The Corner

Former Interior Secretary: Parks Service ‘Has a Long History of Dramatizing Budget Issues’

As Katrina reported Wednesday, House Republicans want answers from the National Parks Service (NPS) regarding its controversial actions during the government shutdown. They are particularly interested to know why barricades were erected to in front of open-air monuments such as the World War II memorial, and are concerned that NPS decisions are are being motivated by politics — intended to cause maximum disruption and public outrage. Earlier this year, GOP investigators raised questions about the parks service’s implementation of spending cuts under sequestration.

Gale Norton, who served six years under President George W. Bush as secretary of the Department of the Interior, which oversees NPS, tells National Review Online she thinks at least some of the recent closings are politically motivated. 

“The National Parks Service has a long history of dramatizing budget issues by inconveniencing the public,” she says. ”They often choose the most dramatic type of action in order to get their message across. It’s something I had to guard against when I was secretary — not letting them play budget games.

NPS has engaged in such behavior for decades, Nortons says, recalling at least one occassion during the Reagan administraiton, in which she worked as an attorney for the parks service, when NPS decided to close Skyline Drive, a scenic highway running through Shenandoah National Park, in order to make a statement during an appropriations fight on Capitol Hill.

“This is basically just a road that people can drive along, where they don’t need supervision,” she says of Skyline Drive, which is currently closed because of the government shutdown. Closing it, and other scenic parkways, not to mention barricading places like the World War II memorial, is little more than ”political grandstanding” — it may even require more manpower than it would to keep them open.

“I can see why there are places that need to be closed — historic areas that need to be protected. But when you’re talking about open-air memorials, or scenic, natural areas – those types of areas can be open to the public without the need for much monitoring,” she says. “They could make minor arrangements to allow them to stay open.” Forcing the closure of privately-operated businesses located on federal land was another example of NPS taking unnecessary action to maximize inconvenience.   

“NPS has a choice to make between amplifying the political message, and making commonsense arrangements to avoid inconveniencing visitors,” she says. “I don’t see many commonsense solutions.” 

Norton says that in the event of a shutdown, NPS has considerable discretion to determine which of its personnel are “essential” to its operations, but typically makes such decisions in consultation with senior administration officials. 

“Given the fact that they have closed so much, and acted so broadly, I imagine that decision was made at the highest levels of park service leadership, in cooperation with department leadership and the White House,” she says. 

Andrew Stiles — Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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