With Debt Ceiling Approaching, How Will National Park Service React To Congressional Gridlock?

With the clock, and the calendar, ticking closer to congressional gridlock over the country's debt ceiling, how might the National Park Service react if October 1 arrives without an increase in the ceiling?

Park Service staff across the country have been advised not to comment on that possibility, but instead refer media to an Interior Department spokeswoman. The Traveler has tried the past two days via phone and email to contact Jessica Kershaw to no avail.

However, while an email Ms. Kershaw sent out to a state agency lacked specifics on exactly how the Park Service and other Interior agencies will react in the event of a congressional impasse, it made clear that the parks will close.

"All Departmental agencies are reviewing the relevant legal requirements and updating their plans for executing an orderly shutdown, as outlined in the guidance OMB issued last week. This planning is consistent with what was done in previous instances where a potential lapse in appropriations was approaching. The specific details of those plans are still under development and review," she wrote in the email, which the Traveler obtained.

What is interesting to wonder is how states that look to national parks for tourism dollars will react if the debt ceiling is not raised and the parks do indeed close. Back in 1995 that prospect, also over a congressional budget impasse, led Arizona officials to consider forcibly taking over, and keeping open, Grand Canyon National Park.

Backed by National Guard troops and wielding a misinformation campaign with hopes of keeping the National Park Service off-balance, Gov. Fife Symington's ambitions at one point were ridiculed in an editorial cartoon depicting a Civil War-era, saber-wielding officer astride a horse at the park's entrance gate where a ranger pointed out that, "I don't care who you are, Mr. Most Excellent Exalted Son of the Morning Poohbah Fifemaster the Third, or whoever. The park is closed."

"The Grand Canyon closure was the most complicated and controversial of ALL of the closures in the NPS because it was exacerbated by the governor's attempted takeover of the federal installation," Rob Arnberger, who was the park's superintendent in 1995, told the Traveler back in March 2011 when a similar budget impasse was brewing. "The last time a state attempted that was in 1861 and was the proximate cause of the Civil War. This last sentence was stated in just that manner to the governor when I met him and his troops at the gate of Grand Canyon National Park."

While the National Park System did shut down for several days in November 1995, passage of a Continuing Resolution by Congress allowed the parks to reopen on November 20. Several weeks later, however, another budget impasse led to another partial closure of the parks.

To avoid another complete closure of Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona officials negotiated an arrangement with the Interior Department that called for the state to partially pay the Park Service to keep some areas of the park open for visitors.

How many states, many of which are struggling with their own fiscal fitness, will jump forward now to try to keep parks within their borders open?

With the peak leaf-peeping weeks quickly approaching, will Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee pool resources to keep Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, along with the Blue Ridge Parkway, open?

Will Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana chip in to keep Yellowstone National Park open during the waning days of the elk rut that draws visitors to listen to the chorusing bulls?

Of course, perhaps it wouldn't be bad if the parks were to lie fallow, as it were, for a few weeks, with a respite from hordes of stamping feet and auto exhaust.

Comments

I bet you anything that even if the parks close down now, they'll be wide open by the time the main tourist season kicks in. There are too many parks in too many states generating too many dollars and too many congresscritters who know how loud their constituents will yell for it to be otherwise.

I am so sick and tired of the U.S. government's idiocies that I could spit, anyway. Not that I'm leaving or anything, you understand. And I do and will continue to vote, not that it seems to do any good.

Arizona's theatrics - or Gov. Symington's - in 1995 were foolish .... but so is the notion that states don't have the ability to keep order & maintain safety, in the event NPS career personnel can't.

Actually, it seems like it would be Congress' call, not the NPS.

The states wouldn't have to pony up a cash budget to NPS; they already have people & equipment & facilities, greatly exceeding what NPS deploy at Parks. Heck, even our local county exceeds the capabilities of Olympic National Park. Seriously.

In fact, Olympic often finds itself short on resources, and requests assistance from the 4 counties that surround it. "Local" governments would be more than adequate to run Olympic, even without tapping the State.

But Congress is the boss, not the NPS, and not Gov. Poohbah.

We're basically talking about theatrics here ... not to valid Gov. Poohbah or anything. But yeah .... Is the Federal government really going to shut down? In such an event, then obviously State & Local authorities actually have an obligation & duty to take over ... everything. But there is no sign we're looking at anything beyond posturing.

NPS could do itself a favor, in terms of it's none-to-shiny reputation with the public, by not being theatrical about it, themselves. Just go to minimal staff & services, and don't act like they're the only ones being put-upon. Tons of other people are going to be in the lurch, too.

Ted, your comments reflect a sad and parochial misunderstanding of the situation. When there is no budget, there is no money to pay for anything. While some of the funding will be recovered, the NPS cannot be sure how much will eventually be made available, or how long this standoff will go on. How do you define "minimal staff and services" under these circumstances?

And then there is the fact that federal agency management falls under the executive branch. Do you really think that the administration will want its minions to absorb the brunt of a budget standoff and conduct business as usual when there are bigger Realpolitik issues at stake?

The NPS is not alone, and you won't find other agencies pretending they can keep working without a budget. All have been instructed not to do so. Blame the impending closures on this NPS if you like, but let's see how many other agencies can weather the storm and continue any level of meaningful public service without a budget.

Waning gibbous, it's a matter of appropriate, reasoned, professional responses.

What is really the threat here? That Congress is engaged in play-acting & political buffoonery?

And what? - we should validate their indulgences? No, we should recognize it for what it is ... and not act like buffoons & pretend movie-stars, ourselves.

When there truly is no budget, and won't be as soon as somebody in the Beltway blinks, then Gov. Symington's troops really will be on the job, all across the nation, at all levels, in all roles. Until we build ourselves a new, working Government, and craft a new, working budget.

And very possibly, ban our existing Political Parties, who created the threat to the nation. The Dems & GOP know, that to really drop the ball here, probably puts them permanently out of business.

That Congress parades, throws their arms in the air, wrings their hands, declares the sky to be falling ... in the context that we have & see here, our obvious smart move & response, is to be the 'big-kids' in the room.

For the NPS to play along with, exploit the theater, will make them look bad.

Kurt first a technical correction. It's not the raising of the debt ceiling that is threatening to shut the government down, it's the lack of enacted appropriations bills for FY2014. The Continuing Resolution (which will eventually be enacted, with or without Obamacare funding) will allow the government to stay open at FY2013 funding levels.

As to how the NPS will react in case of a shutdown, they have that plan already on the shelf just waiting to be dusted off. It's two simple steps:

1. Shut down the Washington Monument

2. Shut down the Grand Canyon.

With those two actions there will once again be such a media firestorm that Congress will be forced to act and the two parties can take their best shot at blaming each other. It's worked great before and it even has its own name: the Washington Monument Strategy.

For the Washingon Monument, it's easy: just lock the door.

The problem at Grand Canyon is that State Highway 64 traverses through the Park and along the East Rim, offering a multitude of simple, rock-walled pullout-overlooks of the Canyon. The NPS lacks authority to close a state highway. But if people can still drive the East Rim and view the Canyon, they will not be sufficiently outraged. So in 1995 the problem was solved by posting rangers at the overlooks to prevent anyone from stopping at them. These are for the most part just paved pullouts - no visitor centers, toilets, or other facilities. But in order to fuel the media frenzy, it was "move along, folks, nothing to see here" as the Grand Canyon passed by out your car window.

Worked like a charm.

Kind of a copy of the "sequestration" hysteria. Try to make the cuts to the most popular (rather than least needed) programs.