Grand Canyon Shutdown Has Tourists Fuming; Gov Orders in Guard Help
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. (AP) _ Gov. Fife Symington ordered National Guard troops to the Grand Canyon today in hopes the federal government would accept his offer to have them help keep the national park open. But the White House expressed doubt about the idea.
Symington spokesman Doug Cole noted the 50 guardsmen were unarmed. He said the troops, along with workers from other state departments, were preparing to help empty garbage, clean and do other support chores during the federal government’s shutdown, now in its fourth day.
There was no intention to move into the park without permission from the National Park Service, which as of midmorning had yet to respond to the offer the governor made Thursday.
``We made it very clear in phone conversations with their officials that time is of the essence,″ Cole said. ``We have tourists in from all over the world ... that the Grand Canyon was the centerpoint of their vacation, and they’re being turned away. That’s a horrible image for Arizona to be spread across the country.″
After Symington made his announcement, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said the Interior Department is still considering the request, but it appeared the troops could not be legally used to reopen the park.
He said it did not appear the federal government could accept volunteers to replace furloughed workers, and federal employees can be excused from the layoffs only if their absence would risk life or property.
As much as Clinton wants the ``crown jewel″ of the park system open, ``that, I believe is a standard that would be difficult to meet in one of our national parks,″ McCurry said.
Park Service spokesman David Barna in Washington noted that of the 369 parks and monuments the service operates across the country have strong local support. But with less than 2,000 of the service’s 20,000 workers on the job, it was unlikely they would do anything but protect the properties, he said.
``We couldn’t negotiate a deal like that at all 369 sites, even if we wanted to,″ Barna said. ``Once that starts snowballing, you couldn’t control it. People who want to see Independence Hall want to see it as bad as the people who want to see the Grand Canyon.″
Telephone messages left today at the office of Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt were not immediately returned.
The canyon was closed Thursday for the first time in its 76-year history in a move that drew protests from Symington.
Only a handful of tourists remained in the park. With the impasse between President Clinton and Congress continuing and hundreds of thousands of ``nonessential″ federal workers on furlough, other travelers were turned away from the park’s gates. Hikers were sent home, and guests at park motels were given one last night.
A contingent of 50 active-duty troops from Camp Navajo was getting its gear together this morning for an afternoon convoy to Tusayan, the town outside the park’s main entrance, said Guard Lt. Col. Timothy Cowan.
Their orders were to meet the governor at Tusayan airport and from there to travel in a convoy to the canyon to ``render assistance,″ Cowan said.
It was the first time the park had been shut since it opened in 1919. It gets some 5 million visitors a year and is a point of pride as well as tourist bonanza for the state. Other national parks and monuments also closed.
``There is no reason for the park to be in the middle of the battle, especially since Arizona is willing to step forward,″ Symington said Thursday.
The governor’s proposal included splitting entrance fees _ typically $10,000 to $15,000 a day _ with the federal government.
Another anti-Washington Republican, state House Speaker Mark Killian, was more confrontational, speaking Thursday of sending state police to pull down barricades at the canyon.
Among the tourists being turned away were some who had journeyed thousands of miles and planned for months to come to the Grand Canyon.
``It’s vindictive and unnecessary. There’s no justification for this,″ said Plaehn Juergen, a retiree from San Diego who brought friends from Korea for their first trip to Arizona. ``If they can put rangers up there to tell us to go away, then they can keep the rangers there to allow us to hike.″
Mike Crace, a postman from Burnsville, Minn., said, ``It’s truly a wonder and to tell people they can’t go look at it is amazing.″
He and his wife, Patti, made it into the park at 7:55 a.m. _ five minutes before it officially closed. ``Once we got in, they weren’t going to throw us out,″ he said.
Others tried to look on the bright side.
``The sacrifice it cost me is well worth it to bring (the budget debate) to the attention of the American public,″ said David Ringsworth, a computer software executive from Savage, Minn.
As the sun went down Thursday, an estimated 70 people remained in the park.
Lookout points along the rim, typically lined with photo-snapping travelers and tour buses, were quiet. Only a scattering of people gazed across the canyon.