El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. (Craig Miller/KQED)
El Capitan in Yosemite National Park (Craig Miller/KQED).

Related: From KQED’s The California Report: Government Shutdown Hits Tuolumne County Hard

California officials say the state can’t afford to take up the federal government on its offer to reopen Yosemite and other national parks affected by the government shutdown — if the state picks up the tab.

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance, said yesterday that because California’s own budget is balanced by such a thin margin, it can’t take on the added expense of paying for the parks.

Paul Rogers, environment reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and managing editor of KQED Science, provides the context:

California officials are concerned that their fragile state budget faces a major risk if Republicans in Congress default on the nation’s debts rather than extend the debt limit later this month. Such a default could send financial markets crashing, which would have a direct impact on California’s budget.

That’s because California’s tax system is tilted so that the rich pay a large amount of state taxes. In 2011, the most recent year that complete data is tallied, the top 1 percent of households paid 41 percent of California personal income taxes.

“You’ve got a very narrow band of taxpayers that contribute a large amount of state personal income taxes,” Palmer said. “And a lot of that money comes from capital gains and stock options.”

California’s decision not to pay to reopen the parks comes as Utah announced it will use state funds to reopen several attractions there. The National Park Service closed 401 parks nationwide and furloughed more than 20,000 employees as part of the shutdown that began Oct. 1. The service said it is losing $450,000 per day in revenue from entrance fees and other in-park expenditures, such as campground fees and boat rentals.

The Association of National Park Service Retirees has been tracking the financial impact of the park closures. The group estimates that nationwide, 7 million visitors were shut out of parks across the country in the first 10 days of the shutdown. The group says that’s cost $750 million in lost visitor spending.

Yosemite National Park was No. 2 on the group’s list, after the Grand Canyon, for the number of visitors turned away so far, with about 107,000 people turned away. The group’s estimate of the economic impact at Yosemite is $10 million in lost visitor dollars and 5,600 total jobs threatened, including 4,600 non-National Park Service positions.

“It’s like someone just turned around the closed sign here in America,” said Jayne Miller, who is on a three-week road trip across the U.S. with her husband. The Australian tourists were hoping to take in the sights along Route 66 as they head from California to Washington. But they hit a wall when they got to Grand Canyon National Park.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he had wired money from state taxpayers that will open Utah’s five national parks, including Zion, Bryce and Arches. He said he was inking a deal with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that provides $166,000 a day in funding for the five parks and other units of the national park system, starting Saturday. He said that will keep them open for 10 days, and the state can buy extra days as needed.

Herbert said in a letter this week to President Obama that the national parks closure has been “devastating” to individuals and businesses. Herbert estimated the overall economic impact of the federal government shutdown on Utah at $100 million.

Several other states have weighed paying to reopen the parks:

Arizona: Gov. Jan Brewer said she’d consider paying for a partial reopening of Grand Canyon National Park but is rejecting the Interior Department’s insistence that state money pay for the whole operation — a daily cost of $112,000 — adding yet another element of uncertainty.

South Dakota: Gov. Dennis Daugaard is considering the government’s offer, but wants to see how much it would cost. “When we get the numbers, he’ll consider it more fully,” said Daugaard’s Chief of Staff Dusty Johnson.

Wyoming: Gov. Matt Mead’s office said the state would not pay to reopen two heavily visited national parks or the Devil’s Tower national monument. “Wyoming cannot bail out the federal government and we cannot use state money to do the work of the federal government,” Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said.

Montana: Gov. Steve Bullock says his state won’t pick up the tab to reopen Glacier National Park. Lee Newspapers of Montana said on Thursday that it’s long past time for Congress to end “this reckless and job-killing shutdown.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Email Dan at: dbrekke@kqed.org

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