National parks reopen after mini-Sagebrush Rebellion

Government shutdown over for Grand Canyon and other national parks. Can political leaders trying to solve the budget impasse and partial government shutdown take a lesson from the populist push to reopen America’s national parks?

Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP
Visitors to Zion National Park in Utah take in the sights after the park opened on a limited basis Friday. The Obama administration said it would allow states to use their own money to reopen some national parks after a handful of governors made the request.

After 11 days of government shutdown theater around America’s national parks, several of the country’s grandest vistas are once again welcoming visitors on Saturday.

Among them: Statue of Liberty National Monument, Grand Canyon National Park, Arches National Park, Zion National Park, Glen Canyon National Monument, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Others, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, may open as soon as next week.

The practical workaround for opening the parks – having private individuals and state treasuries foot the bill instead of the US Treasury, which can’t by law pay ranger salaries for non-essential duties – emerged as a simple, practical antidote against the philosophical and heavily partisan tug-of-war that caused the partial government shutdown and the park closures in the first place.

But the park reopenings, some experts say, are also symbolic of repudiation by regular Americans of Washington gridlock, including Republican leadership as well as President Obama, who many thought seemed intent on holding the nation’s treasures hostage in order to maximize the pain of the shutdown and pin blame on Republicans.

Though the federal government is giving up no control of the parks, the decision by states to take charge in order to reopen the parks drew parallels to the simmering Sagebrush Rebellion in the West, where elected officials have long schemed to annex federal lands back into state hands.

“It’s no surprise that the parks became very visible symbols of the consequences of this kind of shutdown, giving us both a teachable moment for people to realize that government does stuff that they like, but where we also saw fundamental manipulation going on,” says John Freemuth, a political scientist at Boise State University and a former Park Ranger.

The reaction to the closures, publicized through social and new media, included acts of civil disobedience as visitors jumped barricades and tossed aside cones, as well as considerations by county officials in southern Utah to order sheriff posses to reopen the parks by force.

The populist push to reopen the parks began when World War II veterans pushed aside barriers at the World War II Memorial, an open-air site in Washington.

That was followed by tourists like Bob Noelle of New Jersey photographed gleefully throwing traffic cones aside with the Badlands National Park in the background. Subsequently, the Park Service ticketed dozens of gate-jumpers from Valley Forge to the Grand Canyon, ordering them to go in front of a federal judge who could mete out up to six months in jail.

Federal officials had rebuffed earlier attempts by states to help fund the reopening of the parks, but pressure from the public as well as businesses warning that the closures were wrecking the busiest visitor season ultimately swayed Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to act. Notably, the openings marked a dramatic difference from the 1990s shutdowns, when only the Grand Canyon was partially reopened after the Interior Department made a deal with then-Gov. Fife Symington.

Also as the closures have worn on, the usually well-regarded National Park Service received a black eye as media glommed onto stories about heavy-handed removals of elderly tourists from parks, and the conservative Weekly Standard magazine even suggested that the Park Service, by barricading the public’s own lands, had become Obama’s political enforcers and put every American on an “enemies list.”

“Pressure ramped up on the administration to reopen the parks amid a public outcry against the forced closings, including outrage over a few park rangers who permitted their inner Gestapo to find expression …,” writes Keith Koffler, on the White House Dossier blog.

In the end, though, it wasn’t Park Service rangers carrying out orders that fueled the outrage. Americans simply refused to allow the country’s greatest natural treasures – beloved by people the world over – to be barricaded over politics and money.

“What we’ve proved here in Utah is that if people will sit down and resolve their problems rather than call each other names, you can get things done in a way that’s the proverbial win-win,” Gov. Gary Herbert told the Washington Post on Saturday. “That’s what they’re forgetting about in Washington.”

For some, the opening of at least a handful of the 401 closed national parks offers a new resolve to solve Washington’s budget impasse.

"Over the past 10 days, the Grand Canyon has been effectively held hostage," Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, said in a statement this week. "Washington may have time to play this partisan game of chicken, but the people of Arizona do not. The president must join with Congress to begin negotiations to resolve this impasse."

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