Shutdown Showdown and the Battle over National Parks, Week One

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I write “Week One” hoping that this is the only week of the government shutdown, but fearing it may go on longer. On October 1, I watched my NPS colleagues at Catoctin Mountain Park barricade the park and posted “Sorry, we’re closed” signs they printed that morning. I furiously scanned documents in the park archives that morning. I listened as the interpretive ranger on duty answered repeated phone calls from the public wanting to know if the park was open. When they asked when the park would reopen or for more information, she had none to give. She, like her other 21,000 “non-essential” NPS colleagues, worked for four hours Tuesday morning to get things in order before they were put on furlough for an indeterminate period of time. 
 
Park closures made headlines pretty quickly. National parks became the poster child of the ill-considered consequences of the government shutdown. In the media, pictures of Yellowstone and the Lincoln Memorial with closed signs have become symbols of the shutdown. The National Mall was an embittered battleground as Park Police fenced off the open-air monuments. World War II veterans, outraged that they would be prohibited from their own memorial, walked around the barricades. Some veterans were accompanied by legislators and their staff who condemned the NPS for closing the Mall. U.S. Representative Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) told a female ranger that she should be ashamed of herself for prohibiting World War II veterans from entering the memorial. NBC captured this tense exchange on video. Some accuse the NPS for overdoing it by placing sanctions on parks that are not necessary in order to garner public attention and outrage. All the while, I heard from colleagues all across the country who just want to go back to work. 
 
The Organic Act is noticeably absent from these discussions. The Organic Act stipulates that the NPS must preserve and protect the natural and cultural resources from impairment for the enjoyment of the public and future generations. The NPS has a responsibility to allow public accessibility of sites, but it is also responsible for the protection of its priceless resources.  The Organic Act is inherently contradictory because sometimes the NPS must protect resources from visitors. The NPS is always trying to navigate this line. The current showdown is such a time when the agency feels prohibiting entry is the best policy in protecting the resources. Sure, some of these measures might be the the park administration flexing their political muscles, but I feel that they have few options to protect the resources especially when the time frame is indefinite. The agency also cannot ensure visitor safety or provide educational services using only essential employees. I think this current debate also underscores the public belief that park experiences are unmediated when in fact they are highly mediated. 
 
Pushing my frustration aside, I was resolute in moving my project forward this week. I was glad to hear that the media was reporting the impact of the shutdown on college students, federally-sponsored research, and the closure of vital repositories. I took the opportunity to look at some of the resources in the area and found an absolute gem of an archive in nearby Thurmont. Thurmont is small town with a long agricultural history. The public library has a special Agricultural History Collection that includes farm extension service records, home demonstration records, and Grange records. I was pleased to find that they have a robust collection of USDA Yearbooks in Agriculture. I had to strain my eyes to read them online a few weeks ago.  Sometimes, it’s just better to have the hard copy in your hands, and as it so happens the National Agricultural Library is closed. In a way, the shutdown might help local and state repositories. 
 
To be honest, I wandered into the archives without a strong research strategy. I just wanted to get a feel for the collection and see where that might lead me. I have not done a lot of primary source research on the Department of Agriculture, so this was refreshing to me. I am glad I read Sarah Phillip’s This Land, This Nation over the summer, which covers New Deal agricultural policy. I read the Yearbooks again. This time, I noticed that the land utilization reports from the Bureau of Land Economics were really hitting upon the themes embodied in human conservation, particularly the relationship of human welfare to the land. This office was dealing with submarginal land policies and the issues of rehabilitation and resettlement. I next turned to the Annual Reports of Maryland’s Extension Service that was established by the 1914 Smith-Lever Act. In those reports, I started to understand agricultural concerns in Maryland during the Great Depression. I started to see in material terms the impact of New Deal agricultural policy in the state. I was shocked to see that Frederick County, where the park is located, received almost twice the amount of any other Maryland county in the Agricultural Adjustment Act Wheat Control Program. I saw but scant references to the Catoctin Recreation Demonstration Project, but I also noted that state extension agents wrote that they took a very conservative approach to resettlement programs. I turned eagerly to the Frederick County extension agent’s annual reports. I thought surely this would reveal issues of submarginal land in the Catoctin area, resettlement, or the development of the Catoctin RDA project. I found nothing in those regards. However, I was interested in learning how the extension agent coordinated with various farm organizations in the county, including the Farm Bureau, Grange, and 4-H groups to promote farm efficiency. I noticed an absence of the Grange in the Catoctin area during that period, which makes me wonder if farmers on the mountain joined other subgroups or were not interested. It was exciting to see the impact of New Deal policy on the extension agent’s projects and I could chart the changes in New Deal agricultural and conservation policy through his reports. He discussed setting up the Wheat Control Program and later established Soil Conservation districts in the county. Although I am disappointed that I could not match up the agent’s activities with park farmers, this collection does give me a better idea of the influence of land use planning and federal agricultural and conservation policy in this particular county. I am trying to place the Catoctin RDA in a better context with other agricultural and conservation efforts in the area, because to me it is just one piece of a larger vision. 

Here are a few links from this week that contribute to the discussion:

NPR Article “National Parks Close as other Public Lands Remain Open” 

NBC “Congressman Confronts Park Ranger Over Closed World War II Memorial” 

Interview with NPS Director during 1995 Closure

Inside HigherEd Article on Impact of Shutdown on Research 

National Parks Conservation Association is taking the lead in publicizing impact to parks and organizing advocacy. Their website provides quantifiable impacts. Also, check out their Flikr album #KeepParksOpen of closure signs at parks all over the country.

Thurmont Center for Regional Agricultural History 

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