Did The Feds Really Order Scott Walker To Shut Down Wisconsin Parks?

October 5, 2013 8:34 a.m.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) this week directed a state agency to resist a federal order to close certain parks during the federal government shutdown, prompting headlines from some conservative media outlets. But the National Parks Service now says no such order was given. Or not exactly, anyway.

So what happened? Let’s start at the beginning.

Wisconsin officials decided this week that they would keep open seven properties that are part of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve — an “affiliated area” of the National Park System — despite a letter sent on Tuesday to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from the National Park Service. In the letter, a copy of which was provided to TPM, an official wrote that the National Parks Service had determined that keeping the properties open “requires substantial involvement by federal personnel that will not be available during the shutdown of government operations.”

DNR officials took the letter to mean that they were being ordered to close the parks. And they didn’t like that. In an interview with TPM on Friday, Department Secretary Cathy Stepp said that the seven properties in question — Interstate Park, Chippewa Moraine, Mill Bluff State Park, Devil’s Lake State Park, Cross Plains, Horicon State Wildlife Area and National Wildlife Refuge, and Kettle Moraine State Forest’s Northern Unit — only receive about 18 percent of their operating budget from the federal government.

“The rest is shouldered by the state and by user fees and by volunteer contributions and donations, so very little is actually supported by the federal government,” Stepp said. “And when we were told that we were going to have to shut down these properties, we were pretty alarmed. This is a very key tourism season for us coming up.”

Stepp said she spoke with Walker about the issue on Tuesday, and he supported keeping the parks open.

“He was the one who really directed me to find a way to make this work,” Stepp said. “He was the one that said, ‘Look, what are we going to do about this? And how do we make as little pain as possible on our constituents?’ That’s our job.”

In addition to the parks, Wisconsin officials also took exception to the closing this week of a federally-owned boat launch on the Mississippi River in Wyalusing State Park.

“It’s an unstaffed concrete structure, boat launch, that happens to sit on the Mississippi River, inside of a state park,” Stepp said. “And so the federal government, officially, it’s their property, because of some scenic river legislation federally. … But since 1961, we’ve had a contract with them to manage it, and to operate it. Well, the Feds went in and they actually put up a barricade closing that boat launch to the Mississippi River on one of our state parks. And that was the one where I went, ‘Whoa, this is really an overreach here.’ Because this is a main area where people get on to the Mississippi, and really what they were asking me to do is to shut down the Mississippi River.”

Stepp said state officials went back and reviewed the boat launch contract and decided on Tuesday to remove a barricade put up by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. Ultimately, Wisconsin officials also decided they would keep the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve properties open during the shutdown. On Thursday, Stepp sent a reply letter to the National Parks Service.

“During the current federal government shut down, the Department intends to continue operations at the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve utilizing existing state personnel and operational funding at these properties,” Stepp wrote.

According to Stepp, her agency — which has a longtime working relationship with federal agencies — will respect the closure of other properties that are federally run. And, as of Friday, she said she had not heard back from the National Parks Service about her decision.

“I would imagine I’ll probably hear something,” Stepp said. “But you know, I’ll wait and see what happens. Actually, I’m just very hopeful and optimistic that they just kind of go, ‘OK, we get it. Keep doing what you’re doing, and we appreciate those partnerships and just want to move forward together.'”

A few hours after TPM’s spoke with Stepp, a spokesperson for the National Park Service sent an email to TPM, saying the agency believes there may have been a “misunderstanding by [the Department of Natural Resources] about the contents of the letter that have resulted in some of the stories that claim they were ordered to close.”

“Under a cooperative agreement, the federal government provides funding through the National Park Service to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for administration of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve (NSR),” Mike Litterst, acting chief spokesman for the National Parks Service, wrote in the email. “Due to the government shutdown, there was no longer funding available with which to make grant payments to the DNR and on October 1 notice was given to them to suspend performance of all activities funded by that agreement. There was no directive from the National Park Service to cease operations; we merely informed them that the payments through their cooperative agreement would cease for the period of the shutdown. It was left to the discretion of the DNR how to best deal with the curtailed funding.”

According to Litterst, the National Parks Service was reaching out to the Department of Natural Resources, to “see if we can help clarify.”

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