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WASHINGTON — House Republicans plan to take aim at the Obama administration on Wednesday for temporarily shuttering properties managed by the National Park Service during the federal government shutdown, spotlighting what has become an emotional battleground in the grinding impasse.
Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell agreed last week to allow states to cover the costs of operating the country's 401 Park Service properties. But Republican lawmakers and local community officials in some communities affected by the shutdown are raising questions about why it took 10 days for the Interior Department to agree to such a plan, when a precedent for such arrangements was set during the 1995 and 1996 government shutdown.
The issue will be subject of a joint hearing called by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. They plan to quiz National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, who was subpoenaed to testify at the hearing.
The National Park Service made clear ahead of the latest shutdown, which began Oct. 1, that more than 400 national parks and properties would be shuttered as nearly all of the National Park Service employees would face furloughs.
But the NPS quickly found itself facing criticism from Republicans, including Issa and Hastings, who have pointed to the agency setting up barricades at open-air monuments such as the World War II Memorial and placing traffic cones along highway viewing areas outside Mount Rushmore as unnecessary and provocative steps meant to underscore the pain and visibility of the government shutdown.
The Obama administration critics also note that during the second government shutdown of 1995-96, the Interior Department allowed some national parks — including the South Rim of the Grand Canyon — to reopen at the expense of state governments, which were eventually reimbursed when the federal government reopened.
"If they set precedent in 1995-96, why couldn't that precedent be followed today?" said Gregory Bryan, mayor of the town of Tusayan, Ariz., near the Grand Canyon. "I have a hard time believing it took them 10 days to figure out a new policy."
Blake Androff, an Interior Department spokesman, said Tuesday that officials worked quickly to find ways to minimize the pain caused to communities that were feeling the pinch of the park closure caused by the government shutdown.
"After securing the 401 closed national parks and furloughing 20,000 National Park Service employees, the NPS worked expeditiously where possible with extremely limited resources to find temporary and practical solutions to lessen the pain of this shutdown," Androff said.
Bryan, who will testify at Wednesday's hearing, said he and other officials in his community began raising questions on Oct. 1 with the National Park Service superintendent for the Grand Canyon about Tusayan and the state of Arizona covering costs during the shutdown but were told it was against National Park Service policy to reopen national parks with third-party funding. Meanwhile, Tusayan and surrounding communities estimated they were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars each day because of lost tourism.
The town enlisted the help of Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., and Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, but none were able to get a legal explanation of why NPS was prohibited from using their money to reopen the park. Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's office said they were also being told that third-party funding could not be used.
But on Oct. 10, the Interior Department announced it would open negotiations with states willing to cover costs of reopening NPS-operated sites. The next day, Arizona, Colorado, New York, South Dakota and Utah all announced they had come to agreements with the Interior Department to reopen NPS-operated properties in their states.
"The administration just wanted the American people to feel the pain of the shutdown in a very visible way," Bryan said.
Anna Eberly, managing director of Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean, Va., which is on National Park property but operates independently of the Park Service, said she struggled to get a satisfactory answer for why the service closed the farm for most of the first nine days of the shutdown. The farm was not closed in the 1995-96 shutdowns, she said.
"I don't know if Obama said go and [annoy] the American people," said Eberly, who is also scheduled to testify at Wednesday's hearing. "But there was a shutdown less than 20 years ago. People remember that and what happened then. This situation is just bone-headed."
In a letter to Jarvis on Tuesday, Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote that the "NPS response to the partial government shutdown appears to be ad-hoc, inconsistent, and without sensible guidance to states, local communities and the public at large."
Rep. DeFazio, D-Ore., accused Republicans of causing "a sideshow" by calling the hearing in the midst of the fiscal crisis and demanding the appearance of Jarvis, who had asked for such a hearing to be delayed until after the shutdown was resolved.
"We are more than two weeks into an unnecessary and irresponsible government shutdown and the same Republican obstructionists that caused the shutdown are threatening the full faith and credit of the United States," he said. "And yet on the eve of this calamity, House Republicans insist on a hearing on park closures."