Four Views on the Shutdown and the National Park Service

From Civil War Memory.

Cross-posted at

An unexpected media and political discourse has emerged as the Federal government nears a second week of being ‘shutdown.’ Access to sites under the watch of the National Park Service (NPS) became a political football. The conversation started almost simultaneous to the actual shutdown, when a squad of octo- and nonagenarian Mississippians stormed the barricades of the World War II Memorial in the middle of the National Mall. An irresistible media story, for certain. Politicians–as they do–seized on the spectacle. The next day a GOP Congressman berated an NPS ranger charged with manning the barricades, in truly a pathetic display even for Washington politics.

NPS closures became highly visible, with signs, barriers, and traffic cones juxtaposed against heritage sites and natural treasures. GOP congressmen offered the President a “compromise” that would have reopened the NPS sites while budget talks continued. President Obama turned down the proposal, and his rivals immediately attempted to seize the moral high ground. Some pundits ran with the idea that preventing access to “open-air monuments” was unconscionable, if not outright illegal.

Let’s turn to a bona fide, PhD’d historian for further discussion on the matter:

(Dr. Newt may have a point about the privately-owned Mt. Vernon)

Some pushed backed, explaining that because of the furlough the NPS could in no way manage or oversee these sites. If it was easy to tag Abe Lincoln a few weeks ago, think about now. And that, no, it did not cost more to pay rangers to barricade sites than it does to keep them open. Then an image of a blocked-off scenic state highway near Mt. Rushmore emerged, followed by stories of private vendors (and residents) of National Park land being removed by authorities. On Monday news broke across the blogosphere that ‘Obama would allow’ a union-backed immigration rights rally on the National Mall, even though ‘he had closed it’ for everyone else.

I’m willing to wager that the NPS is the most mentioned Federal agency over the last few days. All this for an agency who’s annual operating costs make up 1/13th of 1% of the Federal budget. So what gives? Here are four angles on the central symbolic role of the NPS during the shutdown.

  1. The focus on National Park, museum, and monument closings reveals the profound, integral, sacred, elemental place that our heritage sites hold in our national conscious. Much of the ‘outrage’ centers on the sentiment that this heritage is somehow outside of or above profane politics. Unfortunately, politicians and some biased media are staining the NPS name by using it as pawn in partisan brinkmanship. And shame on those shaming the closures.
  2. Both sides are ‘using’ NPS closings as publicity weapon. Both sides think they can gain the high ground using the symbolism of the NPS mentioned above. The GOP feels it can paint Obama as a heartless ideologue denying veterans and families the right to commune with national heritage. Obama is attempting the same, making a big show of closing monuments and national parks.
  3. Either way, this theater of political battle shows the relevancy and bipartisan popularity of the National Park System. Which is to be expected. Agencies such as NPS, the National Archives, and (for the most part) the Smithsonian traditionally enjoy a rate bipartisan support higher than many budget lines, despite the misleading title of this article. This whole kerfuffle should come up in the next NPS budget request.
  4. Why are we even talking about this? Again: 1/13th of 1% of the budget. What about WIC? Head Start? Actual programs that feed and care for people? (OK nevermind those furloughed Grand Canyon workers turning to the local food bank to feed themselves) What about the Defense budget, or an honest discussion about tax structures? Focusing on such a small agency is just a means to obscure and avoid the real impact of the shutdown. Classic ruling class bullshit.

All of these points are interdependent. None of the four make sense without considering the other three. Yet we haven’t seen much discussion about #4 from public historians (but something might be developing on Twitter), and we haven’t seen much discussion of #3 from politicians. Someday in the distant future, academic historians will parse the oncoming fallout from this political fight. Public historians might want to investigate the issue a bit sooner. 


One thought on “Four Views on the Shutdown and the National Park Service

  1. F. J. Padrones

    I tend to not give a lot of credit to politicians or their entourage but from the beginning it felt like a very succesful PR campaign from the Obama administration: 1) Like you said, WIC offices won’t receive the media attention; 2) and the GOP receives most of the negativity… at least until veterans were kicked out (patriots) and pro-immigrants (definitely non-patriots for many) allowed. So, shame on both parties!

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