Michael Bennet: States that stood up need to be repaid
Coloradans, perhaps more than anyone, appreciate the beauty and adventure of the great outdoors, the innovation and job creation that comes with a $600 billion recreation economy, and the importance of preserving our national treasures. Nearly one-third of our state is federal land, and we have more national parks than 46 other states.
This year we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of one of those parks. Whether you’re climbing Longs Peak, watching the elk during the fall rut, or just driving Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park offers some of the best hiking, scenery and wildlife viewing that Colorado has to offer. It’s no wonder almost 3 million people visited the park in 2013.
And Colorado’s National Parks are serious business. In Colorado, more than 5 million people visited our parks spending more than $330,000,000 and supporting nearly 5,000 jobs in 2013 alone. Nationwide, more than 273 million visitors spent about $14.6 billion in the surrounding communities.
Unfortunately, the national park system was caught up in the dysfunction of Washington. When Congress shut down the federal government the national parks closed along with almost everything else. More than 400 parks and monuments across the nation, employing more than 20,000 Americans, were forced to close their gates. Fortunately six states, Arizona, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and our own home state, advanced the National Park Service $2 million to temporarily reopen iconic parks like Rocky Mountain National Park, the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty.
After 16 days, Congress managed to end the manufactured crisis. However, the states that stepped up to foot the bill were never repaid. That’s why we are teaming up with Republican senators including Cory Gardner, Jeff Flake, John McCain, Lamar Alexander, and others to sponsor the National Park Access Act. This bipartisan bill will ensure that states are reimbursed for the funds they spent to temporarily reopen national parks during the shutdown.
For Colorado, the shutdown couldn’t have come at worse time. It fell during one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s peak seasons, as visitors flocked to see the changing Aspen leaves. Worse, communities like Estes Park, which rely on the tourism, were still reeling from devastating flooding. While Congress was wasting time in endless debates, Coloradans were dealing with an unprecedented natural disaster. An entire year of rain fell in one day, damaging more than 18,000 homes, forcing tens of thousands of Coloradans to evacuate, and tragically killing 10 people.
The revenue generated by the visitors to the legendary park was crucial in helping this community rebuild following the catastrophic destruction. Thankfully, Colorado intervened to keep the gates open when Congress couldn’t get their act together to pass a funding bill for the year.
From the Great Sand Dunes to Mesa Verde to Rocky Mountain, our national parks are not only one of the most valuable legacies we can pass on to the next generation, but are also key economic drivers for towns and cities throughout Colorado and the nation. Thankfully in a time of crisis, our state took the necessary steps to keep the park gates open and support recovering communities. It’s about time that the federal government kept its promise and reimbursed Colorado and other states, and our bill will make certain that happens.
Michael Bennet, D-Colo., is a U.S. senator.
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