WASHINGTON — The director of the National Park Service said Wednesday he would not reimburse Colorado for the cost it incurred to reopen Rocky Mountain National Park unless Congress passes a law ordering him to do so.
The state gave the federal agency nearly $363,000 to operate the park for ten days during the government shutdown, which ended just hours after the hearing.
Jonathan Jarvis, national park director, told a joint House hearing that he made it clear to Colorado and two other Western states where parks were reopened more than 10 days after the shutdown “there was no guarantee” the money would be refunded.
His response angered Republican lawmakers on the House Natural Resources and Government Oversight and Government Reform Committees, who said that because the park employees would be reimbursed from the federal government, the agency was essentially double dipping.
“When you get reimbursed, that’s a windfall to you if you don’t reimburse the states,” said Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn. “I think you should have to be responsible for that.”
Jarvis said that states would get back any unused money when the government reopened. The Rocky Mountain park reopened on Saturday, so Colorado would get back half of the money they gave the federal government.
“Whatever money is remaining will absolutely be returned to the state,” Jarvis said. “But for the money it’s charged against, I have no authority to take federal dollars that is reimbursed when the shutdown ends and give that to the states unless directly authorized by Congress – which I would support, by the way. I just don’t have that authority,” Jarvis said.
Republican Reps. Doc Hastings, chairman of the resources committee and Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the oversight committee, said they would make sure the park gives the money back to the states.
Jarvis was called before the rare joint hearing to explain his decision to close the national system in a zealous manner that included erecting barricades and putting additional armed officers in front of high-profile memorials to aggressively block the entrance to open air parks that traditionally remain open around the clock and often without the presence of park employees.
The tactics backfired after eight armed guards blocked World War II veterans from visiting their memorial in Washington, D.C., which was surrounded by barricades erected during the previous night with construction cranes. During regular operating hours, there are no park police officers at this memorial, a source familiar with the operation told The Colorado Observer.
Local newspapers reported that the National Park Service had closed a state road around Mount Rushmore and a road inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that effectively shut down the only school bus route for children living nearby.
The bus was blocked from taking children home after school.
In addition, privately owned parks were closed or blocked off like the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean, Virginia, which was sold by the Park Service 30 years ago but shut down in the middle of a Chamber of Commerce dinner.
Anna Eberly who manages the farm told the panel that her employees were treated with “disdain and contempt” making the National Park Service look “foolish and inept.”
Jarvis, who refused to appear at the hearing until he was issued a subpoena, took credit for reopening nearly a dozen private parks or adjacent parking lots and roads that were wrongly impacted after the incidents were reported in the press.
Jarvis also told the panel that when the nation’s 400 parks were closed or barricaded, he ordered park personnel to “take a very low key approach … do not confront, just stand back and tell people its closed.”
Jarvis’s orders appear to have been ignored in many parks, were reports surfaced that tourists were ordered by armed police not to “recreate” or take photographs.
Jarvis said the armed police in front of the Washington monuments and memorials were “mostly a respectful reminder to the public” and that he took “special care to make sure no veterans were turned away.”
“If they walked up to a ranger and said ‘I am here to exercise my First Amendment rights and we have less than 25′ (in our group), they would have been allowed,” Jarvis said.
Republicans said the park service intentionally tried to inflict as much visible pain on the American people as possible to create support for the Obama administration during the shutdown negotiations, but that their aggressive tactics backfired.
“It was wrong what you did, this decision of yours was not good,” Lamborn said. “It was not good for the American people and it’s not good for the park system either.”
“I appreciate the park system, and yet I think you besmirched its reputation and you have soured its relationship with congress, and in my opinion sir you have failed and you are a liability to the National Park Service,” Lamborn said.
Added Issa: “You made your point you could punish the American people.”
Jarvis said he “presented” his decision on the closure plans to the White House during a phone call and that it was solely his decision, “never the reverse.”
When asked who he spoke with at the White House, Jarvis responded, “I actually do not know who was on the phone.”
At one point during the hearing, Jarvis said the barriers were erected on the National Mall because of a threat to homeland security.
“Our intelligence indicated an uptick in activity and interest in potential threat, I cannot give specifics,” Jarvis said.