Cut Them Some Slack: It’s not the rangers’ fault they have to turn visitors away

C-villeClosed02The 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.

Local historian John Cummings channels Wile E. Coyote outside the locked gate at Spotsylvania. John provides battlefield guide services to visitors but has had to modify his offering to work around the closure. He’s been able to ride out the government shutdown because his tours cover many surrounding sites not within the core battlefield protected by the NPS, but he feels sorry for clients that have traveled a great distance to view the Bloody Angle and are denied access.

22 Responses to Cut Them Some Slack: It’s not the rangers’ fault they have to turn visitors away

  1. It was not the rangers at the park level that ordered the shutdown of the parks, it came from the very top. Barricading the open air WW II Memorial, I believe was ordered for vicious political reasons from the White House. I support the veterans who temporarily removed the barricades. Now we need a million school children and parents to nonviolently get the W. H. open for visitors. I support the park rangers they are great people.

    1. Joe, do you have any evidence that the closure “came from the very top” for “vicious political reasons”? A memo, perhaps, or an executive order? Otherwise, I think you’re guilty of the very vicious politics you accuse the administration of.

      Yes, the memorials in D.C. are open air–but they are also patrolled and protected by NPS personnel. The shutdown forced the removal of most of those personnel, leaving law enforcement rangers severely short-handed. Closure seemed like the only viable way to protect the memorials from vandalism (yes, it does happen)–not to mention the visitors themselves (I’ve seen people, through carelessness or idiocy, fall in fountains before).

      I HATE that vets have been denied access to their own memorials. That’s not the NPS’s fault.

      1. Jonathan Jervis, the Director of the NPS testifed before a congressional committee today that, yes, he did talk to the White House about open air memorial and monument closures. As with the IRS managers, the NPS managers know what is expected, even without “talking with the White House” which actually happened in this case. Is that good enough?

      2. Director of the NPS Jonathan Jervis testifed before Congress today that, yes, he did talk to the White House about closure of open air memorials and monuments.

      3. Here are Jervis’ full remarks:

        According to the Washington City Paper, “on a typical day there are 300 National Mall and Memorial Park employees on duty, and during the shutdown, all but a dozen of these employees have been furloughed.” (

        Said Jervis:

        “Even though the U.S. Park Police commissioned officers have been exempted from the furlough, given the limited staff resources during the shutdown, prudent and practical steps were taken to secure life and property at these national icons where security has become increasingly complex in a post-9/11 world.

        “We know that visits of America’s World War II veterans to the memorial are pilgrimages that many of them will only make once. Throughout the shutdown, we have worked diligently to try and ensure that no Honor Flight group, veteran, or their family has been turned away from visiting the veterans’ memorials. Likewise, those also engaging in First Amendment activities are welcome to visit the war memorials.”

      4. No, i do not have a copy of an executive order or a memo. Has the park ranger (or now former park ranger) in the Washington Times piece been identified? It seems callous to me that knowing of the Angel Flights to the WW II Monument that the President could not make an exception for our war heroes.
        “It’s a cheap way to deal with the situation,” an angry Park Service ranger in Washington says of the harassment. “We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can. It’s disgusting.” As I said before park rangers are great people.

      5. I’m leery of anything that appears in a publication as openly partisan as the Washington Times. They’re not reporting news; they’re gathering information that supports their political view.

        That said, perhaps the ranger DID indeed claim that he/she was told to harass people–but he/she doesn’t answer questions like “WHO told you to make life as difficult as you can,” “For what reason are you supposed to make life ‘difficult,'” and “WHY are you doing so if you seem so vehemently opposed to your supposed orders?” Anonymity allows him/her to spout off without behind held accountable to back up his/her allegations.

  2. Hopefully people are rethinking the way they vote. Shutting down the government amounts to an act of obstruction. Whose policy is that? I find it unbelievable that the very people who assert constantly that government is an unnecessary evil, become angry (and blame others!) when their own decisions shut down their particular interests.

    I saw the video in which Rep. Neugebauer berated the young female park ranger, who remained politely professional and maintained admirable aplomb during the encounter. He, on the other hand, a mature man in position of highest leadership in this country whom, according to etiquette, we are supposed to address as “Honorable” (he is anything but), acted like the worst kind of jerk.

    I hope we will soon get access to our battlefields again. Thank you for clarifying that the full force of rangers is necessary to protect these sites; in fact, with all of the cutbacks I suspect that even in normal operating mode they are short-staffed.

    1. You raise a really important point, Amanda: Even when the agency is up and going in “normal” operating mode, it is still chronically, woefully underfunded and understaffed.

