(Photo credit: Gettysburg NMP entry sign, courtesy Cavalier92, Flickr Creative Commons)
Yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered there was an interesting piece about how the town of Gettysburg is coping with the shutdown-induced closure of the National Military Park. The town remains open, of course, although the park itself is not. Local businesses are trying hard to keep attracting visitors to the town when the area’s big attraction—the park—is definitely off the tour agenda. A key issue for debate is whether park service authorities should allow visitors to walk around the battlefield itself, even though there are no park rangers on duty to guide them around or protect them. Right now, no-one is allowed into park property, including the battlefield. There is a skeleton crew of law enforcement rangers on duty to keep people out. As NPR notes, even foot traffic is prohibited.
This is a particularly poignant matter in 2013, the 150th anniversary of the famous battle. Gettysburg is one of the nation’s foremost military shrines, regarded by many as the key turning point of the Civil War. This November also sees the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, which is believed to have taken place at the site of what is now the national cemetery, also currently closed to the public. Apparently, some in Washington, DC are grumbling that the National Park Service’s actions here, as elsewhere, are politically motivated. Perhaps, it is being said, the park service is deliberately exacerbating the effects of the shutdown—by barring all visitation, even to open-air sites—in order to maximize popular disruption and outrage, and increase public pressure to end the shutdown and restore full funding.
It’s easy to see why park-administered historic buildings cannot be opened to the public in the absence of supervision. It takes a bit more time and effort to explain the justification for barring access to open areas. As Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor notes: “To critics, the question is: If the government is of, by, and for the people, then shouldn’t they be able to walk on federal property unhindered, no matter what the politics of the moment in Washington?” (By that logic, ordinary citizens should just be allowed to wander into any military base or defense department property to see how their taxpayer dollars are being spent.)
This issue also cropped up on day one of the shutdown when WWII veterans visiting Washington, DC forced their way past barricades to gain access to the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. On that occasion park rangers wisely allowed the veterans, many of whom had flown in from across the country on Honor Flights, to remain at the memorial, while preventing other members of the public from gaining entry—an uneasy settlement, to be sure. But for the most part, the park service is holding to its no-access policy.
If you’re going to make an exception to the rule, it’s one thing when the site in question is small and manageable (the WWII memorial is a little over 7 acres) and you’re dealing with aging veterans who might not get another chance to pay their respects. It’s quite another when a park site covers 11,000 acres, as Gettysburg does, and there are no living veterans left to make exceptions for. Regardless of the unit’s size, there is a solid answer to the question, Why can’t people just be allowed to walk around an open-air national park unattended?
The answer is twofold. One, it’s a huge safety and liability issue—you just can’t get past that. What if someone gets injured or gets into a life-threatening altercation with another visitor? (A handful of law enforcement rangers are on hand only at access points to prevent entry; they are not tasked with patrolling the interior of the site.) Two, the National Park Service isn’t just the custodian of these sites; it also exists to proactively protect and preserve them unhindered for the benefit of the people and for future generations. Yes, “unhindered” means the NPS does not want to put walls or wire fences around these sites, but the more important part of the mission is the site’s protection and preservation. Without the staff on hand to do that, the park service cannot complete that mission. If unlimited hordes of visitors were allowed to trample over thousands of acres of a national treasure, unsupervised, disorder and chaos would be the most likely result. Certainly most people would likely try to treat the site with respect, but quite a few would not. I know from my own experience just how mindless large groups of visitors can prove themselves to be, and how mendacious a subset of these people can and will be. Without careful supervision, some visitors can and will get up to mischief: littering, graffiti, illegal removal or excavation of items of historic or cultural value are all likely outcomes. Who would clean up the mess they leave? Unfortunately, there’s no way of weeding out the untrustworthy visitor from the trustworthy, so you just have to apply the same rules to everybody. And that is why you cannot allow people to just wander into national parks unattended.
Patrik Jonsson (2013). “Government shutdown: Do national parks really need to be barricaded?” Christian Science Monitor, October 3.
Michael E. Ruane & Debbi Wilgoren (2013). “Visiting veterans storm closed war memorials.” Washington Post, October 1.
National Public Radio (2013). “150 Years After Battle Of Gettysburg, Shutdown Hindering History Tours.” All Things Considered, October 5.
Andrew Stiles (2013). “Former Interior Secretary: Parks Service ‘Has a Long History of Dramatizing Budget Issues.’” National Review Online, October 4.