Rural Utah Counties Demand Safety Measures Against Future Government Shutdowns

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The Utah Legislature’s Federal Funds Commission met Wednesday morning to hear from elected officials from Garfield, Piute, Washington, and Uintah counties, as well as Ruby’s Inn, the company town just outside the main entrance of Bryce Canyon. The local leaders trekked to Salt Lake City to share their experiences of the federal government shutdown last month.

Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock described how most rural Utah counties’ economies consist primarily of the timber, mining, oil, gas, and tourism industries. These were all been “dramatically effected” by the shutdown. He elaborated on Garfield County, where 93 percent of land is federally owned. “The federal government basically has the ability to bankrupt the county,” said Pollock. Tourism jobs make up 41 percent of the workforce, and the tourism industry is responsible for 70 percent of the county’s tax revenue. When the national parks were closed, “The impacts are dramatic.”

Grand County, home to Arches and parts of Canyonlands National Park did, in fact, declare a formal state of emergency on the ninth day of the government shutdown, due to the economic devastation caused by the federal inaction.  In the declaration, county officials said that 75 percent of the county is Federal land and that the estimated 2.5 million annual tourists comprise 76 percent of the county’s economy. Also in the declaration, Grand County officials said the shutdown resulted in an estimated loss of $2.6 million to the local economy.

The state of emergency eventually prompted Governor Herbert to hold a special legislative session specifically, where he asked the State Legislature to approve millions of dollars in state tax dollars to pay for the reopening of national parks in Utah. The Legislature approved the plan, albeit only hours before Congress reached a deal and the government reopened.

Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner also stressed the importance of tourism in his county, which makes up 21 percent of the local jobs. Tax revenue from tourism in Washington County is in excess of $40 million a year, Gardner says. “The recent government shutdown highlighted the intrinsic tie between tourism dollars and the attendant economic well-being of Southern Utah’s businesses and, by extension, Southern Utah’s communities and counties.

Gardner urged the legislature to come up with some sort of plan in the event another shutdown occurs in the future. “With economic clouds of uncertainty still looming on the horizon, it is prudent for the legislature to consider courses of action and strategy to minimize the impact of future federal land cutbacks and shutdowns.” Gene Seiler, a representative from Garfield County’s largest employer Ruby’s Inn, echoed Gardner’s sentiments about the need for a plan.

Bills have been run for years by some Republican state lawmakers for Utah to somehow take over national parks and federal land from the United States. These message bills have been extremely popular among the Republicans’ Tea Party block of voters, but has drawn criticism from Constitutional lawyers and the recreation industry who say Utah has no authority to commandeer land paid for by federal tax dollars from around the country.

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