With the clock, and the calendar, ticking closer to congressional gridlock over the country's debt ceiling, how might the National Park Service react if October 1 arrives without an increase in the ceiling?
Park Service staff across the country have been advised not to comment on that possibility, but instead refer media to an Interior Department spokeswoman. The Traveler has tried the past two days via phone and email to contact Jessica Kershaw to no avail.
However, while an email Ms. Kershaw sent out to a state agency lacked specifics on exactly how the Park Service and other Interior agencies will react in the event of a congressional impasse, it made clear that the parks will close.
"All Departmental agencies are reviewing the relevant legal requirements and updating their plans for executing an orderly shutdown, as outlined in the guidance OMB issued last week. This planning is consistent with what was done in previous instances where a potential lapse in appropriations was approaching. The specific details of those plans are still under development and review," she wrote in the email, which the Traveler obtained.
What is interesting to wonder is how states that look to national parks for tourism dollars will react if the debt ceiling is not raised and the parks do indeed close. Back in 1995 that prospect, also over a congressional budget impasse, led Arizona officials to consider forcibly taking over, and keeping open, Grand Canyon National Park.
Backed by National Guard troops and wielding a misinformation campaign with hopes of keeping the National Park Service off-balance, Gov. Fife Symington'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."
"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 back in March 2011 when a similar budget impasse was brewing. "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."
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.
How many states, many of which are struggling with their own fiscal fitness, will jump forward now to try to keep parks within their borders open?
With the peak leaf-peeping weeks quickly approaching, will Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee pool resources to keep Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, along with the Blue Ridge Parkway, open?
Will Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana chip in to keep Yellowstone National Park open during the waning days of the elk rut that draws visitors to listen to the chorusing bulls?
Of course, perhaps it wouldn't be bad if the parks were to lie fallow, as it were, for a few weeks, with a respite from hordes of stamping feet and auto exhaust.