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Polis signs order to keep Colorado national parks open if government shuts down

Rocky Mountain National Park
Posted at 8:05 PM, Sep 29, 2023

ESTES PARK, Colo. — It’s an important time for Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), and its gateway community of Estes Park. Fall colors are lighting up the mountainside and beckoning visitors to come and “leaf peep.” The elk are active in the rutting season, just in time for Estes Park’s Elk Fest this weekend.

At the same time, a looming government shutdown threatens to close national parks across the country.

In response, Governor Jared Polis signed an executive order Thursday directing the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to come up with a plan to keep national parks open and protected using state resources should the federal government fail to reach an agreement and avert a shutdown.

In a statement, Polis said shuttering Colorado’s national parks would “hurt state and local economies, small businesses, and park employees."

“Our state is proud to be home to world-class outdoors, including four national parks, that play a key role in our economy and way of life. Coloradans and millions of visitors every year — many of whom are looking forward to seeing the beautiful Fall colors — hike through trail systems and see the iconic natural wonders in our parks. Colorado’s beautiful national parks belong to the American people and help support our local communities and economy. The closure of the national parks and other federal lands would hurt state and local economies, small businesses, and park employees. My action today will help ensure national parks and federal lands will remain open through a potential shutdown and protects Colorado from the damage closing the parks would have. I urge the federal government to reach an agreement, and I am hopeful they will do so to avoid a shutdown."

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said the cost of this action is not yet clear and would be identified through the creation of a plan by the DNR working with the Office of State Planning and Budgeting.

At the same time, the Rocky Mountain Conservancy nonprofit organization is preparing to step in and help as well in the event of a government shutdown. Executive Director Estee Rivera said the organization hopes to operate at least one visitor center at the park to support local tourists and share information. Still, she hopes lawmakers in Washington can come together to avert the shutdown.

“There’s nothing normal or routine about a government shutdown,” Rivera said. “It’s so disruptive to the parks, to the rangers. It’s demoralizing. It has economic impacts on the community.”

Before serving with the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, Rivera worked as a park ranger at Saguaro National Park and was furloughed during the government shutdown in 2013.

“Some of the park service staff, if there’s a government shutdown, will have to work to provide the minimum emergency essential services for visitors, but they won’t be paid,” she said. “And there are a lot of other employees who are going to be furloughed. And they will get back pay when this is all done, but they won’t be receiving checks during this time. And so especially when we’ve got younger folks earlier in their career — especially seasonal folks — people do live paycheck to paycheck for some of these jobs. So, it’s difficult.”

Rivera echoed Polis’s concerns of economic impacts to the state and to the communities near national parks, like her home of Estes Park. More than 5.5 million people traveled to Colorado to visit national parks last year and spent more than $695 million, according to the governor’s office.

“There are people who guide in the park and sell concessions and give tours,” Rivera said. “And those people certainly don’t get back pay in the economic fallout of a shutdown.”

While Rivera watches for a last minute federal deal, she is encouraging Colorado residents and visitors to keep their national park plans. Regardless of a federal government shut down, she said there is plenty to see and plenty of communities that need the support.

“We are stewarded, as the American people and as folks like us — the Rocky Mountain Conservancy and the park rangers — to protect these places forever,” she said. “So the idea that, you know, we don’t know what the budget is next week or next year, it’s really hard to protect something forever with this much uncertainty.”

Congress has until 10 p.m. MST Saturday — midnight EST Sunday — to reach a deal and pass a spending bill.

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