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National Park Service reopens some sites after pressure from governors, veterans

- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2013

Seeking to blunt the worst of the government shutdown, the Obama administration agreed late last week to reopen national park sites in five states after governors said they would pony up millions of dollars to pay the workers needed to run them.

Among the parks are three of the most iconic sites in the U.S.: the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Statue of Liberty in New York and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

"I'm gratified the Obama administration agreed to reverse its policy and allow Arizona to reopen Grand Canyon, Arizona's most treasured landmark and a crucial driver of revenue to the state," Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said in a statement Friday.

It was the latest decision for the National Park Service, which was reeling from bad press after it closed the World War II Memorial on the Mall, trying to deny entry even to veterans who had traveled to Washington specifically to visit the monument.

On Sunday, veterans and others took to the Mall to protest the shutdown, and went so far as to take the metal barricades from around the memorials and try to carry them to the White House.

They were cheered on by Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who called for the memorial blockades to end.

The Park Service decisions have been a particular focus during the shutdown, which began Oct. 1, and shows little sign of letting up as Congress and President Obama spar over debt and fiscal year 2014 funding levels.

The memorials in Washington were an early flash point, with veterans bursting through barricades on the first day of the shutdown.

After the Park Service allowed an immigration protest on the Mall last week, it had to reverse its policy and publicly say that those conducting First Amendment activities would be allowed at most of the monuments on the Mall.

Meanwhile, the focus shifted to parks and other federal lands across the country, where the shutdown began to bite deeply into local economies.

During previous shutdowns Arizona and other states worked out deals to pay for opening national parks within their borders, but the Obama administration balked, telling states they didn't have the legal authority.

Late last week, after several congressional committees announced that they would hold hearings examining the Park Service's decisions, the Interior Department, which oversees the service, changed direction and said it could enter into agreements with states.

First to seal a deal was Utah, whose governor offered to "donate" $1.7 million over the next 10 days to open eight National Park Service sites, including several of the country's most pristine parks.

Next was Colorado, followed by New York, Arizona and South Dakota.

On Sunday morning, sightseers stood in line in Manhattan's Battery Park, awaiting the first ferry to the Statue of Liberty since Oct. 1.

The Interior Department said several other states also were seeking arrangements.

"This is a practical and temporary solution that will lessen the pain for some businesses and communities," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.

Utah's deal lasts for 10 days, while the Arizona deal for the Grand Canyon lasts seven days.

If the government shutdown, which began Oct. 1, ends before the 10-day period ends, Utah said, the state will be refunded the unused money.

Ms. Jewell told the states that she cannot guarantee reimbursement for money spent during the shutdown and said that will be up to Congress.

Members of Congress have accused the Obama administration of closing down far more federal lands than during the 1995-96 shutdown, and they point to decisions at the U.S. Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the parks.

"The Obama administration is taking advantage of every opportunity to make this shutdown as painful as possible," said House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, Washington Republican.

He and Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, have scheduled a joint hearing for Wednesday to demand answers from the Park Service.

Arizona officials accused the Interior Department of "dragging their feet" in working to reopen the Grand Canyon.

The site is a major economic driver for northern Arizona, particularly in the fall. River outfitters, inns and campgrounds all have said they are taking a serious financial hit with the park closed.

Meanwhile, a preservation group that advocates for wild horses last week accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of recalling furloughed workers and spending tens of thousands of dollars, despite the shutdown, to process horses for sale.

The preservation group said the horses were being shipped to a middleman for a slaughter operation.

But even as it continued to prepare the horses for shipment, the service said, the shutdown forced it to cancel public observation of the captured horses.

The groups went to court last week to seek a judge's intervention.

Meredith Somers and Andrea Noble contributed to this report.

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