How the National Parks Became the Biggest Battleground in the Shutdown

Citing the law, the park service refused volunteer assistance in 1995. In mid-November 1995, it rejected Arizona Governor Fife Symington's offer to have the state's National Guard staff the Grand Canyon, turning away troops in Humvees and state workers, according to reports in the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times. This year, the federal government has rejected an offer from Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who also hoped to use state funds to keep the economically important natural wonder open to tourists. Offers by the Republican National Committee to pay for the costs of keeping the World War II Memorial open and by South Dakota to keep Mount Rushmore open using state employees were similarly rebuffed.

Private-sector concessionaires and nonprofits entangled with the national parks were shut down or kicked out of the spaces where they regularly volunteered or operated during the 1995 shutdowns. The World War II Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien in San Francisco, operated by a non-profit and staffed by volunteers, had to shut down because it was covered by federal workers' compensation insurance, according to the Chronicle. The Golden Gate Park Association had to withdraw volunteers from the park when the areas they worked were closed to non-essential staff and volunteers. ''We cannot accept volunteer work, as it amounts to incurring an obligation on a government program,'' National Park Service spokesman Steve Crabtree said on November 18, 1995.

During the second shutdown, some exceptions got worked out. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns National Park stayed open after Arizona and New Mexico reached agreements with the park service in 1995. So, weirdly, did a single hunting area on federal land in Arkansas. After 10 days of park closures this October, the Interior Department announced it was changing course. "Responding to the economic impacts that the park closures are having on many communities and local businesses, Secretary [Sally] Jewell will consider agreements with Governors who indicate an interest and ability to fully fund National Park Service personnel to re-open national parks in their states," spokesman Blake Androff said in a statement.

And the private Pisgah Inn, which sits on federal land in a government-owned building, was allowed to reopen this October after protests from the Asheville Tea Party group and a threat of legal action from manager Bruce O'Connell. In 1995, O'Connell testified before a House subcommittee on behalf of the National Park Hospitality Association, which represents the private concessionaires who work inside the park system. O'Connell called for a more orderly system of shutting such outlets down and expressed "shock" after the parks service told him "a federal marshall would be sent to ensure my compliance"—a threat similar to others reported by people arguing with park service closures 17 years later.

The 1995-96 shutdown saw conflicts that resulted in legal action or threats of it, as well. In early January 1996, county officials in Brewster, Texas, sued the NPS over a road closure inside Big Bend National Park, according to The Houston Chronicle, accusing the feds of creating a public-safety threat and economic burden.

As with the current closures, the closures in 1995 and 1996 went far beyond just the park service to encompass a broad array of federal lands. All of the 507 wildlife refuges operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—save the one in Arkansas—were closed. The Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count was curtailed, and some 45,000 hunters were turned away from federal lands, the park service reported in a notice. Even "traditional winter sleigh rides, operated by a private vendor, have been suspended" at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming, according to the detailed accounting of the impact of the closures. Notices from utility companies started piling up at offices run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which could no longer pay its bills.

Representatives and senators from states like Alaska that contain vast swaths of federal land proposed that they receive a legislative out. But a bill considered to direct "the Secretary of the Interior to accept from any State donations of qualified State employee services to perform in a unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System or the National Park System, in a period of Government budgetary shutdown, functions otherwise authorized to be performed by Department of the Interior personnel" failed in the Gingrich-led House.

The National Mall Memorials

Mike Theiler/Reuters

In Washington, most of the parks-system drama during the 2013 shutdown has centered on closures on the National Mall, which is a single national park stretching through the middle of federal Washington that includes a slew of monuments. Controversy erupted over the closure of the monuments as soon as the shutdown began, when the open-air World War II Memorial, which is normally open to visitors 24/7 and staffed only part of that time, was fenced off just before a group of World War II veterans arrived from Mississippi. The next day, veterans with pre-existing plans to visit continued to arrive, and the tension soon spilled over to encompass visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That outdoor wall also was fenced off, and on October 4 guards sought to disperse crowds that ignored the bicycle-rack fences intended to keep them out.

Nothing like this happened during the 1995-96 shutdowns. Reports make it clear that many—though not all—of the memorials were shut down, but they did not become focal points for political activity. One reason is that the parks shutdown this time has been a much more thorough affair, reflecting the upsurge in security materiel available to NPS staffers since September 11, according to Interior officials. This time, fences were placed around all the memorials, not just the big ones with stairs. Another factor is the season: early October, when D.C. is still full of tourists, rather than November and late December, when the city empties out and people travel to spend time with their families, not a bunch of memorials.

There's been some debate over what exactly happened during the 1995 shutdown. A review of every Nexis story that mentions the leading monuments shows that pass-by sites like the Korean and Vietnam War Memorials were not gated back then, while ones that had stairs were.

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

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