In a truly Orwellian move, a group of Utah elected officials—members of Congress, the legislature and county commissioners—tried to leverage the 16-day-long government shutdown to support their argument that the State of Utah is better suited to manage public lands than the federal government.

As everyone (except, apparently, House Republicans) knows, the National Park System is part of the  federal government.  When the Republican House shut the government down, they shuttered our parks and furloughed park employees.  This had unintended but predictable, and predictably serious, consequences for gateway communities and businesses in places like Springdale and Moab that rely on tourism for their livelihoods, and federal employees for a significant part of their workforce.  Shuttered parks meant cancelled reservations, few tourists, unpaid neighbors and a serious hit to the bottom line.

Never eager to take responsibility for their actions, congressional Republicans expressed outrage over these closures and demanded answers from the Park Service.  Why were these parks closed?  How could this have happened?  “We’ll see about this!” they thundered and promptly convened a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the matter.  Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), patiently explained to the Republicans that they only had to look in the mirror to see who was to blame for the outrage.

Meanwhile, back in Utah, tea-party county commissioners were rattling their sabers and planning to “liberate” the national parks by opening them under county-led management.  Utah Gov. Gary Herbert interceded and spent roughly $1.5 million of Utah taxpayer dollars to re-open several National Park Service units for 10 days (the state will likely not be reimbursed).  The  legislature grudgingly went along.

Since then, Republicans like Utah Attorney General John Swallow, lacking any sense of irony, have argued that the Republican-led shutdown and Utah’s willingness to pay to keep the national parks open is evidence that Utah can manage public lands better than the federal government can.  Huh?

If people like Swallow should have learned anything from the shutdown and its effects on Utah’s national parks and other public lands it’s this: federally managed public lands—especially magnificent wild vistas and landscapes—are the lifeblood of a vibrant Utah economy.  Keeping Utah’s public lands in federal ownership is the right thing.

—Steve Bloch

[From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, autumn/winter 2013 issue]