By Laura Barron-Lopez - 10/31/13 02:31 PM EDT
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said there was "absolutely no political motivation" behind barricading the national monuments and parks during the government shutdown on Thursday.
The closure of all 401 national sites became the face of the 16-day government shutdown and drew the National Park Service under fire.
Jewell took the offensive on parks at a National Press Club luncheon on Thursday after taking heightened scrutiny from the GOP during the shutdown.
Republican members blasted the park service for barricading the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., faulting the department for blocking veterans from visiting the monument.
Jewell defended the park service's actions at the press club event, saying they worked with veterans to allow them access to monuments during the shutdown. She also ribbed members on taking advantage of the political opportunity the closures offered them.
"The real test of whether you support conservation is not what you say in a press conference when the cameras are rolling," Jewell said of Congress members' accusations against the park service. "But whether you fight for it in the budget conference."
Jewell went on to call threats by lawmakers to halt new protections for lands until the current maintenance backlog at the park service is addressed a "common refrain" sung by members who simply want to squeeze the department's budget.
"I think it's really clear that people really care about these parks. everyone cares about them," Jewell said to reporters on Thursday. "You know there are many Republicans that support national monuments, many of them but I think that the shutdown may give them the opportunity to get their voices heard a little louder than perhaps they were before within their caucus."
"I think it pointed out to the state of Utah how important federal lands are to their local economies," she added.
Utah signed an agreement with Jewell to reopen eight national sites for 10 days on the state's dime. Colorado, South Dakota and Arizona signed similar agreements.
The Interior has drawn attacks from Republican members for not promising to pay back states that footed the bill to reopen parks during the shutdown, claiming the agency repaid states during the 1995 shutdown.
"That is misinformation, the states in 1995 were not repaid," Jewell said at the conservation event.