You are here

Around The Parks: A Blurring Of National Park Lines

The National Park Service, and its employees, should not be blamed for the parks' closure.

Around the country, as the partial government shutdown moves into its second week, taxpayers angry with the closure of national parks are showing their disgust through civil disobedience, mockery, and anger directed at the National Park Service.

The national park idea, long recognized as America's best, is being degraded and disrespected as the result of a much different idea—using the parks as leverage to try to gain the advantage in a political donnybrook.

Many of the government functions impacted by the shutdown, while important, simply don't have the same media interest—or impact on the general public—as closure of the national parks. It's hard to generate a compelling news photo based on the interruption of airliner safety inspection or suspensions of some FDA food safety inspections. Hang a closed sign on the entrance to the Grand Canyon, however, or put a belligerent congressman face-to-face with a ranger at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall, and you have plenty of fodder for the prime-time network news.

The result is an agency and its employees caught in the middle of a fight it didn't create—or want.

Some critics are driven by anger over loss of income from the parks' closure. Others by disgust with Obama administration. Still others seemingly by the belief that the federal government has no right to close the parks. In the end, however, it's the rangers on the ground who are seen as the "face" of the shutdown.

Some Republicans in Congress, particularly in the House, blame the administration for the parks' continued closure, pointing out that that chamber voted to restore funding for the Park Service, among some other agencies and programs. But that legislation was tied to a demand that the Affordable Care Act be scaled back. Some protesting the parks' closure staged an "occupy" movement of Zion National Park last week, a protest that reportedly drew fewer than two dozen.

Many more turned out at Acadia National Park, where they simply walked around barricades to spend a beautiful fall afternoon on the park's Carriage Roads. One of those visitors was involved in a backcountry accident, and the resulting rescue severely taxed the limited resources of a park in "shutdown mode."

Alternate Text
At Acadia National Park this week, many cyclists routinely ignored the "closed" signs at the Carriage Roads. Rebecca Latson photo.

No doubt other parks saw visitors ignore the closure signs. There's even a "movement" encouraging people to enter the parks while they're closed.

In Florida, word that the waters of Everglades and Biscayne national parks were being closed led to ridicule of the Obama administration for "closing the ocean." However, the waters adjoining those two parks are as much part of the parks as the Thorofare region of Yellowstone National Park is part of that park, as the Tuloumne Meadows area is of Yosemite National Park, as the Maze is of Canyonlands National Park, and as the Cataloochee Valley is of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Too, Biscayne counts approximately 40 keys, or islets, within its watery landscape. That seascape, which comprises 95 percent of the park, also holds historic shipwrecks and fragile coral reefs that have suffered in the past from poachers of history. Those of Everglades hold vital habitat for fisheries.

When those parks were created, the Park Service was charged with overseeing those resources, and with reduced ranks spurred by the failure of Congress to pass a Continuing Resolution to keep the government funded, the agency is sorely lacking the manpower to monitor those areas.

"Whether units of the NPS are historic buildings that can be physically closed by closing a door, or parks with entrance stations able to close with a staff person speaking to visitors or by pulling gates across roads or in the case of some of our nation's most sacred sites, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial to the new WW ll Memorial that do not have physical doors or gates to close - these places are all a part of the National Park System whether they have a structure to close or they are sites without a defined entrance point such as the Lincoln Memorial," said Joan Anzelmo, a former park superintendent and now a member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

"The NPS is responsible for them and they are on federal lands. If left unstaffed in ways the public can see -- and more importantly in the ways the public can't see -- these places will not be preserved the way the agency has been directed to do by Congress," she added. "Congress can't direct the agency on one hand to protect the parks (all of them) so they are unimpaired for the future generations and then suddenly just say never mind- let them be open or let some of them be open. The U.S. National Park System has been an exemplar to the world and parks and the employees should not be played as pawns by Congress."

Regarding the situation at the National Mall, where attention has been focused on access, in particular, to the World War II Veterans Memorial, Ms. Anzelmo pointed to the status of all of the Mall's memorials as icons of our nation ... and also as potential targets for those who wish to do our country harm.

"I worked the shutdown in '95 and '96 and remember there were barricades placed at the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials in that shutdown. Fast forward these 17 years and the security concerns area thousand times what they were in the innocent 1990s especially at the iconic locations such as the National Mall and Memorials in Washington, D.C.," she said. "
There are many behind-the-scenes security-related components, including staff (uniform and plain clothes) that are in place to protect these sacred sites and the millions of people who visit them. When you furlough the vast majority of the workforce due to no appropriation you suddenly reduce the capacity to safely protect the sacred sites themselves and to protect the visitors who wish to visit them. This is very serious business in present day times."

That the National Park System has become a pawn in Congress's malfeasance is unfortunate, regrettable, and unnecessarily places the rangers, and the public, at risk.

