Defying government shutdown, national park visitors play 'catch me if you can' (+video)
Some Americans are challenging government shutdown national park closures by leaping over barricades or tossing cones aside in acts they call civil disobedience, but which some authorities call just breaking the law.
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In the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee, rangers shut down Foothill Parkway, a major thoroughfare used by School Bus 49 to shuttle kids to school from the small community of Top of the World, causing a frustrated Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell to tell Fox News: “We were founded on a Declaration of Independence. And they are about to push the people to the line again.”Skip to next paragraph
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At the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center, gate-crashing visitors posted Twitter photos from the battlefield with the phrase “Catch Us If You Can” written on notes. At Zion National Park and Badlands National Park, visitors have taken to simply tossing cones aside or pushing away barricades to enter.
The 3,000 Park Service personnel who remain on duty (20,000 have been furloughed) have been hesitant to get too heavy-handed in response. On Sunday, however, a jogger was fined $100 for taking a run inside Valley Forge National Monument, despite signs saying it was closed. He says he’ll fight the ticket in federal court.
One area where the government seems to have the clear right to put up barricades or “closed” signs is where there are pay gates to enter an area. But for parks and monuments where people can simply wander onto federal lands, blocking access touches on a “a huge [legal] gray area,” says Dale Goble, a land policy expert who specializes in the sagebrush rebellions of the West.
One issue that remains unclear is the legal foundation for those closure protocols, including what authority rangers have to either remove “trespassers” or even ticket and arrest them. If the rangers don’t have that power, then many of the barricaded areas are, by default, still open to the public.
Under a 1981 memo by then-budget Director David Stockman, which is still in effect, the federal government in shutdown mode is allowed to keep policing and protecting “federal lands, buildings, waterways, equipment and other property owned by the United States.” Other essential services cannot be funded, however, including most of the primary mission of the Park Service: providing guidance and interpretation for visitors.
In that way, visitors coming into the parks could be seen as a distraction for rangers providing basic protection, land policy experts suggest.
Still, US law, court precedents, and Department of Justice rulings don’t make it clear whether federal agents can actually keep people out of the parks, beyond suggesting that people don’t enter in the first place. For example, would someone entering a national park area in order to get a drink of water from a stream actually be breaking the law?