WASHINGTON - Arizona's tourism industry stands to lose millions of dollars per day if national parks close as part of a possible federal government shutdown this week.
Visitors to Arizona's national parks spent an average of $2.7 million a day in each of the last two Octobers, according to a National Parks Conservation Association compilation of Park Service numbers. Visitors at Grand Canyon National Park alone spend $1.2 million per day, the association said.
But those revenues would disappear if Congress cannot agree today on a budget for fiscal 2014, which begins tomorrow. That could spark a shutdown of the government that would include closing all national parks, according to the National Park Service's contingency plan.
"The impact will be huge," said Kevin Dahl, senior program manager at NPCA's Arizona office.
Arizona national parks had nearly 10 million visitors in 2012 and generated $737 million in economic activity in 2011, according to National Park Service statistics. The parks system in Arizona includes Grand Canyon National Park, Saguaro National Park, Petrified Forest National Park and 19 other national monuments, memorials, recreation areas, historic sites and trails.
The Interior Department announced its shutdown plans last Friday, saying it would close all national parks and give guests at hotels in national parks two days to make other plans and leave. The park service will keep a small number of employees on the clock, according to its contingency plan.
"As a rule, staffing will be held to the very minimum for the protection of life, property, and public health and safety," the service's contingency plan says. "Only personnel absolutely required to support these activities will remain on duty."
The National Park Service employed 1,315 people in Arizona as of June, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
Dahl said the closure of national parks would be tough on Arizona's tourism industry, and that businesses would struggle in towns like Flagstaff, considered the "gateway to the Grand Canyon."
Flagstaff City Councilwoman Celia Barotz said that if it comes down to a shutdown, the city can try to inform tourists of other attractions, like state parks. But she said that would still be a disappointment and that the city's hotels and restaurants would probably struggle.
"When they (visitors) leave the Grand Canyon for the first time they're blown away," Barotz said. "If they come to see that for the first time and then we say they should go to our city parks, that's disappointing."
Tourists will still be able to see the Grand Canyon if they take a private helicopter tour or if they visit the western rim, which is owned by the Hualapai Tribe, said Kristen Jarnagin, spokeswoman for the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association. But closing Grand Canyon and all the other national parks in Arizona will likely hurt the state's economy and its reputation among tourists, Jarnagin said.
Dahl said he hoped that Congress would avoid a shutdown, although he said considerable resources have probably already been spent planning for it, which makes the situation even more economically damaging.
The House last week voted to continue funding the government through Dec. 15, but only after stripping out funding for the health care reform act better known as Obamacare. The Senate and White House both have said they would reject any bill that kills health care reform, and the Senate Friday sent a bill back to the House that includes Obamacare funding but funds the government only through Nov. 15.
Congress was expected to work through the weekend on the budget.
"Come on, America's better than this," Dahl said of the wrangling. "This is a horrible way to do budgeting."
As for the environmental effects of a shutdown, closing the country's national parks might actually be a good thing, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. With a decline in visitors, fewer animals would be run over by cars and fewer plants would be trampled, he said.
The downside, Ruch said, is that the shutdown would interrupt environmental studies. Scientists could lose valuable data if federal employees cannot collect information at this time of the year because of a shutdown.
"That's sort of irreplaceable," Ruch said.