How the National Parks Became the Biggest Battleground in the Shutdown

This time is different from 1995, thanks to new media and the post-9/11 security environment. But there are surprising similarities, too.

Christopher Cox decided the nation's capital was looking ratty and he was going to do something about it.

On Wednesday, the chain-saw sculptor from South Carolina planted himself on a patch of thick lawn abutting the Lincoln Memorial and started to cut the overgrown grass with a gas-powered mower. A passerby took his picture and tweeted it out. It quickly went viral. The Weekly Standard—whose Jonathan Last editorialized in a cover story that "the conduct of the National Park Service over the last week might be the biggest scandal of the Obama administration"—covered it on the magazine's website, where Jim Swift reported that Park Police officers asked Cox to stop his act of civic-minded volunteerism. Others, such as the The Kansas City Star, picked up the story online. The local Washington CBS News affiliate did a post, interviewing Cox. Columnist Michael Barone at the Washington Examiner blogged about him, calling the fact that a South Carolinian was mowing the Lincoln Memorial grass a sign the Civil War was well and truly over.

The incident encapsulates how National Park Service closures have become the most visible face of the shutdown, now in its second week. Members of Congress who backed the government shutdown and fiercely oppose Obamacare and the president flocked to the World War II Memorial to chastise park rangers and stand with elderly veterans who feared being shut out of planned visits to the site on the National Mall, prompting NPS spokeswoman Carol Johnson to eventually offer a First Amendment-based reason to give the veterans access despite the shutdown.

Conservative media began to catalogue what National Review called acts of "Vindictive Shutdown Theater" involving the Park Service; others dubbed the White House the "spite house" (actually the name of a tiny historic home in Alexandria) and cheered on acts of rebellion by restaurateurs and tourists who defied the shutdown orders. County officials in Utah threatened "civil disobedience" and removal of  shutdown orders at a natural outdoor national monument, while governors in states with substantial federal lands pleaded—successfully, in the end—to be allowed to use state funds to keep national parks open and their local economies from crumbling.

The clashes set law and values against each other: Non-furloughed parks staffers struggled to balance common-sense impulses with orders to enforce the shutdown of beloved public spaces. Legal strictures preventing volunteers from covering for regular employees during a shutdown clashed with Americans' patriotic instinct to chip in in times of need. The Office of Management and Budget's guidance to appropriations-funded federal agencies to cease all activities, with exceptions for security and other essential functions, flummoxed citizens who see federal parks as their land. And all the while conservative online outlets have sought to whip up sentiment against the government for taking steps dictated by the shutdown order.

And yet what's been happening around the country is not wholly unprecedented. It's just very well documented. And, from the park service side, it's been better organized than during the only other mass closure —precisely because it is not unprecedented.

When a government shutdown closed the national parks in 1995, it was the first time every park had been simultaneously closed in the National Park Service's then-79-year history. Press reports from that time detail closures that were done haphazardly, because NPS officials didn't know how long the shutdown would last or what guidance to provide to people staying in the parks or running private businesses within them about when they might have to pack up. (This lack of guidance later became the subject of complaints at a congressional hearing.) In many cases, local officials used their discretion, leading to differences in how firmly parks were closed: Some were gated shut. Some merely saw ranger stations abandoned. Some campgrounds were shut down, others left open.

At the time, online media was in its infancy and the contemporary partisan press did not exist. The Washington Post would not launch its website until six months after the shutdown ended; The Weekly Standard debuted nine months after the government reopened. Taking pictures was something you did with film. There was no easy way to share videos without a physical exchange of tapes. While regional newspapers were in their heyday, most had no websites and no circulation outside discrete physical communities. Many did not feed their stories into Nexis, then the major database for searching for reports.

Yet a close reading of reports on Nexis show many of the same conflicts playing out in nearly the same manner then as today—and, in some cases, over the fate of exactly the same private-sector inns and concessionary outlets. The Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, for example, was shut down in 1995 and again in 2013, complaining loudly both times. Concessionaires at the bottom of the Grand Canyon suffered terribly during the first 1995 shutdown, just as they are in this most recent one.

The Two Shutdowns of 1995

Jason Reed

Conflicts between President Clinton and House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich actually caused two different shutdowns in 1995 and 1996. The first, from November 14 to 19, was resolved with a temporary spending bill. The second, from December 16 through January 6, ended when Clinton signed a budget that reopened the government.

No one knew at the start of the first shutdown how long it would last, and news reports from the time indicate many observers thought it might not last more than a few days. They weren't far off; it lasted for five. Hopes for a quick resolution meant the NPS was reluctant to uproot campers and close private businesses on park lands unnecessarily, creating an environment of wait-and-see leniency at the outset. This time around, agency personnel set policies at the outset in anticipation of protracted closures—and appear to have strictly enforced them at the outset, becoming more lenient over time.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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