KNAU and Arizona News
11:35 am
Wed March 23, 2011

The last government shutdown almost closed the Grand Canyon

Flagstaff, AZ – Former Grand Canyon Park Superindendent Rob Arnberger has one thing to say to people who don't believe the federal government would actually shut down.

"Don't ever assume it can't happen again. The preparation requires prior planning and thoughtful consideration."

Arnberger should know. In November of 1995, the federal government ran out of money after congress failed to pass a budget. Arnberger had to evacuate and close the Grand Canyon for the first time in the national park's history. But it's what happened next that focused the country's attention on Arizona.

Governor Fife Symington announced he was coming up with a slew of National Guardsman to open the park by force if necessary. Arnberger says he basically threatened to take over federal property.

"One of the last times that happened was the start of the civil war and a state making that kind of ridiculous claim. It caught everybody by surprise."

On the afternoon of November 16, the governor flew into the airport just south of the canyon. A convoy of national guardsman and state troopers joined him on the ground. Arnberger met the governor and invited him into the park.

"And the governor made a very direct comment. I'm not here to see the canyon. I'm here to take it over. I replied that a take-over would be illegal. He said "It may be illegal but who will sue us?"


Mark Shaffer, who covered the event for the Arizona Republic called it "a totally crazy situation."

"Governor Fife came up to the park," he recalls, and "was like beating on the gates there saying "Open these gates!". There were some rather bemused federal officials on the other side there checking it out."

Dozens of reporters from all over the country came to cover the event. Shaffer called it more publicity stunt than anything

"Basically, you knew in the long term AZ wasn't going to win. It almost brought a sense of levity to it because it was so highly staged."

Eventually, Symington and Arnberger worked out an agreement to allow visitors to enter as far as Mather point, so they could at least see the canyon.

Symington, who was later convicted and then cleared of bank fraud, says he fought to keep the Canyon open to protect Arizona's economy.

"Of course, you know, there are people who save money for ten years from all over the world who come to the Grand Canyon and it's vital for the economic well being of northern Arizona, and to the whole state."

The shut down only lasted a week, but was quickly followed by another that lasted a month. The second time, Arizona managed to keep some of the park open by loaning the federal government around a half million dollars.

"For us it was a very practical move to save the economy of N. Arizona and it worked. We were the only national park to open."

Sort of.

Tourists could enter the park, but they couldn't hike below the rim. Local businesses took a big hit. Clarinda Vail runs Red Feather Lodge in Tusayan, just south of the Grand Canyon's entrance.

"We did have mass cancellations. Because people being under that impression that GC was closed."

Arizona Senator John McCain testified that the government shut downs cost Arizona $400 million dollars in lost tourism revenues. It's not something Vail wants to see happen again. And given the state of Arizona's economy today, she's says it's hardly something we can afford.