Politics & Policy

Grilling the Park Service Bullies

Erecting barriers at the National WWII Memorial.
The House Oversight Committee wants to find out why the Park Service behaved so bizarrely.

Wednesday’s House Oversight Committee hearing about the closures of national parks and monuments during the government shutdown, proved one thing: Under President Obama, The traditional “Washington Monument Strategy” of closing popular services first has become the “Washington Bully Strategy.”

Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a former prosecutor, almost drove National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis into incoherence with his relentless questioning. Gowdy wanted to know why Jarvis had allowed “pot-smoking” Occupy Wall Street protesters to camp overnight illegally in Washington’s McPherson Square park for 100 days, yet put up barricades to keep veterans out of war memorials on the first day of the shutdown. By not issuing a single citation to the Occupy campers, Gowdy argued, the Park Service was treating them better than the nation’s military veterans. “Can you cite me the regulation that required you to erect barricades from accessing a monument that they built?” he demanded.

#ad#Jarvis responded that, while he was required by the Anti-Deficiency Act to close all parks and memorials, any veterans who wanted to enter the war memorials could have done so if they had “declared” they were there to exercise their First Amendment rights. 

“Who were they to declare it to? A barricade?” Gowdy sniffed. Representative Darrell Issa was equally stern with Jarvis, noting that, since the Park Police weren’t furloughed during the shutdown, “an open-air monument was guarded by the same number of people to prevent Americans from getting in as would allow them to safely go in and out.”

Then Jarvis had to contend with Representative Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania, another former prosecutor. Meehan was irked that 20 of his constituents had been handed $100 tickets for jogging through the Valley Forge National Historical Park in his district. Cars were still allowed to drive through the park but no one was allowed onto the jogging trail adjacent to the road. Jarvis said he had no discretion that would allow him to waive prosecution of the joggers. 

How did the National Park Service, the well-loved stewards of everything from the Grand Canyon to Yellowstone, become a villain? Gale Norton, the Interior secretary for President George W. Bush, explained to NRO’s Andrew Stiles last week that the Park Service’s reality is a bit more complicated. They “often choose the most dramatic type of action in order to get their message across,” she said. “It’s something I had to guard against when I was secretary — not letting them play budget games.”

Dramatic doesn’t even begin to describe some of the horror stories of the last two weeks:

‐ The Park Service closed the Claude Moore Colonial Farm near Washington, D.C., even though it is privately funded and operated and relies on Fairfax County police protection.

‐ When closing Yellowstone National Park, the Park Service confined four dozen elderly foreign tourists in a hotel on park property for two days, and also blocked them from taking photos on the grounds. Rangers then prevented their bus from stopping for a restroom break when they were finally thrown off park property.

‐ At Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, the Park Service closed turn-offs along a state highway so that tourists couldn’t pull over to enjoy the view and take photos.

‐ The Park Service closed the City Tavern in Philadelphia, a meeting place for those who signed the Declaration of Independence, even though the tavern, at Independence National Historical Park, opens directly onto two major city streets. Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute joked to Representative Issa’s committee,  “had King George III’s ministers in the colonies had the authority and the foresight to close [the tavern] down, they might have prevented the American Revolution.”

Ebell also noted the number of barricades and printed signs needed to close 401 parks and monuments on the shutdown’s first day required foresight and planning. The speed of the closures and the procurement of barricades has also convinced former secretary Norton that a lot of thought had gone into how to conduct the Park Service’s blitzkrieg. “I imagine that the decision was made at the highest levels of Park Service leadership, in co-operation with the White House,” she told NRO. 

Politically, the shutdown ended on President Obama’s terms. The administration’s attitude was clear from Day One. “We are winning,” a senior administration official told the Wall Street Journal on the fourth day of the impasse. ”It doesn’t really matter to us how long the shutdown lasts.” 

But now that the shutdown is over, it’s important for Chairman Issa and others to figure out how it was manipulated politically. Because if the Park Service can become a pawn in the Obama administration’s political wars, does anyone doubt that the integrity of other even more vital agencies wouldn’t be at risk in any future budget showdown? 

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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