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CRAIG: Putting the ‘service’ back in the National Park Service

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The U.S. National Park Service has not exactly distinguished itself since the government shutdown began on Oct. 1. The agency's conduct has been insensitive and unprofessional. Visitors deserve better from the agency charged with caring for America's great natural and historical treasures.

Based upon media reports, the Park Service has engaged in numerous actions during the past two weeks or so that could have and should have been avoided. Among the most ignominious incidents, Park Service personnel removed veterans and tourists from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a black granite outdoor wall on which are inscribed the names of more than 58,000 service members who died or were unaccounted for during the Vietnam War. Additionally, a group of 92 veterans, guests of a citizen-sponsored "Honor Flight" from Mississippi, were initially prevented from visiting the World War II Memorial, another outdoor memorial located on the national Mall.

At Yellowstone National Park, representatives of a senior citizens tour group complained of "Gestapo tactics" by armed National Park Service personnel. Some of the foreign tourists with limited English skills thought they were under arrest.

At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, area residents were said to have just about reached their breaking point with the federal government. The mayor of Blount County, Tenn., located partly within park boundaries, said, "It's almost like they're pressing to see how far they can push before the American people say, 'Enough is enough.'"

Grand Canyon National Park was initially ordered to remain closed despite offers by Arizona and local businesses to cover the costs to keep the park open. The National Park Service placed cones along the highway to prevent the viewing of Mount Rushmore, South Dakota's most popular attraction.

National Park Service websites were taken down, although Obamacare and White House websites remained up.

Although George Washington's Mount Vernon estate is privately funded, access was blocked because the Park Service maintains the parking lot. The self-sustaining Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean, Va., has been closed even though the National Park Service has not provided any funding or staff since 1980.

The National Park Service attempted to close state-run parks in Wisconsin, but state officials rebuffed the request since the majority of funds come from the state.

At Yosemite National Park, travelers faced barriers at an overlook along Tioga Pass to keep them from viewing the back side of Half Dome.

An unnamed Park Service official was quoted as saying that agency enforcement personnel have been instructed "to make life as difficult for people as we can. It's disgusting." This admission gets to the heart of what the shutdown is all about. It's about inflicting pain upon the public in an aggressive attempt to bolster a partisan, political attack. This reflects badly on a public service organization.

Columnist Ron Arnold reported that Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, assured officials that the decision was his alone. That is tragic. However, upon further inquiry, it was determined that the White House Office of Management and Budget ordered Mr. Jarvis to close the parks. That is just wrong.

Many of these actions since the first of the month are unprecedented. They simply did not occur during previous shutdowns. Either willingly or unwillingly, the National Park Service has become a partisan, political warrior.

Unfortunately, recent actions of the National Park Service are an intensification of a negative attitude toward people that has been evident for decades. Just ask citizens and local elected officials who have to deal with the agency on a day-to-day basis. We must avoid the notion that everything will be OK after the government shutdown ends. We have an immediate opportunity for positive change — change that reflects the good will of American citizens.

The following are a few suggestions that might keep this from happening again:

First, the Government Accountability Office and Congress should investigate the National Park Service. The key question that GAO's investigators and auditors should ask is this: During the shutdown, did the Park Service spend more money keeping people out of broadly accessible areas such as the national Mall, or normally unpatrolled facilities such as the Mount Vernon parking lots, than they would have normally spent to accommodate visitor use. If the answer is yes, then we have witnessed a clear abuse of power.

Second, states and counties should demand right-of-way agreements with the Park Service to protect access to nonfederal lands where public roads cross Park Service holdings. If the Park Service refuses to negotiate with other governments, Congress should intervene.

Third, the various "friends of" nonprofit organizations that support individual units of the National Park System should appreciate that the agency could use some friends right now. They should step forward to reassess whether they could help provide manpower or money to keep their unit at least partially operating if there is another shutdown or sequestration-caused impact. Isn't that what friends are for?

The U.S. Park Service must remember its mission as stewards of America's natural and historical resources. Denying citizens access to those resources is the behavior of political henchmen. It must not be allowed to happen again.

Larry Craig is a former Republican member of the U.S. Senate from Idaho.

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