How the National Parks Became the Biggest Battleground in the Shutdown

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.

The same goes for many of the problems at Yellowstone National Park. They might have been covered, but it would all have happened differently. The Eagle Tribune that covered some of the early shutdown scuffles this month at America's first designated national park would not have been something reporters in Washington could have read in real time 17 years ago; there was just no way to get information back East about what was happening on the ground except through files from national or wire-service reporters stationed out there, regional TV affiliates, or day-late deliveries of the larger regional newspapers. But now we can hear about every single thing that goes wrong, in real time, from the people involved.

The NPS quickly found an out to the World War II Memorial snafu in a 2010 legal decision against the park service, which found that the First Amendment protected free-speech rights in the parts of parks that serve as public forums, and decided to use that to allow the veterans to continue their visits. There's a formal "free-speech zone" inside the memorial, as well as a number of others throughout the National Mall, though Interior Department spokespeople declined to say how many or where they are located.

"The Honor Flights are being granted access to the WWII memorial to conduct First Amendment activities in accordance with National Park Service regulations applicable to the National Mall and Memorial Parks," Johnson said.

Others also have taken advantage of the provision, from immigration reform advocates to veterans' groups, who plan to descend on the mall this Sunday for the "Million Vet March on the Memorials," sponsored by a coalition of Tea Party and libertarian groups. Meanwhile, each day yellow caution tapes and barricades are pushed aside as Americans decide they're happy to risk getting snapped at for a moment in order to look at what they came to see.

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

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