Though the federal government is giving up no control of the parks, the decision by states to take charge in order to reopen the parks drew parallels to the simmering Sagebrush Rebellion in the West, where elected officials have long schemed to annex federal lands back into state hands.
“It’s no surprise that the parks became very visible symbols of the consequences of this kind of shutdown, giving us both a teachable moment for people to realize that government does stuff that they like, but where we also saw fundamental manipulation going on,” says John Freemuth, a political scientist at Boise State University and a former Park Ranger.
The reaction to the closures, publicized through social and new media, included acts of civil disobedience as visitors jumped barricades and tossed aside cones, as well as considerations by county officials in southern Utah to order sheriff posses to reopen the parks by force.
The populist push to reopen the parks began when World War II veterans pushed aside barriers at the World War II Memorial, an open-air site in Washington.
That was followed by tourists like Bob Noelle of New Jersey photographed gleefully throwing traffic cones aside with the Badlands National Park in the background. Subsequently, the Park Service ticketed dozens of gate-jumpers from Valley Forge to the Grand Canyon, ordering them to go in front of a federal judge who could mete out up to six months in jail.
Federal officials had rebuffed earlier attempts by states to help fund the reopening of the parks, but pressure from the public as well as businesses warning that the closures were wrecking the busiest visitor season ultimately swayed Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to act. Notably, the openings marked a dramatic difference from the 1990s shutdowns, when only the Grand Canyon was partially reopened after the Interior Department made a deal with then-Gov. Fife Symington.