Walker defies DC order to close down federally funded parks in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is defying orders from Washington, D.C., to close down several state parks that receive federal funding. 

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Despite receiving a closure directive from the National Park Service, Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has decided instead that parks partly funded by the federal government would stay open to the public. 

In the wake of this week's federal government shutdown, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also placed barricades by a boat launch on the Mississippi River because it was on federal land. Wisconsin’s natural resources agency reopened it. 

State officials said they had legal authority to remove the barricades at the boat landing because of an agreement Wisconsin has had with the federal government since 1961. 

"We respect the magnitude of the process the federal government has had to undertake to close its properties and certain activities on properties they own and manage," Wisconsin's Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp told department employees in an email obtained by The Hill. 

"However, after close review and legal consult, DNR has clarified areas where the federal procedures are over-reaching by ordering the closure of properties where the state has management authority through existing agreements."

The boat launch was “the easiest, glaring example of the over-reach to me,” Stepp said in a phone interview to The Hill Friday. “In essence, what they were doing is expecting us to enforce closing the Mississippi River. First of all how do you even implement something as gigantic as that?”

Stepp said the federal funding amounts to just 18 percent of the budget for the state parks affected. 

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The move highlights efforts by Walker, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, and other Republican governors to portray them as problem solvers as voters grow increasingly angry at dysfunction in Washington, D.C.

The shutdown has caused increased confusion among Wisconsinites, Stepp said.

“They don’t know the difference between a nationally owned property or state-owned property. It really doesn’t matter to them. It’s just a park to them. They want to make sure they can still have their weddings or family reunions or whatever events they have got without getting smeared in messy politics in Washington.”

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The federal government shutdown that began on Tuesday has had ripple effects across the nation, with the impact visibly felt at national parks. 

The Interior Department closed all national parks and monuments this week after Congress failed to pass a stopgap spending measure to keep government running. 

The World War II Memorial in Washington, initially closed to visitors, was opened to veterans after they were at first denied entry.  

Wisconsin had received $701,000 from the federal government to help run state parks for fiscal 2013, which ended Monday. But officials say because the majority of their funding comes from the state, they would continue to operate using their own dollars. 

Wisconsin has also decided to not fully follow a Fish and Wildlife agency's directive that hunting and fishing be prohibited on federal lands during the shutdown. Hunting access would be allowed in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, state officials said. 

Walker directed his cabinet to “streamline things and make sure services are available,” Stepp said, who has spoken with him directly.

“It was his direction that let me pursue this further to find out what rights do we have from the state’s perspective regarding contract language and long-standing agreements, and is there something that we’re legally grounded to do.”

Wisconsin officials are frustrated over the shutdown because it has led to miscommunication between federal and state officials, Stepp told department employees in the departmental email. 

“Many customers have had difficulty finding answers to their questions due to the furloughed federal employees and have alternatively contacted state agencies for assistance,” she wrote. 

“The DNR has had a similar challenge in obtaining concrete information regarding the federal shutdown but assembled a team to help provide answers to inquires that focus on state managed lands and the enforcement of state regulations.” 

Other governors have not been as forceful in challenging Washington. Republican Govs. Dennis Daugaard (S.D.) and Jan Brewer (Ariz.) tried pushing this week to use state funds to open federal parks but were unsuccessful. Daugaard wanted Mount Rushmore to stay open, and Brewer wanted the same of the Grand Canyon.

In Wisconsin, Stepp said she hasn’t yet heard from federal officials about her boss’s decision to defy the shutdown. 

“Our intention was never to cause a big story. In fact, I find it kind of ironic that government actually continuing to provide services is now newsworthy,” she said.

Asked if it was accurate to say Wisconsin is defying the federal government, Stepp said, “I almost don’t look at the confrontation as coming from us."

— This story was originally posted at 11:42 a.m. and has been updated.