The National Park Service has rebuffed attempts by governors and private citizens to reopen gates closed by the government shutdown at iconic public areas like Grand Canyon National Park and Mount Rushmore, drawing comparisons to when Arizona called up the National Guard to challenge federal barricades at the Grand Canyon in 1995.
This go-round, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) and a cadre of private interests offered to help fund a partial reopening of the Grand Canyon while the government shutdown grinds on, to no avail. Hundreds of parks, campgrounds, boat launches, and even some popular trail heads have been barricaded across the United States as thousands of National Park Service rangers and employees sit idle at home.
“I appreciate the support and I thanked them for the offer, but it's not an offer we can accept," David Uberuaga, Grand Canyon superintendent, told Fox News.
The park closures have presented arguably the most public, and symbolic, face of the partial government shutdown, caused by an inability of Republicans and Democrats to procure a federal budget by an Oct. 1 deadline. The main sticking point has been a GOP attempt to delay the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. This is the fourth day of the shutdown, and there are few signs of it ending soon.
But given that in past shutdowns or budget standoffs, some park closings have been resolved, critics say the National Park Service is now being far too aggressive in barricading public lands. Some are accusing the agency of “showdown theater,” aimed at pinning blame on Republicans and reminding people of the importance of the federal government.
“It’s a cheap way to deal with the situation,” an unnamed Park Service ranger reportedly told The Washington Times. “We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can. It’s disgusting.”
In what some say is a first, the National Park Service has also shut down private operations that lease federal lands but do not rely on federal personnel for patrols or backup.
Warren Meyer, a private campground operator in national parks, told Fox News that his campgrounds have not been affected by past shutdowns, but were ordered closed this week by National Park Service officials. Mr. Meyer said he received orders directly from the White House to close about 100 campgrounds.
In a letter to his congressman, Meyer wrote, “We employ no government workers ... and we actually pay rent into the Treasury.” Thus, “I can only assume their intention is to artificially increase the cost of the shutdown as some sort of political ploy.”
In 1995, during the last government shutdown period, then-Gov. Fife Symington of Arizona sent unarmed guardsmen to the Grand Canyon’s gate to help operate the facility and keep it open. The Guard was eventually called off, but its presence led to an operating agreement that kept parts of the canyon open.
To be sure, Arizona is not likely to call in the National Guard again to try to reopen the Grand Canyon, the governor’s office said Friday. "This is not 1995,” Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder told Fox News. The gates, he said, “are closed because there’s a failure in Washington, D.C.”
But some governors continue to push back against the closures.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) ordered state personnel to remove barricades at one popular boat ramp closed by the shutdown, citing a 1961 agreement that allowed the state to operate the facility. And South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) offered to use state employees to keep Mount Rushmore open, but was rebuffed by park officials.
Among other things, some argue that keeping the parks open without the usual staffing and support invites liability problems.
Yet there have been some access concessions. After military veterans broke through barricades at the World War II monument on the National Mall, the National Park Service agreed to limited visits at that site.
Meanwhile Republicans, who helped to force the shutdown, have passed temporary funding bills in the House to keep parks open, but none have been taken up by the Democratic Senate.
Some public land experts argue that anger against the National Park Service is misplaced – that the agency is only following protocol by shuttering its own and rental operations on federal lands.
“The Park Service has much more of a stronger resource-protection mission than other federal [land] agencies,” says John Freemuth, a former park ranger who’s now a political scientist at Boise State University in Idaho. National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, the first biologist to head the agency, “takes [resource protection] ... seriously, and I think the agency has a legitimate worry: There’s archaeological resources, there are threatened species, and I think they worry about what might happen there” during a shutdown.
“I’m totally sympathetic to their weariness of all this,” Professor Freemuth adds. “It’s not like they want to close parks.”