Standing up for America is tough, especially in a near-total shutdown of the federal government. With no end in site to the shutdown, people are getting testy, on both sides of the aisle. But some Republicans, it seems, have found a new dragon to fight in the proxy battle between the White House's legislative priorities and the conservative wing of the House Republicans: Park Rangers.
Park Rangers might seem like an unlikely antagonist for anyone who's not a cartoon bear, but it's really catching on in some wings of the conservative movement right now. That's, in part, because Republicans have found significant sideshow leverage by latching on like a male anglerfish to the pretty great story of a bunch of World War II veterans who decided to visit their own memorial in D.C. last week, government shutdown or no. Since then, Republican representatives, including those behind the "sacrifice Obamacare or the government gets it" strategy that brought us the shutdown in the first place haven't been able to stop themselves from showing up on-site to pose for photos, give statements, and bravely stand up to the employees charged with guarding the site. House Republicans even brought a bill to the floor to fund the agency, in order to re-open the parks during the shutdown. Then, things started to go wrong.
Last week, (currently paid) Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) walked up to a (currently unpaid) female park ranger at the World War II memorial and told her she should be "ashamed" of herself for denying access to the memorial. The essential employee told Neugebauer that she was not, in fact, ashamed of herself, noting that telling people the park was closed was "difficult." That's a sentiment shared by other Rangers, furloughed or not, including 92-year-old Betty Reid Soskin. "It was like hitting a wall to come out from under my hat and back into civvies,” Soskin said of the shutdown, on which she's furloughed, adding, "it seemed like a major interruption in my life because I don’t have time and these young folks were wasting my time, precious time." The "young folks" here are all of the members of Congress.
Despite the fact that most Park Rangers would probably prefer to be working in, rather than shutting down, the nation's treasures, other defiers followed suit in making the National Park Service a symbolic enemy of freedom. One Tea Party activist filmed himself getting up in the face of park rangers and law enforcement officials before "storming" the Lincoln Memorial. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker refused to close federal lands in his state. The Washington Times's Wesley Pruden wrote a scathing editorial on the National Park Service, with an anonymously-sourced quote reportedly from a Park Ranger saying exactly what Pruden would like to hear: "It’s a cheap way to deal with the situation...We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can. It’s disgusting." People are paraphrasing Thoreau in defense of the owner of the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which was forced to closed in the shutdown because his privately-run business sits on federal lands. The National Review even published a re-write of Woody Guthrie's "This Land" as an "anthem" for the National Park Service Rangers:
The National Park Service has furloughed over 21,000 workers during the shutdown, and closed its parks in one of the most visible symbols of the government's closure this week. Some conservatives believe the closures are a possibly Obama-ordered tactic to make the shutdown look worse than it actually is (in order to make Americans more dependent on the government), questioning why the NPS can pay for guards at some D.C. sites, but can't keep a staff to let the areas stay open. The dramatic closures of public land, furthermore, don't fit with an idea in some circles that the shutdown is actually not a big deal, or even a good way to cut "non-essential" services usually funded with federal dollars. National parks, while often serving similar recreational purposes, are different from, say, campgrounds, or other public federal lands that have remained open during the shutdown. The parks contain unique natural treasures, and the NPS's job is to preserve those sites. The agency decided that it couldn't do that job adequately under the shutdown, arguing that the most cost-efficient way for it to fulfill its mission is to close the parks to the public — it costs less to barricade and guard than it does to patrol and maintain.
It's easy to see why that decision became political bait: These closures are real, visible, and, like many aspects of the shutdown, they're hurting the businesses that depend on the federal lands to survive. Plus, the NPS's closure plan hasn't gone off hitch-free: There's on ongoing dispute over barricades at parking lots serving the privately-owned Mount Vernon, along with other privately-owned museums sitting on federal land. It's not clear what's up with these cones blocking a scenic view of Mount Rushmore. As has happened in the past, those examples of government miscommunication and incompetence are enough for some to state definitively that the National Park Service is the front line of a deliberate move by Obama himself to hurt and manipulate America:
The tour bus turnaround at mount vernon has been closed by federal police. This is deliberate effort by Obama to hurt the public. Disgusting— Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) October 2, 2013
Of course, the National Park Service wouldn't have to become the next iteration of the Benghazi mantra if a bill — which is sitting in the House of Representatives and would fund the government at sequester levels — were brought up for a vote and passed, ensuring that the government, and the parks, would reopen as soon as possible. But it's become increasingly obvious that House Speaker John Boehner's shutdown strategy doesn't involve such a vote. As Rep. Pete Sessions indicated during his press tour of the World War II memorial, the message here seems to be that the conservative wing of the GOP will stand up to just about anything that looks like a good opportunity for winning hearts and minds, with the assumption that the American public is behind the cause. Rep. Pete Sessions told a critic at the memorial that the GOP are "not French," adding, "we don't surrender."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.