With a federal government shutdown appearing more and more likely as Congress and the White House struggle to find some fiscal middle ground, what are the odds that a state would attempt to take over a national park rather than see its tourism industry impacted by a closure?
Back in 1995, the last time the federal government shut down over a budget impasse, then-Arizona Gov. Fife Symington showed incredible moxie by trying to engineer just such a takeover of Grand Canyon National Park.
Backed by National Guard troops and wielding a misinformation campaign with hopes of keeping the National Park Service off-balance, the governor's ambitions at one point were ridiculed in an editorial cartoon depicting a Civil War-era, saber-wielding officer astride a horse at the park's entrance gate where a ranger pointed out that, "I don't care who you are, Mr. Most Excellent Exalted Son of the Morning Poohbah Fifemaster the Third, or whoever. The park is closed."
It's easier today, a bit more than 15 years removed from the incident, to laugh off Gov. Symington's effort to keep the national park open rather than see tourism drop. But at the time the issue went all the way to the top of the Interior Department and, according to some accounts, led Pentagon officials to specifically direct Arizona National Guard officials not to use force.
"The Grand Canyon closure was the most complicated and controversial of ALL of the closures in the NPS because it was exacerbated by the governor's attempted takeover of the federal installation," Rob Arnberger, who was the park's superintendent in 1995, told the Traveler. "The last time a state attempted that was in 1861 and was the proximate cause of the Civil War. This last sentence was stated in just that manner to the governor when I met him and his troops at the gate of Grand Canyon National Park."
A hefty compendium, simply titled Canyon Closure Incident, puts some fascinating historical perspective on how a federal government shutdown could impact the national parks. While it's highly unlikely that many states are fiscally fit enough these days to follow in Gov. Symington's footsteps if a shutdown arrives later this spring, the record of what transpired at the Grand Canyon in the fall of 1995 and into January 1996 is remarkable if for no other reason than the audacity shown by the governor.
While Park Service officials began planning for a possible government shutdown as early as September of that year, it wasn't until mid-November, when Superintendent Arnberger put into motion closure of Grand Canyon National Park as a result of the federal government shutdown, that the governor moved ahead with "serious plans ... to take over and operate the park."
"The convoy of National Guard trucks, Arizona Department of Public Safety and state parks vehicles, along with a helicopter escort, arrived at Grand Canyon Airport at 2:15 p.m. (on Nov. 16)," notes the executive summary that recapped the incident. "Following Superintendent Arnberger's greeting at the airport, Governor Symington held a half-hour press conference. Symington and Arnberger then retired to a private room to discuss the governor's intentions. Upon being asked by Superintendent Arnberger to enter the park and view the canyon, the governor commented, 'I'm not here to see the canyon, I'm here to take it over.'
"Arnberger replied that, 'The Attorney General's office has informed us that a take-over would be illegal.' The governor responded, 'It may be illegal, but who will sue us?'"
The governor's actions did not take Park Service officials by surprise. At one point, in anticipation of the governor's intentions, the U.S. attorney in Arizona began preparing a request for a Temporary Restraining Order to block the governor's attempt to take over the national park.
"We had good intelligence on what was happening inside the governor's meetings prior to the attempted takeover," recalls Gary Cummins, who was Mr. Arnberger's deputy superintendent. "It painted a picture of the governor and his aides acting out what can only be termed, 'schoolyard one-upmanship,' each participant goading the other into increasingly radical behaviors. Any attempt to tone down the actions were hooted down as 'wimpy.'"
According to Mr. Cummins, at one point Gov. Symington's staff tried to mislead park officials over what they were planning "by sending us misinformation and sending in undercover observers to scope out what we (the NPS) was up to."
"During the day of the actual confrontation, for example, one of the governor's top aides called me personally to tell me the National Guard participation had been cancelled and the governor was simply coming up from Phoenix to 'look around," he said. "We knew then that a small National Guard convoy was on the highway and that the governor was actually going to take control of the park....all this thanks to our inside person. So we were prepared."
Some details outlined in the Canyon Closure Incident read more like a recipe for a Hollywood script than aspects of an actual, concerted effort by a state to overrule and oust the federal government, at least from a national park.
The governor's office directed the Coconino Sheriff's Office to handle law enforcement in the park, and had state parks officials contact park concessionsaires "about operational arrangements following a state take-over of the park."
Other sections of the Canyon Closure Incident describe what could be described as a tactical overthrow of Park Service employees and operations.
While mingling with National Guard troops and Arizona state employees, an NPS criminal investigator hears Arizona State Parks supervisors giving assigments as to which squad would 'take over' various gates and park operations. One State Park Ranger was heard to say, 'I want to be on the sniper team.' Also heard were discussions of radio communications, locations of the park's radio repeater towers, disabling the park's communications, and setting up of their own communications.
While the National Park System did shut down for several days in November 1995, passage of a Continuing Resolution by Congress allowed the parks to reopen on November 20. Several weeks later, however, another budget impasse led to another partial closure of the parks.
To avoid another complete closure of Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona officials negotiated an arrangement with the Interior Department that called for the state to partially pay the Park Service to keep some areas of the park open for visitors.
Most of the visitor facilities between Mather Point and Hermit's Rest on the South Rim were kept open, as were lodges, restaurants, shops and bus tours. Areas that remained closed were "East Rim Drive overlooks, Desert View, Tusayan Museum, trails below the canyon rim, Phantom Ranch, the Colorado River, the North Rim, and Lees Ferry." As a result of those closures, no day or overnight-hiking below the South Rim was allowed, nor were there any river trips or mule trips allowed.
Arizona officials, through donations and state funds, raised nearly $550,000 to keep the park open for 31 days, from December 18, 1995, through January 18, 1996. On January 19, 1996, park officials announced that Congress had ended the impasse and that enough money was appropriated to keep the National Park System operating through the end of September, 1996.
While closing national parks definitely can catch the public's eye, it does not translate into huge savings for the federal government, points out Mr. Cummins.
"I think that a good point to make on this kind of silliness is that although the differences over budget matters are what drive such closures, you could make a point that the expense of keeping the canyon closed was nearly the same as keeping it open," he said. "Rangers had to man every single trailhead, including places like Lee's Ferry, to ensure that visitors did not enter the canyon. This meant 24-hour coverage, thus large overtime costs.
"If a visitor entered the closed Grand Canyon and got into trouble, of course we would have to get them out. Not to do so would almost certainly result in negligence lawsuits, etc. Then of course the closure imposed huge inconvenience and disappointment to the best visitors - the ones who wanted to experience what Grand Canyon is really about."
Today Mr. Arnberger looks back on what transpired with no small measure of amazement.
"It is a hell of an instructional piece," he said of the compendium that recounts how his park geared up for the possibility of a government shutdown, Gov. Symington's effort to take control of the park, and, finally, the resolution of the budget impasse. "We all never thought it would happen and went through repeating Continuing Resolutions until they quit repeating. The lesson is be prepared."
Traveler postscript: Exactly how today's park superintendents are preparing for a possible government shutdown is impossible to say. Park Service officials contacted by the Traveler referred us to Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff, who said, "As a matter of course, our agency plans for contingencies. In fact, since 1980, all agencies have had to have a plan in case of a government shutdown, and these plans are updated routinely."
"All of this is besides the point," she added, "since, as the bipartisan congressional leadership has said on a number of occasions and as the president has made clear, no one anticipates or wants a government shutdown."