How the National Parks Became the Biggest Battleground in the Shutdown

The Dallas Morning News's scener from the first day of the first 1995 shutdown reported the Lincoln Memorial was closed:

the Lincoln Memorial was ringed with white barricades reading 'Area Closed.' A busload of Japanese tourists leaned their umbrellas into the cold rain and posed for photos by the sawhorses as Park Ranger Linda Bennett, 34, kept a lonely vigil.

"I guess it's kind of an honor to be deemed essential," she said. "But right now, sitting in front of the TV at home sounds pretty good."

On November 15, the Washington Post reported the Washington Monument had been closed and tours of it and others monuments canceled:

Though tours of the monuments were canceled, some tourists wandered by for a quick look anyway. Others, who hadn't gotten word of the shutdown, were confused. Hans and Betina Pirchir, two bankers visiting from Austria, stood in the cold rain in front of the shuttered Washington Monument yesterday and asked, "Where are all the people?"

The Globe and Mail reported on November 16 that some monuments were closed but not others:

As part of the government's shutdown of non-essential services, the National Park Service has closed almost all the major tourist sites. Tours
of the White House have been cancelled. The Lincoln and Jefferson
memorials are closed ....

It's not as if there is absolutely nothing to do, of course. Anyone can
still walk past the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the new Korean War
Memorial, which are on opposite sides of the Reflecting Pool near the
Lincoln Memorial.

An Associated Press report from the first day of the shutdown said "tourists were free to … touch the walls of the Vietnam Memorial and climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to read the Gettysburg Address." But three days in, the Miami Herald reported the Lincoln Memorial was "locked up."

On January 6, the Associated Press reported, "The National Park Service reopened the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and other sites Saturday morning, with the Smithsonian and other museums following at noon"—indicating the Lincoln Memorial was at some point formally closed. To the extent that it remained accessible, it was because people ignored the temporary fencing then, just as they are ignoring it now.

The big controversy in 1995 wasn't in Washington but in the southwest, with the closure of the Grand Canyon—the first since it opened as a national park in 1919. It makes sense: The World War II Memorial is an open-air, manmade creation that people can visit at night, but the Grand Canyon is an open-air act of God and time, described by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 as "beyond comparison—beyond description; absolutely unparalleled throughout the wide world." How could the government close this gaping chasm in the earth it had promised to hold in trust for the people?

Security, Liability, and the First Amendment

Joe Skipper/Reuters

The thoroughness of the closures this year makes sense only if you're banking on a long shutdown. Trash doesn't pile up overnight. And while on the first and second days of a shutdown it can seem idiotic to have cordoned off a playground at a federally run neighborhood park on Capitol Hill, by week three such a barrier will be a necessary legal warning that if you go in anyway and your toddler cuts herself on broken glass and that stayed there because no one is cleaning the place—well, that's on you, not the government.

"Without staff or funding to ensure the safety of visitors, the security of the memorials, and the continued operation and maintenance of park facilities, the memorials on the National Mall—just like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon—are closed," Johnson, the NPS spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Cordoning spaces off or hanging signs in front of them even if they cannot be securely closed is a legal strategy for preemptively dealing with the things that can go wrong in abandoned spaces, and serves notice that if a site looks bad it's because of the shutdown, not willful neglect. D.C. has a terrible record of under-maintained public parks turning into disturbing hangouts for criminal activity, not to mention locales for trash-pileups and cozy vermin homes. In a shutdown of a couple of days, that's not much of a worry. But if could become more of one if the shutdown extends into November. (See my 2002 Washington City Paper piece, "Parks and Wrecks," if you want to a sense of what a public-safety disaster bad parks policy once created inside the District.) One week in, Mayor Vincent Gray announced the city would begin emptying trash cans in federally owned neighborhood parks that are easily accessible to city trash collectors, in a bid to prevent an increase in vermin citywide.

Already, there are signs of decay. C-SPAN's Howard Mortman tweeted on Wednesday morning: "-related? Spotted 2 rotting roadkill deer carcasses southbound GW Pkwy this morning (below 123). GW Pky is a natl park On his way home, he counted three carcasses.

That gets to how the radically different media environment makes the current moment so very different from 1995. During the Clinton Administration, if you saw two animal carcasses on the side of the George Washington Parkway on your drive to work, you told your coworkers instead of tweeting it to the whole world in near-real time. Everything now is more documented, more likely to become a story.

That's how a short dispute over the placement of barriers on a tour-bus turnaround became a multiday story in online media, fueled by and fueling conservative outrage. On the morning of October 1, NPS staffers barricaded parking lots along the GW Parkway, including a lot and turnaround at Mount Vernon, the first president's historic estate. The park service regulates the spaces, but the Mount Vernon Ladies Association actually owns the land and manages the estate. By Tuesday afternoon, after some back and forth between the NPS and the association, the spaces were back in service. It's hard to imagine such a brief disagreement over the placement of barriers on a parking lot becoming synecdoche for the president himself 17 years ago—one conservative columnist cited the kerfuffle in calling him "a sadist-in-chief who abuses the American people purely for partisan gain"—or that anyone would even have heard about it.

Presented by

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

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