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When Does Civil Disobedience Morph Into Criminal Mischief In National Parks?


When does a purported act of civil disobedience turn into criminal mischief in the National Park System? That's a good question, as visitors across the country are turning a blind eye to closure signs and barricades during the system's closure.

Most are simply heading up the road, pedaling along the Carriage Roads at Acadia National Park in Maine, or taking a hike. But there are others whose purported "civil disobedience" seems to slide towards criminal mischief that could lead to prosecution.

Such is the case of Zach Bowman, who borrowed a friend's 250cc dirt bike and headed into Great Smoky Mountains National for a joy ride soon after the closure took effect. From that escapade he wrote a story for Road & Track magazine's website, which he edits, and titled it A 250cc middle finger to the government shutdown: Civil Disobedience on Two Wheels.

But was it civil disobedience? Henry David Thoreau wrote an entire book on civil disobedience,  Resistance to Civil Government, in which he observed that, "Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?"

A week ago, on a sunny Saturday in southern Utah, a group organized by the owner of a Springdale outdoor store that was losing business due to the closure of Zion National Park crossed into the park as a demonstration against the shuttering of the park and to protest what it was doing to his business.

In the past week in Wyoming, runners, cyclists, and even motorists who managed to squeeze their vehicles past barricades were cited for entering Grand Teton National Park in spite of the closure. This coming Sunday, a group of Wyoming residents plans to protest at the east gate to Yellowstone National Park in a "family friendly" event with hopes that their governor, Matt Mead, will somehow take Yellowstone into the state park system.

All those instances might, more or less, be categorized as civil disobedience, or even ignorance. And in some instances, the Park Service might be overreacting, suggests Andrea Lankford, who worked for the agency for a dozen years as a law enforcement ranger and participated in two government showdowns.

"The NPS is staffed for emergencies during the shutdown, in some cases staffed more heavily than during non-shutdown times," she said. "This is allowed under the AntiDeficiency Act, which is the 'law' the government must follow during a shutdown. Under the AntiDeficiency Act, the NPS can staff however they need to provide for public safety and to protect property during a shutdown.

"They do not have to shut down overlooks along open highways (such as along Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota), parking lots and many open outdoor areas (the National Mall in Washington, D.C.), or a privately managed hotel off an open highway (Pisgah Inn along the Blue Ridge Parkway), because a strong case can be made that leaving these places open or access to these places open does not obligate expenditures," added Ms. Lankford.

But then there are cases such as Mr. Bowman's, which the former law enforcement ranger was of the opinion that it went well beyond civil disobedience because he violated laws that are in place outside of NPS closure activities and potentially damaged the natural resources.

His story might have been crafted to describe a brazen approach to defying the park's closure in an instance of civil disobedience. But that possibility vanished when he gunned his dirt bike and charged through Parsons Creek.

I had three options: go back the way I came, exit through the loop’s main entrance (where I would undoubtedly meet a curious ranger), or ford the creek on my friend’s brand-new, $5000 motorcycle. Naturally, I chose the latter.

I won’t lie to you: It took a solid 10 minutes of pacing back and forth, muttering, to convince myself this was the correct course of action. Even as I nervously worked the bike down the embankment to the water, I was certain this was the worst idea I’d had in a month. In addition to the likelihood of damaging my friend’s machine, this also ran against every tread-lightly fiber of my being. But I simply didn’t see another option.

Mr. Bowman videotaped his escapade with a helmet-cam, and embedded it in the story on the website. However, sometime Thursday the magazine removed the portion of video in which he drove through Parsons Branch.

The Traveler, though, managed to grab the video's url before that happened, and you can view it here...unless the magazine realizes the oversight and removes it, too.

Efforts to reach editors of Road & Track and Mr. Bowman Thursday for their thoughts on whether his ride bordered on criminal mischief were unsuccessful. Those who left comments on the story broke, not surprisingly, in two camps: one that hailed his boldness, another that was unimpressed with his ride.

"Yes, I suppose the aquatic life in the pristine streams of Great Smoky Mountains National Park like endangered fish species and salamanders that thrive ONLY in our national park in some places, got a real thrill out of your exhaust fumes and petrochemical pollutants. You may think you were giving the finger to the federal government, but really it's nature. Disgusting," wrote Holly Jean Scott.

To another Holly who suggested Mr. Bowman should be arrested for his ride, he agreed.

"Regardless of how much fun I had, I was breaking the law. That makes Holly dead right. I probably should have been caught and suffered accordingly," he said. "To me, the risk was worth the reward of enjoying the park as I'll likely never see it again."

National Park Service staff could not be reached Thursday for reaction to Mr. Bowman's ride. But he might be hearing from them.


Thanks Andrea. We need to change the law so that the NPS won't be subject to political decisions. The NPS should be required to keep things open that are revenue neutral. It should also be required to use any fees or taxes it collects from a unit in that formula.

I love the NPS. I'm sure just about everyone here at least loves the parks. It pains me to see it being used as a politcal tool. Good people are being hurt by the NPs right now. The only reason for some of these decisions it's made seems to be "How much pain can the NPS dish out to the American people".

Let's fix it so this can never happen again.

Hurt by the NPS, Carl, or by Congress?

But an emphatic YES to your point about making sure it can never happen again.

Hurt by the NPS, Carl, or by Congress?

Both - and you can through the administration into the mix as well.

It isi nteresting to me how those that feel strongly about to much government and advocate reducing said can change their position when a government service or agency is no longer providing a service they need or enjoy.

Unfortunately, this is going to continue. We're seeing firsthand that NPS can't manage these lands anymore.

The backlash from the NPS over reaching actions and Democrats inability to compromise anything will take a long time to overcome. The only reasonable answer is to return the NPs back to the states that they reside in. I'm not saying all, but there are quite a few where tensions between states and NPS have been brewing for years. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area is a perfect example and should be the first one.

Hurt by the NPS, Carl, or by Congress?

I promise you, Carl isn't hurting anyone. Is Congress? You betcha! But Congress isn't running the NPS. The Obama Admin and his appointee are. What they have done is wrong. What we need to do is prevent this from happening next time.

Some of the best times to tour Cades Cove by bicycle or foot, is after hours when the gates are closed. But these are times when people are still allowed in the park, just after sunset, car traffic is not allowed on the Cades Cove loop.

In terms of closing parks, I'm all for closing parks whenever budgets become so low that it becomes impossible to adequately maintain staff to protect visitors and park resources. I don't think, however, that turning our national park system over to the States to run is a solution. That was tried in 1964 with Yosemite. That option didn't work out too well.

Of course, I wonder how many readers of NPT are aware of the numerous State Park closures that have been brought during times of State budget shortfalls?

This morning's news, however, is that various States are going to provide interim funding in order to re-open national parks in their region. Is this a done deal?

Ooooooh, y'got me Carl.

I can feel the breath of my long gone high school English teacher down the back of my neck.

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