WASHINGTON — The National Park Service director on Wednesday defended the barricading of popular parks and memorials against Republican criticism the agency has gone out of its way to make things as difficult as possible for patrons during the government shutdown.
“Turning away visitors is not in our DNA,” Jonathan Jarvis said at a hearing that was called by GOP leaders to review the agency’s recent performance. With all but a small number of employees on furlough, “prudent and practical steps were taken to secure life and property at these national icons.”
Jarvis said he and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell discussed the agency’s shutdown plans with White House officials, but maintained he was not given any instructions.
“There is no politics involved here, just our responsibilities to take care of the national parks with whatever resources we have,” Jarvis said.
The remarks did little to assuage Republicans, who charged the Obama administration has taken an unnecessary hard line at the parks, stringing police tape across parking lots and fencing off open air attractions such as the Lincoln Memorial that are normally open year round.
Only after the Park Service was hit by bad publicity did it back down, they said, such as allowing states to reopen national parks with their own money and granting access to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. to Honor Flight groups and others taking part in “First Amendment activities.”
“The Obama administration’s barricading of these sites is not something they are required to do, it is something they are choosing to do,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. “Their actions appear to be motivated by two things: An attempt to make the shutdown as painful and visible as possible and because of the backlash, an attempt to squash the ensuing bad PR.”
Democrats came to the administration’s defense. They said none of the parks, indeed no part of the government, would need to be closed had Republicans not refused to vote for government spending in a fight over the Obamacare law.
“Here’s who is responsible for shutting down the national parks,” said Rep. Pete DeFazio, D-Ore., holding up a mirror to the Republicans. “You can’t create something and pretend to be outraged by the results.”
The National Park Service makes up only one-fifteenth of 1 percent of the federal budget, said Denis Galvin, a trustee of the National Parks Conservation Association. But its job as steward to the nation’s natural jewels and most cherished memorials make it an easily accessible symbol.
“Closure may be hard to understand in less visible agencies but a closed campground or a child crying because she can’t visit the Statue of Liberty become convenient and graphic metaphors of a much larger failure,” said Galvin, who was Park Service deputy director during the last government shutdown in 1995.
The World War II Memorial on the National Mall, where “honor flights” bring aging veterans to see for the first and probably the last time, has emerged as a flashpoint in the government shutdown.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said he was at the memorial on the first day of the shutdown and saw the entrances barricaded and woven with yellow police tape.
Authorities “did not intend for anyone to cross that line, First Amendment or not,” he said. If he and Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., did not intercede, “those barricades were not going to be opened.”
But Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said he has greeted two groups of Nevada veterans at the memorial this month, and both toured the site without incident. As he spoke he projected photos of Las Vegas veterans who visited last weekend.
“Their service should not be politicized and they should not be used as pawns,” Horsford said.
In a written statement presented at the hearing, the former superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area who presided over the shutdown of the park in 1995 said critics were on “a witch hunt to make the National Park Service one of the scapegoats” of the shutdown.
“I can’t tell you how distasteful it was as park superintendent to have to close the park in 1995 and I know this is the case today with the park’s present management and staff,” said Alan O’Neil.
O’Neill pointed out Lake Mead is a major economic engine for Southern Nevada but during the shutdown park staff has had to cancel seven events that would have attracted 1,925 visitors. Seven others are scheduled for the next two weeks including an overnight Ragnar Relay race and the Pumpkinman Triathlon expected to draw more than 10,000 participants.
“The last thing the National Park Service wants to see is our precious parks closed to the American public,” O’Neill said in the statement.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.