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Cuts to keep Painted Canyon closed

Press Photo by Dustin Monke The view from the Painted Canyon overlook east of Medora is seen on Aug. 8, 2010. The popular spot along Interstate 94 won't reopen in April because of sequestration in Congress and federal budget cuts.

Travelers along Interstate 94 in western North Dakota won't have the use of a popular scenic overlook area this spring.

Due to the recent sequestration in Congress and subsequent federal budget cuts nationwide, Theodore Roosevelt National Park officials have decided not to open the popular Painted Canyon Overlook in April, park spokesperson Eileen Andes said Monday.

Visited by an estimated 290,000 people in 2012, the overlook -- which features parking, restrooms, a small visitor center and a spectacular view of the North Dakota Badlands -- just east of Medora is usually open from April 1 through the end of October. That won't be the case this year.

"Right now, because of the budget cuts, Painted Canyon is closed until further notice," Andes said. "The North and South park units are still open and we still have access to the Elkhorn Ranch. We're still committed to providing great customer service and protecting the resources of the park."

The budget cuts represent a 5 percent reduction in the park's overall budget, though the change will cut off a window into the park for passersby. Andes said the decision to close Painted Canyon was made by park staff.

"We do have some people stop at that visitor center, not realizing that there's a national park in western North Dakota," Andes said. "They may be on their way to Yellowstone or Glacier and put our park on their list of places to come back to at another date. Others might come down to the South Unit and explore the park further that same day. We're doing the best we can with what we've been given."

While Andes said 289,959 cars drove into the canyon's parking area in 2012, more than 71,000 went through the doors of the site's visitor center. Andes added that the park's budget for the 2012 fiscal year -- which ended in September of last year -- was slightly more than $2.8 million.

Andes said an estimated 647,000 people visited the park in some capacity in 2012.

"We did a variety of things in order to come up with the cuts that we needed," Andes said. "With those cuts, we were not able to staff Painted Canyon and that's really what it came down to. These are really difficult decisions and we thought through them as best we could. We didn't make these cuts in an arbitrary manner."

Senators Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., voted along party lines late last week in a Democrat-backed Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Resolution in the U.S. Senate.

The measure passed 50-49, though the resolution is concurrent and hinges on passage in the House -- which has put forth a significantly different version -- before any laws are changed. The Senate resolution would potentially reserve the effects of sequestration.

"Senator Heitkamp voted for a budget that would fully replace sequestration with responsible deficit reduction," said Whitney Phillips, Heitkamp's communications director. "The Senator was not in office when sequestration was created and she would not have supported it."

In a statement sent out Saturday, Hoeven said he voted against the Senate resolution because it "raises taxes by more than $1 trillion and never balances."

With no plans to reopen Painted Canyon in sight, North Dakota Tourism Division Director Sara Otte Coleman said she hopes an avenue can be found to allow travelers to visit the site.

"We are hopeful a solution can be found to allow the Painted Canyon Visitor Center to remain open this summer," Otte Colman said in an email. "Painted Canyon is where many people get their first look at the beautiful Badlands and it entices them to get off the interstate and see more of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Medora. We hope the issue is resolved, but if it is not, we hope that our marketing efforts will still help drive visitors to the park and Medora."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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