The Odessa Record -

By Rob Coffman
Lincoln County Commissioner 

Commish's Corner

Shutdown is different under new administration

 

January 25, 2018



In 2013, the federal government shut down for 16 days. What that meant for those of us wishing to access our very own Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area at that time, was nothing short of unbelievable. Operating under a contingency plan for a lapse in funding developed by the director of the National Park Service (a presidential appointee), in conjunction with the Secretary of the Interior (a presidential cabinet post), the Park Service spent untold taxpayer dollars to physically block access to over 600 miles of shoreline, 26 different boat launches, 35 campgrounds and hundreds of access points on Lake Roosevelt. But, you could drive to the other side of the lake and have complete access to the lake. How did this make any sense? Again, to be fair to our local Park Service employees, they were just following instructions from the top down. Although never formally stated for obvious reasons, the directive from the Obama administration was to make the government shutdown as painful to the public as possible.

The contingency plan laid out a process to “close” and secure park facilities and to instruct day use visitors to leave the park immediately. Overnight visitors were given two days to depart. Wherever possible, park roads were closed and access was denied. Denied to the point that park rangers were patrolling the area with AR-15 rifles and issuing trespassing tickets to violators. Denied to the point that boat launches and campgrounds were physically blocked off.

In response to this ridiculousness, I set out on a mission to compel the director of the Park Service to change the contingency plan. The idea was to allow all of the 401 park superintendents, who best know how to manage their own areas, to custom tailor a plan of how to operate in the event of a government shutdown. I started by writing a letter to then director Jarvis, laying out a detailed plan on how this could work. After many phone calls and email inquiries as to why there was no response from the director, I finally received a response almost five months later, not from the director but from the comptroller. The two-page letter thanked me for my concern, justified their actions by citing federal regulations and basically said that the Park Service manages all of their park units as a system and cannot support any agreement that singles out any park for special consideration.

The next step then, was to develop a resolution that the National Association of Counties could use as a platform when lobbying in Washington, D.C. That resolution was successfully passed through the Public Lands Steering Committee and officially adopted by the Association of Counties. It was reconsidered each year for three years and still remains on the Association platform. However, the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service under the Obama administration would not consider any change.

Now, contrast this scenario with the Trump administration. On January 20, the federal government shut down once again. Only this time, the Park Service’s contingency plan used quite different language. Nowhere in the plan did it say that visitors must leave and parks must close. Rather, the language specifically made it clear that the Park Service should not take measures to keep visitors out of an area unless it is a life-threatening situation. As part of their shutdown activities, park staff just needed to post signs notifying visitors that no services or maintenance activities will be conducted and that emergency services will be limited. All boat launches and campgrounds were to remain open.

Instead of making this government shutdown painful for the people, President Trump used some good old-fashioned common sense. He did what any leader whose mission is to truly serve the public would do. He made decisions that would be the most fiscally responsible while having the least amount of impact on the people. So in hindsight, I really didn’t need to do all of that work to get that change to the contingency plan. We just needed a new administration.

 

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