Republicans Grill Park Service Chief on Closures, As Debt Deadline Looms

Evan Vucci/AP

Brought to Capitol Hill under subpoena, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis on Wednesday defended his agency’s near-total closures of 401 park sites during the government shutdown.

His testimony at a contentious House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing came as Congress was scrambling to reach a final deal on re-opening government and lifting the debt ceiling. .

Accused by Republicans of ignoring “common sense” in shutting down open-air parks and nearby access roads to maximize pain from the shutdown, Jarvis said his 24,000 employees -- all but 3,000 of whom are furloughed -- had no choice but to use a skeletal staff to protect Park Service properties under the Anti-Deficiency Act as interpreted following the Sept. 27 shutdown guidance from the Office of Management and Budget.

He said he has only nine employees currently on duty at the Park Service’s national office, which is the reason he declined the committee’s invitation to testify voluntarily. It took time, he said, for his staff to decide which sites could be reopened before the shutdown ended.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the oversight committee, convened the hearing by asking why American veterans and tourists were being turned away from such national parks as the Grand Canyon and the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. “Why are access roads being closed to traffic, why are local businesses being hurt?” he asked.

“These are punitive measures taken at no savings to the American people,” Issa said. “We should never [allow] all of the Park Service to be subjected to political influence. The Park Service under your leadership has performed less well than the one we had” during the previous government shutdown in the mid-1990s.

The closure policies are “arbitrary, inconsistent and ever-changing,” added Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. “They are motivated by a desire to make the shutdown as painful as possible and to squash the ensuing bad public relations. The actions of the Obama administration have sullied our great national parks system.”

After delivering a letter to the Park Service protesting its policies partially reopening some parks, Republican leaders brought in witnesses from impacted local governments, park sites and the tourist industry to dramatize the losses due to the shutdown.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the committee, blasted the hearing as a distraction on the day when most eyes in Washington are on the unfolding final negotiations to end the shutdown and avoid exhausting the United States’ borrowing authority. “What in the world are we doing here?” he demanded. “If my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are truly concerned about the shutdown, allow us to end it. Stop this madness today. Let us bring the clean Senate bill to the House floor, and let us pass it.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called the hearing “at best, nonsensical” and “political theater.” Holding up a mirror directed at Republicans, he blamed the shutdown on their “ineptitude and intransigence,” and asked: “When you decided to shut down government two weeks ago, did you forget that the NPS is part of federal government?”

Jarvis said, “It pains us not to be able to invite the American people into their national parks,” noting that national parks draw 282 million visitors annually -- including 700,000 per day in the month of October -- while generating $76 million per day for the national economy. He said his employees are aware that veterans groups who travel to such sites as the World War II Memorial are making a “pilgrimage that may be their last.”

But he disagreed with assertions that the current approach to mounting barricades and closing access roads is different from what occurred during the 1995-96 shutdown. Protections are needed to maintain surveillance and secure firefighting service because his normal staff of 300 on the Mall is reduced to 12, he said. “Monuments don’t take care of themselves, they need people to clean restrooms and pick up trash and be the eyes and ears of the Park Police,” he said.

First Amendment protections, due to long-standing statutes, allow groups with 25 or fewer members to enter monuments without a permit, he said in explaining some apparent exceptions.

Acknowledging that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Oct. 10 opened discussions with some states to allow them to pay to reopen parks, he called those “practical and temporary solutions that will ease the pains for some.”

The Park Service was criticized by Anna Eberly, managing director of the privately operated Claude Moore Colonial Farm, in McLean, Va., which sits on federal property and receives $100,000 annually from the Park Service for services. “We were closed, then allowed to reopen on Wednesday, but we still don’t know why. Why can’t someone admit their mistake?” she said. “The Park Service stabs us in the back at every opportunity.”

Denis Galvin, a board member of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association and former deputy director of the Park Service, defended Jarvis’ approach and called the shutdown itself the bigger failure. “Shutdown plans are by force of circumstances hastily prepared, and people hope they won’t be used,” he said. “With 401 sites, some across the international dateline, it’s not possible to cover every eventuality.”

Issa ended the hearing by announcing further subpoenas for Jarvis for documents that Issa thinks are being withheld to cover poor performance. “Whose land are the parks?” he asked. “The people’s or the government’s?”

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