Featured Article


Yes, the Park Service is a pawn....a willing pawn to be sure. The visual images of wheel-chair bound veterans facing barricades at the WWII memorial will be an unforgettable memory of the event.... along with today's opening of the Mall for a Union sponsored immigration rally...where Democrat legislators will strain their voices screaming for 'equality' in this country. Simply unforgettable...and unforgivable.

A welcome piece to help un-blur the lines. I'm inclined to agree with Kurt's article rather than Mike's claim that the Park Service is a "willing pawn to be sure."

Good article, Kurt. No doubt you will get complaints from the normal complainers, but you said several things that are absolutely correct: 1.) this is a fight that the NPS did not create or want. The failure of the Congress to agree on the highest national priorities created it. 2.) park employees are caught right in the middle of it. Congressional legislation (the Anti-Deficiency Act) prohibits agencies from spending money they don't have. That's why the "essential" employees are working without pay until the shutdown is over.

As the shutdown drags into its second week, I hope all of us can recognize that it is not an adequate answer to political disagreements. Nor are vandalism, occupation, and tearing down barricades. Professor Rod Nash once said that the national park idea was America's greatest gift to the world. Let's not profane it and turn our parks into areas of political warfare.


No govt agency is a 'willing pawn'. They are at the mercy of legislators. I seriously doubt that any agency official (high or low) thought 'take THAT, American people!' as they shut doors, sent employees home, & turned the public away.

I was a federal employee during the last 2 furloughs. The first time I was furloughed, the second we were deemed essential. From the top of the agency down, there was frustration and anger that we couldn't get our job done and serve our public. There was also concern and worry for some of our fellow employees who were sent home without pay (as far as we knew then) while we were still allowed to work.

I'm all for freedom to assemble, but please remember that the federal employees (ie law enforcement) who may be there during any protests or 'walk ins' at Natl Parks are not responsible for this mess. They are just doing their jobs, no matter how they may personally feel about the shutdown. Directing any anger or verbal abuse at them is unnecessary, counterproductive, and wrong. Be angry at your elected officials. But taking it out on some poor federal employee is like kicking your neighbor's dog because you hate the color your neighbor painted his house. In the end, it only hurts the dog and won't make your neighbor change a thing.

Willing pawn or not, the NPS has brought some of this on themselves when they decided to "make the public feel the pain" of these shutdowns. Jarvis and his crew were caught saying this last summer and, in turn, put themselves in the crosshairs of public antipathy.

There is at least one Republican(Diaz-Balart of Florida) who is scheduled to speak at that immigration rally.

Also, I would note that if those WW2 Veterans had showed up at the WW2 Memorial on August 28 they would have found the memorial barricaded in much the same way as it is today. Most of the Memorials were closed that day as they were inside the security zone for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial. There was public access to the commeration at 17th Street, but all the Memorials(including the WW2) were closed for most of the day.

The simple fact is that security zones are created a couple times of year on some part of the National Mall that restricts access. The Monuments and Memorials are sometimes impacted, sometimes not. The idea that these Monuments and Memorials have 24/7 unfettered access is not accurate.

SmokiesBackpacker -

re: "Jarvis and his crew were caught saying this last summer ( 'make the public feel the pain' of these shutdowns.")

If an NPS official really said that, and that expressed his goal for the shutdown (as opposed to the unavoidable result of a shutdown), then he was in the wrong.

As the above article points out, making a lot of people "feel the pain" is the underlying strategy of the politicians responsible for the shutdown, because they feel that's the only way they can generate enough pressure to force concessions from the opposition.

I'll have to side with ecbuck on this one by requesting a credible source for your statement about "Jarvis and his crew." If we're actually accusing someone of wrongdoing on this site, as opposed to merely stating our opinions, then we ought to provide documentation for our claim.

In accordance with the Antideficiency Act of 1870, the OMB instructed agencies to conduct an orderly "shutdown" of government activities that" obligate expeditures." NPS leaders interpreted this to mean closure of public access to NPS lands and roads "wherever possible." (I propose this should have been worded "wherever necessary to not obligate expeditures.")

The Antideficiency Act allows the government to continue activities that are needed "in case of emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property."

The Antideficiency Act of 1870 does not prohibt the public from accessing their public lands.

There is room, under the law, that allows NPS leadership to make choices that could allow the public limited and reasonable access to outdoor areas and private businesses when appropriate and that did not "obligate expeditures".

Choices are being made by the agency on how to implement an "orderly shutdown" as they have been instructed by the OMB . Some of these choices have been appropriate and warranted. Some have been mistakes. (The closure of Mount Vernon for example).

It is human to make mistakes. We should not expect the NPS to handle this shutdown perfectly. But carte blanche immunity from critique for every decision NPS leaders make because we are enamored with the agency mission and image allows too much room for corruption and incompetance.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide