U.S. budget crisis closes doors at area museums and parks

October 07, 1990|By Rafael Alvarez Reporters Sheridan Lyons and David Michael Ettlin of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

Our flag was still there yesterday, flying high over Fort McHenry, but you couldn't get inside to see it.

Like dozens of other non-essential federal operations -- museums, parks and memorials -- Fort McHenry was closed to the public, a cash-short victim of the government's budget impasse.

At midnight Friday, with no money budgeted for routine operations, all non-essential functions of the federal government stopped, including visitor services at the place that inspired the national anthem.

One tourist who drove from Michigan arrived at the star-shaped fort to find, like everyone else who showed up yesterday, the gates locked and a sign stating: "Park Closed."

"You pay your taxes," said the man, "and you think the government ought to be able to roll on some way."

"It's very disturbing," said Donald Covington of Alexandria, Va. "You have people coming here from all over the country and finding it closed."

Because air-traffic controllers who work for the Federal Aviation Administration are considered "essential," flight operations were normal at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

U.S. Park Police patrolled the Maryland stretch of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway with a skeleton weekend staff, but one officer said morale was low.

The officer -- who did not want to be identified -- said people who had paid fees to pitch tents at a federal campground in Greenbelt were upset when they were told they had to leave. Callers to Catoctin Mountain Park in Thurmont were greeted with the following taped message:

"Effective Oct. 6, the visitors center will be closed [along] with picnic areas, and all interpretive programs have been canceled, and no visitor's service is available due to the federal budget negotiations."

At Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, no one answered repeated phone calls.

Many federal employees are scheduled off through tomorrow for the Columbus Day weekend. If Congress cannot come up with a budget plan acceptable to President Bush before then, the closings and worker furloughs will continue.

And that could lead to more confusion like the traffic jams at Front Royal, Va., where weekend motorists heading for Skyline Drive found the north entrance station to Shenandoah National Park vacant and the gates open.

A recorded message broadcast on a special radio frequency told visitors: "Due to the lack of a federal budget, Shenandoah National Park is in a phased close-down operation."

Many people turned their cars around and headed back toward Front Royal, not realizing that the park was still open.

Word began circulating in town that Skyline Drive was closed.

Sallie Lillard, 71, a waitress at the Fox Diner in Front Royal, said she could not remember the road closing even in the dead of winter. "My daddy helped to build it," she boasted.

Reached by telephone on an emergency number, Park Ranger Barbara Stewart said the park roads remained open even though most services were curtailed and visitor stations were closed.

"We do have rangers available for emergency service, but all the ranger-guided hikes, programs, walks and talks are canceled until we get word that we have the people back on board," Ms. Stewart said. "It is anticipated additional closures may occur. Other facilities and services, up to and including possible sections of the drive and campgrounds."

The disruption to activities came at the most scenic time of the year as the fall foliage changes colors. "It's gorgeous and getting prettier by the minute," Ranger Stewart said.

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