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Feds to consider letting Arizona pay to reopen national parks during shutdown

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WASHINGTON – Arizona and other states may be able to reopen their national parks like Grand Canyon National Park during the federal government shutdown, the Interior Department announced Thursday.

The announcement just one week after Gov. Jan Brewer asked President Barack Obama to let the state use its own resources to reopen its national parks, especially Grand Canyon National Park.

Closing the parks as part of the federal government shutdown has been costly to the state. Visitors to Arizona national parks spend $2.7 million per day on average in October, including $1.2 million per day at the Grand Canyon, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

Other governors have reportedly asked for permission to do the same in their states. An Interior Department spokesman said in an email Thursday that Secretary Sally Jewell will now consider offers from governors who want to use state and private funds to reopen the parks.

Calls to Brewer’s office seeking comment on the state’s plan for reopening parks were not returned Thursday.

But Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, praised the decision and said there would be a substantial economic benefit to reopening some of the state’s national parks. She said she had communicated with other members of Congress and local business owners about how much the state needs the income from the parks.

“We have been doing a full-court press since the shutdown started, because they are a huge economic boost,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick said the next step is for the governor’s office and the Interior Department to hammer out the details of which parks could reopen and when.

The Oct. 4 letter to Obama from Brewer, Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin and state Senate President Andy Biggs, said they would prefer if the National Park Service paid to run Arizona’s national parks. But, they said, the state has funds to open them if necessary.

The letter also referred to the last government shutdown in 1995, when Arizona used state and private funds to reopen Grand Canyon National Park. That instance demonstrated that this is legally possible, the letter said.

“As Arizona is no less exposed to the current unstable and struggling national economy than any other state, we cannot afford to turn away this kind of revenue,” the letter said. “To do so will unnecessarily devastate the employment of thousands of Arizonans who depend on the Grand Canyon – especially when there is a common-sense alternative.”

Tobin, who has announced he will try to unseat Kirkpatrick in 2014, has criticized the administration repeatedly in the past week for the park shutdown. His campaign manager, Craig Handzlik, criticized the Interior Department for waiting nearly a week before responding to the letter.

In a statement Thursday, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, also welcomed the possibility of some of Arizona’s national parks reopening. But she and Kirkpatrick both said Congress needs to focus on ending the larger shutdown.

“We are still far from the economic certainty and stability that can only be achieved by reopening government,” Sinema’s statement said. “Democrats and Republicans have a shared responsibility to find a common-sense solution which gets the government up and running and avoids fiscal default.”