boatloads of money.

    The choice is ours, folks, and it's pretty clear in my mind: If you want our federal government to function again, vote out the majority party: vote OUT the repub/tea bags on November 4, 2014.

    March 20, 2014 04:45 pm at 4:45 pm |
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