Government shutdown: Do national parks really need to be barricaded?

Some Americans see the closure of national parks as politically motivated, but others say keeping the areas open during the government shutdown invites liability problems. For many, the parks strike a chord.

By , Staff writer

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    A National Park Service employee posts a sign on a barricade closing off the Lincoln Memorial, Oct. 1, 2013. The government shutdown forced about 800,000 federal workers off the job and suspended most non-essential federal programs and services, including national park access.
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As the last campers were being ushered out of Yosemite National Park on Thursday, some Americans were protesting what they see as the unnecessary barricading of the public’s wild lands because of the government shutdown.

That shutdown, now in its third day, has closed hundreds of national park areas as well as facilities such as boat ramps and campgrounds in federal forests like Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Georgia.

But from Washington, D.C., to Wisconsin and from Colorado to Tennessee, some Americans are chafing against what they believe are politically motivated closures aimed at pinching people where it hurts and reminding them about the importance of a strong central government. To critics, the question is: If the government is of, by, and for the people, then shouldn’t they be able to walk on federal property unhindered, no matter what the politics of the moment in Washington?

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The explanation from officials is simple: Without agents able to patrol, keeping the areas open invites liability problems. What’s more, the National Park Service’s mission is to aggressively protect America’s natural treasures, which have now been left unattended by the furloughs.

“Our parks aren’t just Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but the Park Service is literally the keeper of America: They protect and interpret and deal with all of that symbolism, including the places where presidents were, battlefields – all these things that symbolize us at our best and our worst,” says John Freemuth, a former park ranger who’s now a political scientist at Boise State University in Idaho and author of “Islands Under Siege: National Parks and the Politics of External Threats.”

But that explanation doesn’t go far enough for many Americans, who are documenting closures of facilities that may be on federal land, but are not managed by federal employees.

One case in point is the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in Virginia, which said Wednesday it’s been ordered closed by the National Park Service even though it’s not managed or staffed by federal rangers.

“You do have to wonder about the wisdom of an organization that would use staff they don’t have the money to pay to evict visitors from a park site that operates without costing them any money,” Anna Eberly, the managing director of the farm, told the Washington Free Beacon newspaper.

To be sure, the extent to which the Feds have the power to shut down public lands is a massive gray area deeply infused with politics that goes back to the Nixon administration’s “Washington Monument strategy.” At the time, some speculated that the decision to close the memorial had more to do with playing up the consequences of budget cuts than actual necessity.

“To block access is ... a deliberate, senseless, and mean-spirited act that demonstrates quite clearly the political goals of the Obama administration during this shutdown,” writes author Robert Zimmerman on the “Behind the Black” blog. “The administration has decided it will use its power to do as much harm as possible to the American people as it can, with the hope that this harm will cause the public to rise up and throw the Republicans out for refusing to pass the budget that Obama wanted and demanded.”

That idea – is the federal government, in other words, holding the people’s property hostage for political gain? – has taken hold among some Americans.

“They’re going to play a game with us to say, ‘Oh, you can’t see the monuments?’ That’s ridiculous, they’re doing it because they just aren’t serious about this. They like the shutdown,” Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky said on Fox News Wednesday.

With the widely covered closing of Yosemite and the decision to pull back barricades so military veterans could attend closed monuments on the National Mall, Rep. Doc Hastings (R) of Washington, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, warned National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis to expect an investigation into the service’s handling of the closings.

“The Committee is ... considering conducting an oversight hearing in the near future to better understand the Park Service’s closures, as well as the resources and staff time used to erect physical barriers to keep out veterans and other members of the American public from visiting these open-air sites,” Representative Hastings wrote on Wednesday.

Led by Rep. Mike Simpson (R) of Idaho, the House passed one bill on Wednesday that would authorize funding the National Park Service through the shutdown, but it’s not clear whether that idea will gain traction more widely on the Hill.

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, Gov. Scott Walker (R) pushed back against the federal closure demands. State officials removed federal barricades at a boat launch at Wyalusing State Park on the Mississippi River Wednesday, citing a 1961 agreement that said the state has legal authority to operate the launch.

But those who have worked closely with the National Park Service in the past say that officials have little choice but to barricade vast tracts of federal parks, trails, and boat ramps, despite the symbolism that Professor Freemuth says “cuts deep” for many Americans.

“If I were a lawyer for the Park Service, I’d advise it in no uncertain terms to close the parks to the public during the government shutdown, because it would be irresponsible to do otherwise,” writes Richard Seamon, a University of Idaho law professor who previously advised the National Park Service as an assistant to the solicitor general in the US Department of Justice, in an e-mail. If parks remain open, “there are bound to be accidents or crimes that would have been avoided or ameliorated had officials been on duty to respond or patrol.” Leaving the parks open, he adds, “would be a veritable open season for criminals.”

“I’m sure some folks believe that President Obama or his appointees are shutting down popular government facilities to inspire resentment against Republicans,” he continues. “I’m just as sure this is not happening. Government officials are just following rules laid down from past shut-downs and threats thereof. It all happens rather automatically, in accordance with detailed plans that are dusted off and put into operation during unfortunate periods like this one.”

Nevertheless, for some, the closings raise nothing less than existential questions.  Noting Wallace Stegner’s view of wild public lands as “part of the geography of hope,” Kenneth Brower suggested in National Geographic that the “national parks hold the landscapes that formed us as Americans. He went on, “Can there be a connection between the partisan hostility of the moment, the governmental paralysis, and our loss of contact with those roots? Is it possible we were not meant to live like canned sardines?”

Part of the hubbub around the closings is that for many, the idea of the federal government blocking access to public lands falls into a deeply gray area, says Dale Goble, whose research specialty is around the sagebrush rebellions where Western states try to grab, if only symbolically, federal lands.

“Anyplace that you have to pay to have access to I presume they can shut down,” he says. “But although they do own the public lands, as a general matter, it’s just sort of assumed that you can wander around on them, and it seems like it would be difficult to close public lands given the number of access points.”

Indeed, park officials are aware that their efforts to close off public lands can go only so far, says Freemuth, the former park ranger. Chances of getting arrested for breaching barricades appear to be minuscule, even though Mr. Zimmerman reported in his blog that hikers in the Great Smoky Mountains were ducking out of the way of rangers shutting down a trailhead Wednesday.

“If you go out to Glen Canyon, there’s plenty of places you can just wander in and you’re fine,” he says. “I don’t think the Park Service is going to arrest somebody for walking into Coyote Gulch up there.”

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