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Fighting to open Painted Canyon: Hoeven works with Park Service to keep Badlands overlook site from staying closed

The view of Painted Canyon is shown from the Visitors Center overlook on Aug. 8, 2010. The site was expected to open April 19, but will stay closed until further notice because of federal budget cuts.

One of North Dakota's highest-ranking officials is throwing his weight behind an effort to open the Painted Canyon Overlook.

After Theodore Roosevelt National Park officials announced earlier this week that they planned not to open the popular overlook along Interstate 94 just east of Medora, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., entered the fray with a statement Thursday morning offering his office's support to find a way to keep the site open.

Park leadership decided not to staff the site -- which was scheduled to be open April 19 through Oct. 31 -- because of federal budget cuts that took effect March 1.

"Painted Canyon overlooks a beautiful spot and it's really a place where people passing through North Dakota can see the Badlands and how beautiful they are," Hoeven said.

Painted Canyon is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state.

Close to 300,000 vehicles stopped at the overlook with more than 71,000 people passing through the doors of an on-site visitor center in 2012, according to park statistics. By comparison, about 647,000 people visited the park in some capacity last year.

TRNP spokesman Bill Whitworth said Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor spoke with Hoeven this week, though the senator also has been in contact with U.S. National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.

"Tourism is one of our state's largest industries and we appreciate Director Jarvis' understanding of that and his willingness to work with us," Hoeven said. "We will try to find a way to keep this remarkable site open and I think we will."

Medora Mayor Doug Ellison, who said he spoke with Hoeven while the senator was in Dickinson this week, hinted that a solution could come in the form of volunteers from Medora possibly working at the site.

"One solution that came up was staffing Painted Canyon with a number of our volunteers, if the Park Service cannot afford to put somebody up there," Ellison said. "It's very important to keep this site open. It's the initial contact point for the national park and for Medora. I know from talking to a lot of visitors that many people don't even know North Dakota has a national park until they pull over at Painted Canyon."

Each year, the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation welcomes hundreds of volunteers for its busy tourist season, some of whom, Ellison said, could possibly staff the rest area. Hoeven said he also plans to reach out to the Highway Patrol and others in the tourism industry in western North Dakota in an effort to find a solution.

"We need to get creative with this issue," Hoeven said. "Every year there is an incredible number of volunteers that come to Medora. Every year, I believe, they have more volunteers than they may even have work for because people are so great in that capacity. Right there is a great opportunity -- we just have to get the Park Service to work with us."

Eileen Andes, a spokesperson for the park, has said the so-called sequester at the federal level meant the park had to cut 5 percent of its budget, which was about $2.85 million for the 2012 fiscal year. The cuts came on top of similar budget cuts in recent years. Andes said it costs about $40,000 to run the site for one season.

Andes called the cuts "difficult decisions" and said park staff was "not able" to keep Painted Canyon open for use.

"The federal government is spending too much," Hoeven said. "We've got a debt and a deficit and we have to cut spending. As we find ways to save money and cut spending, everybody has to work together to minimize impacts on the public and that's what this is about -- coming up with some creativity to minimize these types of impacts."

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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