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Obama administration, House GOP clash over national parks

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell speaks with reporters during the Western Governors' Association 2013 annual meeting at Montage Deer Valley in Park City, Utah, on June 28. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

When Interior Secretary Sally Jewell sounded a call to support national parks last month, she imagined Republicans could come around to support the administration's conservation efforts in the wake of the federal government shutdown that kept the parks closed.

"I think it's really clear from the shutdown that people really care about their parks," Jewell told reporters in Washington following a sweeping speech on conservation. "I think that the shutdown may give [conservation-friendly Republicans] an opportunity to have their voices heard a little louder than perhaps they were before within their caucus."

That theory was put to rest Thursday at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing.

The panel's Republicans pushed a bill that would hand over management of the national parks to the states, raising concerns from the Obama administration that stewardship of the parks could erode with the whims of state budgets.

The GOP members, all of whom voted against the bill to end the government shutdown last month, also voiced support for a bill that would allow states to operate the parks during a shutdown — effectively shielding those lawmakers from constituent criticism in the event of another shutdown. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the full committee, did vote to end the shutdown.

"In comparison to the cost, and the cost not just in dollars but in human cost, it seems like it's worth doing," said Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, which is home to five national parks.

The measure faced criticism from the administration, which called it an end-around to passing budgets.

"Any change in law to try to address the impacts of a shutdown on these particular industries, or on any sectors of the economy, in advance of a future federal government shutdown, is not a responsible alternative to simply making the political commitment to provide appropriations for all the vital functions the federal government performs," Bruce Sheaffer, comptroller of the National Park Service, said in his testimony.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the top Democrat on the Public Lands and Environmental Regulation subcommittee, said the shutdown bill amounted to a "judgment call" that benefited the panel's Republicans, a majority of whom represent districts with national parks.

"From what I can tell today, this hearing is about creating cover for members who finally felt the sting from voters upset that their views were not being represented in Congress," Grijalva said.

Republicans in Western states took a beating from constituents during the shutdown, as those lawmakers were seen as holding up a bargain that would reopen the parks and resuscitate the economies that depend on them. The Interior Department estimated such communities lost $76 million each day during the shutdown.

The National Park Service is a federally run agency within the Interior Department. So when the government shut down, so did the parks, with roughly 17,000 employees getting furloughed.

A majority of Americans — 57 percent — blame Congress for the parks' closure, according to a Hart Research Associates poll conducted for left-leaning think tank the Center for American Progress that was released last week. And 82 percent of respondents said the shutdown served as a reminder of how important the parks are, and that they should remain open.

But Republicans have insisted the Obama administration purposefully closed the parks as a political stunt to force a shutdown deal.

In October, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., who serves on the Natural Resources subcommittee, joined with 12 other GOP lawmakers in a letter to the National Park Service that said the agency was "blatantly politicizing who gets access to public facilities during the government shutdown."

A handful of states — including Utah and Arizona, home of the Grand Canyon — worked out deals with Jewell to step in and temporarily fund the parks to keep them open, blunting some of the shutdown's real-world effects.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, credited Jewell for working out such a deal, and said he thought the federal government would reimburse the states. He encouraged the panel to adopt a measure that would do just that, as well as the one to allow states to step in to run the parks during shutdowns.

Cox, who estimated his state's national parks-related losses at $30 million, said the bills would "lay the groundwork for what already has been done."