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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?

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Jarvis also said he ordered rangers to take a “low-key approach” to gate-jumpers and other Americans who decided to ignore the closure orders. A few dozen tickets were handed out in parks like Mount Vernon, the Grand Canyon, and Acadia National Park.

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Democrats at the hearing jumped to Jarvis’s defense, calling Republicans hypocrites and suggesting, as Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia did, that blaming the NPS for closing parks is like “voting for capital punishment and then blaming the hangman as executions proceed.”

Republicans stood firm in the budget impasse because they wanted changes to the Affordable Care Act. On Wednesday, the two sides appeared to be moving closer to voting for a resolution that would end the shutdown and extend borrowing authority until early February.

“I realized that in the proverbial heat of the battle, wasn’t anyone watching the news? Couldn’t someone come forward and admit they made a huge mistake?” said Anna Eberly, who testified on behalf of Claude Moore Colonial Farm, a privately run attraction on federal lands in Virginia that was forced to close but later allowed to reopen. “Maybe it was the White House, the Department of Interior, or maybe the Park Service acted on their own, or maybe nobody is in charge. Either way, the Park Service looks foolish, inept, and not worthy of managing the resources entrusted to them.”

Jarvis explained that shutting down the 24,000-worker federal agency is a difficult task, and he also apologized for the amount of time it took to reopen areas such as the privately run Jamestown Settlement, which sits on federal lands. He refused to disclose with whom at the White House he discussed the scope of the closures, but added that he made the ultimate decisions.

Denis Galvin, a former deputy NPS director, testified that park closure plans are “by force of circumstance hastily prepared by people who hope they won’t have to be used, all inside a highly decentralized agency that stretches across the international date line and comprises 401 units.” He continued, “It’s not possible to cover every eventuality, and as closures lengthen, questions arise due to circumstances unforeseen and difficult to predict.”

He added, “It’s worth asking why parks moved to the center of the closure discussion, even though they’re a minuscule part of the federal budget. It’s because they are an easily accessible symbol – a closed campground, a child crying because she can’t visit the Statue of Liberty. They become convenient and graphic metaphors of a much larger failure.”

In any event, the NPS, which has had its funding cut to 2008 levels as part of the “sequester,” is working on a variety of new public-private partnerships to help the parks operate more efficiently, Jarvis said. The partnerships, he noted, could potentially be used to keep parks open during government shutdowns.

“Shutting down is hard and complicated, but I think there are lessons learned here,” Jarvis also said. “We now have a very good template agreement [for keeping parks open with state funds], and we now better understand the federal investment in each of these facilities. I think we’ll be better prepared” next time.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R) of Arizona said he would go one step further by introducing legislation to “ensure that there is a clear legal path” to keep parks open during government shutdowns.

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