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We’re not gonna take it! Americans use 1st Amendment to storm shutdown barriers
Taking their lead from the veterans who first pushed through the barricades to visit the World War II Memorial, Americans nationwide are defying the federal government shutdown, tossing aside traffic cones and toppling wooden fences to get to national parks and other federal lands that the administration has deemed out of bounds.
As the shutdown hits the middle of its second week, civil disobedience has become a sensation. Some proudly post online photos of themselves overcoming the government’s obstacles, and others use more subtle ways to make their point.
In Arizona, one road-stop inn is quietly giving visitors directions on how to use Forest Service roads to get a glimpse of the Grand Canyon, a national park that has been shut down.
In Washington, D.C., a South Carolina man said he has spent the past week picking up trash around the shuttered Lincoln Memorial, taking the place of National Park Service employees who have been furloughed.
In Massachusetts, Minuteman National Park is closed, but that hasn’t stopped the leaf-peepers from crossing the barricades to watch as autumn blooms in the Northeast.
“Thoreau would be proud,” wrote E.M. Swift, a former Sports Illustrated writer who lives in Carlisle, Mass., and who described the conscientious objectors as “uniformly well-dressed, many white-haired, seemingly law-abiding citizens.”
“They are willfully, determinately, civilly disobeying the law of the land,” Mr. Swift wrote in an essay for Boston’s National Public Radio station, adding that authorities were turning a blind eye to illegally parked cars and folks on the walking trails.
Not so elsewhere.
The Associated Press reported that nearly two dozen people have been cited for entering Grand Canyon National Park during the shutdown.
The Jacob Lake Inn, at a key crossroads above the north rim of the Grand Canyon, is losing business because of the shutdown. Matt Rich, one of the family owners, said this is the peak month and the make-or-break season, but 25 of the inn’s 62 rooms were empty Tuesday.
He said the inn isn’t trying to run afoul of the rules, but if visitors ask, they will receive directions to Forest Service roads that provide glimpses of the canyon without entering the park.
“We have people that are outraged — people from other countries who have spent considerable time and money to get here, you know, the Grand Canyon is one of the wonders of the world. So when we make them aware there are other views they can see from Forest Service land, they come back and hug us because we saved their vacation,” Mr. Rich said.
He said one newlywed couple had planned to make their honeymoon trip a journey through all of the national parks in Utah and the Grand Canyon. They have been reduced to making the trip and taking photos in front of the “closed” signs posted at each park.
In the Washington region, Park Police have barricaded off most of the parking areas along the George Washington Parkway — though the bicycle trail remains open.
Robert Simpson, who was on the trail near Alexandria on Wednesday, said he goes out about four times a week and hasn’t seen any drop in the number of people going for runs.
Still, he said he is “really disgusted” with the shutdown and blames House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
“I would tell Boehner to lead the party rather than be subservient to the tea party,” he said.
World War II Memorial
Although barricades still surround most of the site, there is an opening — figuratively and literally — that visitors can use to gain access through the gate commemorating the Pacific theater.
Rangers told visitors Wednesday that they could not deny entry to anyone who wanted to exercise First Amendment rights, and could not interrogate visitors, which effectively means the monument is open to those aware of the loophole.
“The First Amendment trumps all,” a Park Service ranger told visitors.
The exemption applies to monuments on the Mall, though visitors are not allowed inside the chambers of the Lincoln or Jefferson memorials because congregating there to exercise First Amendment rights is prohibited under Park Service regulations.
Some visitors Wednesday didn’t realize the monument was essentially open.
One woman jumped the front fence to get inside just around the corner from the area where barricades had been opened. Renee Younk, visiting from Wisconsin on a work trip, said she probably wouldn’t have gone into the monument based on the sign that read, “Due to the Federal government shutdown, this National Park Service area is closed, except for 1st Amendment activities.”
Donna Chapman, another out-of-town visitor, said she felt like she was exercising her First Amendment right just by visiting the memorial.
“I don’t think they should have gates up at all. It’s open air,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”
But the service had to relent Tuesday after it allowed a major pro-immigration rally on the otherwise closed Mall, drawing rebukes from rally participants and from others who said the administration shouldn’t be able to choose who is and who is not allowed to exercise rights.
Michael Litterst, a National Park Service spokesman, said the First Amendment exception applies only to several Washington and Philadelphia parks related to the government and its history, “due to these parks’ long history of hosting First Amendment events, their expansive outdoor grounds, and their location in major metropolitan areas.”
“You could not host a First Amendment rally at Chaco Culture, Grand Canyon, Manassas or any one of the 395 other parks where such activities are prohibited during the shutdown. They can be held only at the National Mall and Memorial Parks, the areas of the White House administered by the NPS, and Independence National Historical Park,” he said.
In some states, officials argue that the federal land management agencies are violating laws that guarantee access.
Private landowners and those holding concessions to run campgrounds or inns say they have been shut down, even though they use no federal funds and provide revenue to the government.
The owner of the Pisgah Inn along the Blue Ridge Parkway, who last week announced that he was defying the park service’s shutdown order, said it was a matter of principle.
“If not now, when? If not me, who?” Bruce O’Connell told The Washington Times.
Several congressional committees have announced that they would hold hearings about the Park Service’s decisions, which for many residents have called into question the extent of federal land ownership.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, wondered aloud during one committee meeting this week whether Americans shouldn’t be trusted to clean up after themselves on what amounts to their own property.
“If that’s really a major part of the reason that the park service is not allowing access to these very open spaces, I think as Americans we can do a little better — we can figure out how we can take care of our treasures,” she said.
Volunteer trash man
One man, Chris Cox, has started doing that. The South Carolina resident came to Washington a week ago and began picking up trash and emptying garbage cans around the Lincoln Memorial. Then he went and bought a leaf blower and spent two days blowing debris off the trails, and on Wednesday he brought a lawn mower with him and started cutting the grass.
He said most of the Park Police he encountered gave him a thumbs-up, but one sergeant hassled him and ordered him not to pick up any more trash.
“I said I’m not here to make headlines; I’m here to prevent them,” Mr. Cox said, adding that he was afraid the U.S. would embarrass itself to the world if photos of a dirty monument ran in the papers.
“He said, ‘It doesn’t matter if there’s a picture — maybe it’ll help us, maybe it’ll help the government get back open.’”
Later, though, the cops had a change of heart and told him he could pick up all the trash he wanted — though after last week’s scene when a man lit himself on fire, Mr. Cox said, he was told not to bring the gas can for his lawn mower.
“My message is to encourage Americans to stand shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. Park Service. They need to go to the park, go to the memorials, but go armed with a trash bag and a rake,” he said. “Ultimately, we are the stewards of our memorials at the end of the day.”
• Jacqueline Klimas and Nathan Porter contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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