      1. Excellent point indeed, the National Park Service ranks towards the bottom as far as government funding is concerned. The majority of its budget is fixed costs, so any cuts have to result in staff downsizing. At many of the sites I have visited the front line staff visitors primarily interact with on a given day are seasonal employees, who have to relocate every six months or find secondary jobs to get by.

        But they consider it worth it to enjoy sharing their resource with the American public. The NPS closures are most devastating to its own employees–in more ways than just their pocketbooks.

      2. Interesting, is your comment that the NPS is “chronically, woefully underfunded and understaffed” from evidence or anecdotal? I strongly suspect the later. The NPS budget has gone from $919 million in 2001 to almost $3 billion in FY 2013! Does a tripling of the budget sound like “chronically, woefully underfunded” to you? lol They are understaffed from my limited NPS experience at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, but a better than tripling of the budget in 12 years says it isn’t a money problem…perhaps HOW they are spending the money, but not a lack of funding. If I were guessing, I would suspect too many people pushing paper at regional offices on up, and not enough people on the frontlines. The NPS overworks and underpays the frontline people and does the reverse as you move away from the parks themselves is my impression.

      3. That’s a good point, Tom. I guess it would be more accurate for me to say that parks themselves are generally underfunded—particularly for front-line operations and capital projects. The NPS, like most federal agencies, is top heavy and could probably do a lot of things more efficiently. Last I’d heard, though, the NPS was something like $11.5 billion in the hole on deferred maintenance projects (which seems like underfunding to me).

  3. On Sunday, I drove onto Jamestown island, which is partly owned by the Park Service, and partly by Preservation Virginia, a private organization. The two groups have coexisted for decades, to everybody’s benefit. The situation on Sunday was silly (though I take it less silly than earlier in the week when all access to the island was blocked), and involved a lot of dedicated Preservation Virginia employees and volunteers standing in a driving rain so that people could see parts of what was available. (It gets very comic indeed, the whole story) I wanted to see Preservation Virginia’s new-ish archaeology museum (I’ve seen most of the rest of what’s on the island, and it was raining very hard), and got that done. I’m grateful those who made it possible. I have to feel the Park Rangers (including those who were stationed on the causeway ready to ticket anyone going 26 in a 25 mph) feel badly about the situation they didn’t create, but it’s going to take a while to repair the wounds caused by all this, I suspect.

  4. The Park Service was a political football. Ironically, the idea of closing them was to “save” money, and yet putting up barricades plus personnel to keep people out…closing many of the open air sites like the WWII Memorial obviously cost more than keeping it open. But that decision isn’t the Park Services to make. They are in the Dept of the Interior, in the Executive Branch, if they tell you to close down…you close down.

    1. They were not closed “to ‘save’ money.” They were closed because the government was shut down. Everything was closed.

    2. True, there’s always a degree of political gamesmanship that goes on with any high-profile agency. I remember when sequester first came around in the spring. Instead of immediately announcing efficiencies, most agencies announced all the things they were no longer going to be able to do for the public. (The Air Force, for instance, announced that it would have to stop doing fly-overs of public events even though those fly-overs constituted only a fraction of time during training missions, which otherwise continued–just out of the public eye.)

  5. I respectfully disagree. The Rangers were complicit in this political game too. The Rangers could easily have looked the other way and not have enforced the shutdown so rigouresly. Saying you’re just following orders doesn’t cut it. Ask the nazi goons from WWII how that worked for them. Never before have open air monuments been shut down until this extreme administration took office. Placing cones along sides of the road to block views of Mt Rushmore etc is just plain childish. They used the NPS for polictical purposes. If the adminsitration would have just signed the bills that the House passsed then this shutdown would have never occured. Petty children occupy this WH.

    1. I’m sorry you’ve been misinformed about the situation, Robert. The WH actually had nothing to do with the House bills, which never made it past the Senate. The Senate refused to take them up because the Senate considered the House measures to be nothing more than “cherrypicking” popular programs for political gain. (Not making a political statement of my own here but simply recounting what was widely reported in a variety of news sources.) Dragging in the WH is a red herring.

      Alas, our national resources MUST be preserved and protected, so to suggest that rangers should look the other way is irresponsible and wrong-headed.

      I remember a while back when the Lincoln Memorial got spray-painted, and there was a huge outcry (particularly from the political Right) for more protection for our monuments. Now many of those same people are trying to argue that it’s okay to leave those same monuments unprotected. That kind of hypocrisy sounds like political flim-flammery to me.

  6. Nice to see that my second rebuttal from Oct 23rd was deleted. Must be nice to be able to censor/delete speech you disagree with.

    1. We encourage debate, discussion, and disagreement here–but we don’t tolerate ad hominem attacks, intentional misinformation, or inane propaganda. If comments don’t forward the discussion in some way, we reserve the right to delete them.

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