Republicans attack national parks chief over government shutdown closures (+video)
At a tense House hearing Wednesday, Republicans pilloried the national parks director for closings during the government shutdown. Democrats counter: What else was he supposed to do?
House Republicans on Wednesday pilloried National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis for his handling of national park and land closures during the government shutdown, raising questions about whether the agency’s reputation has been sullied by images of landmarks being barricaded to keep the American people off their own land.Skip to next paragraph
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A tense joint hearing of the House oversight and natural-resource committees took place Wednesday following allegations that the NPS and its rangers had allowed themselves to become a political arm of the Obama administration, erecting the barriers to score political points and remind Americans of the primacy of government stewardship.
Mr. Jarvis vehemently denied those charges, saying nothing could be more painful for rangers than turning visitors away. Still, the 40-year NPS veteran, who assumed the top post in 2009, acknowledged that “lessons have been learned” about the agency’s special guardian status over America’s natural treasures – especially during times of crisis.
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One of those lessons is for the service to be better prepared to stave off closings by working with local and state governments to keep funds flowing. When asked whether the parks belong to the government or are, in fact, the people’s land, Jarvis answered, “They are the people’s land.”
On Oct. 1, 401 national parks and hundreds of thousands of acres of other federal lands were officially closed as the government shutdown began. Judging from contingency plans released less than a week earlier, the closings were more far-ranging and complete than similar moves made during the government shutdown over two periods in 1995 and 1996.
Republicans on Wednesday charged that it cost the NPS more money and resources to barricade the monuments than to simply use essential personnel to police them. They also faulted Jarvis and his agency for waiting until the shutdown commenced to begin ameliorating the economic damage for rural areas and tourist towns. Within 10 days, the Department of the Interior, which oversees the NPS, had reopened a dozen parks as well as some private enterprises that take place on federal lands.
“You made your point, that you could punish the American people by taking away assets they care about, and that everything you’ve done to reopen some parks could have been anticipated and done in advance,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R), chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “If you can reopen a parking lot, for example, doesn’t that mean you had the authority to never close it?”
“The policies have been arbitrary, inconsistent, and ever-changing,” said Rep. Doc Hastings (R), chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources.
Mr. Jarvis said he and a skeleton staff of attorneys and superintendents began looking immediately at “workarounds” for major sites like the Grand Canyon, as well as smaller, privately run enterprises on federal land. The dozen parks that reopened used state funds, after first being told that only Congress could reopen them.
“We took prudent and practical steps to secure the life and property of national icons,” Jarvis said. “There were no politics involved here, just our responsibility to take care of national parks with the resources we have.”