The Friday afternoon drizzle that started midway through Pennsylvania turned to a steady rainfall by the time I hit Maryland. Across the Mason-Dixon line and across the Potomac, the rain continued to fall. Autumn should have been in full blaze around me, but the rain dampened the colors the same way it dampened my spirits.
I was on my way to Spotsylvania for the long weekend, which would normally be the busiest weekend of the season at the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania battlefields. Alas, with the government shutdown, the battlefields remained off-limits and empty. Orange traffic cones blocked access to the visitor center at Chancellorsville, with a double line of yellow “do not cross” police tape to further emphasize the point. At Spotsylvania, the heavy gate, made of thick wooden beams, was locked closed across the entryway on Grant Drive.
These days, I live part of each week on ground that was fought over on May 1, 1863, on the opening day of the battle of Chancellorsville. A few miles away, my fianceé’s business sits adjacent to the Spotsylvania battlefield; Ninth Corps trenches snake through the property’s back woods. These places give me the chance to get a battlefield fix if I need one. Thousands of Civil War buffs and holiday-weekend travelers could not—at least not if they wanted an NPS site. (See ECW’s “No NPS? No Problem!” series for alternatives.)
Unfortunately, tempers flared when the Park Service was first forced to close these sites and others. Visitors, understandably frustrated that they couldn’t access hallowed grounds, beloved monuments, and natural landscapes, misdirected their frustrations at the park rangers responsible for protecting those resources. Some members of the public went so far as to cast park rangers as bad guys who wanted to deny people access to public property.
I felt so frustrated by that news. If the rangers at other parks are like those working at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania—and I have no reason to think they aren’t—then they are deeply devoted to their jobs and to the resources they protect. Likewise, they want nothing more than to see people enjoying and appreciating those resources, so I’m sure they take no joy in enforcing the closure. In no way should they be vilified for doing their jobs under these trying circumstances.
That’s what I found so ironic when Texas Congressman Randy Neugebauer confronted an NPS ranger at the WWII Memorial on October 2. The government shutdown forced the closure of the memorial, putting the ranger in the highly unenviable job of telling visitors—many of them WWII vets—that they couldn’t visit the memorial. In other words, the ranger had to do her job because Congress wouldn’t do its job. Nice.
Meanwhile, Park Service employees not involved in law enforcement are off the job. It felt like nothing more than a long weekend at first, one of my NPS friends told me, but he said that if the shutdown extended into a second week, folks would start to get worried.
Well, we’re now into week three.
More than one of my NPS friends are quietly weighing the necessity of applying for unemployment. After all, whether the government is open for business or not, the mortgage still needs to get paid.
Yet many of those same friends are also circulating a video produced by the National Parks Conservation Association that speaks eloquently and beautifully to the pride they still have in their jobs and the frustration the shutdown is causing them.
No one likes the fact that parks remain closed as part of the shutdown: not the public and not the employees of the Park Service. I want nothing more than to share these battlefields with people, one friend told me, and now I’m in the awkward position of having to turn them away.
So, let’s cut them some slack as they try to make the best of a bad situation. After all, if the parks are closed, it’s because closing them is the best way to protect and preserve them. I think we can agree those things have to happen above all else. Sure, we may want to visit—and some people have traveled great distances only to be turned away—but in the end, it should never be about us. It’s about the landscapes and memorials that we hold dear. It’s about the sacrifices and memories of those who came before, held in trust for all those still to come.
In the meantime, we just need to wait out the rain.