Republicans attack national parks chief over government shutdown closures

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?

Susan Walsh/AP
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis waits to testify before a joint hearing with the House Natural Resources Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to look at the closure of national parks because of the government shutdown during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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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