Politics & Policy

Inflicting Pain for Political Gain

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)
The Interior Department tries to conceal how it kept Mount Rushmore closed during the shutdown.

In the early days of last October’s government shutdown, South Dakota governor Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, wanted to use state and private funds to keep Mount Rushmore open — an offer the Department of the Interior quickly rebuffed, even as its high-ranking staff circulated accounts of the shutdown’s harmful effects on would-be visitors and private-sector park workers.

.Evidently the Department of the Interior didn’t want the media to know it had so bluntly turned down the governor’s detailed proposal, which was accompanied by a logistical addendum that outlined how Daugaard would keep Mount Rushmore equipped with security, parking, concessions, gift shops, and lighting.

National Review Online submitted a request for Department of Interior records on October 22. The department ignored the 20-day response deadline established in the Freedom of Information Act and did not provide the public records until late in the afternoon on the Friday before Memorial Day, 113 working days late.

When we finally did receive the documents, they were heavily redacted. For example, here’s National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis’s response to the South Dakota governor’s proposal:

Daugaard’s office was more accommodating, sending us not just metadata but Jarvis’s full October 3 letter. In it, the director writes that “we cannot accept this temporary offer,” continuing:

As a result of the lapse in federal appropriations, the entire National Park System is closed and cannot be opened until funding is restored. Beyond the legal constraints involved, it would not be feasible or appropriate to open some parks or some parts of parks while other parts of the National Park System remain closed to the public.

The National Park Service was well aware of the costs to both visitors and non-governmental workers at Mount Rushmore, the records show.

Don Hart, the National Park Service’s chief law-enforcement ranger at Mount Rushmore, sent an October 3 e-mail to Patricia Trap, the deputy regional director for the park service’s Midwest Region, describing how conflicting media accounts had led to a heart-wrenching issue for one recent widower:

We just had contact with a gentleman that came to Mt. Rushmore to memorialize his wife who passed away 1 year ago today. He was aware of the shutdown and had done the responsible thing and checked to see if Rushmore was indeed closed. [After reading this Washington Times article about Daugaard’s efforts to keep the park open, which Hart calls “misleading,”], he headed off to South Dakota.

He was quite surprised and angry when he arrived to find us closed. Not only closed, but now [he was] unable to complete the purpose of his trip. Ranger Wollman spoke with the distressed man on the side of the road for quite a length of time. When the contact ended, the gentleman was no longer angry, but obviously upset.

Trap forwarded Hart’s message to several colleagues “as head up,” asking for a copy of the letter Jarvis had sent to Daugaard because “it will serve as good talking point for parks and us.”

That same day, the communications teams at both the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior also internally circulated a memo outlining the park closures’ effect on vendors and concessionaires, written by the National Park Hospitality Association, which represents nearly 25,000 private-sector park employees. It noted:

Here at Rushmore we estimate that this closure for one week (today through October 8) will impact 49,000 visitors and cost us $247,095 in lost sales, and 38 employees per day on furlough. . . . Xanterra [the largest park-concessions management company] estimates that it is losing around $1 million a day in revenue across park operations in Crater Lake, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Zion. And although income has stopped, operating costs continue. The company has approximately 3,350 employees working in the parks right now, and virtually all face furloughs or lay-offs.

Records from the Department of the Interior indicate that Maureen Foster, NPS chief of staff, and Lisa A. Mendelson-Ielmini, the NPS deputy regional director of the National Capital Region, also discussed the closure of Mount Rushmore on October 3. Little more can be discerned, given that this is the version of the correspondence that the agency saw fit to provide us:

Two weeks into Mount Rushmore’s forced shutdown, the Park Service agreed to let Daugaard reopen it using state funds and private donations. But, as the Associated Press reported at the time, “the federal government only offered to let the state pay for having federal employees go back to work.”

Kelsey Pritchard, a spokesperson for Governor Daugaard, tells NRO: “We were glad to ultimately be allowed to reopen Mt. Rushmore using privately raised funds. The fact that the shutdown forced Mt. Rushmore to close at all demonstrated much about what is dysfunctional in Washington.”

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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