Fox News pundit and former Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz appears to have found his cause during the deadly coronavirus pandemic: ensuring that Americaâ€™s national parks are open and packed full of people.
On May 7, as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 topped 75,000, Chaffetz penned an op-ed blasting the Interior Department for keeping dozens of popular parks shuttered â€• closures that local park superintendents made in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. He argued that â€œperhaps there is no better way to be socially distant than going into the mountainsâ€ and â€• falsely â€• that shutting them down is â€œcounter to science and common sense.â€Â
â€œIf I stay 300 feet from a bear and six feet from other people, why should it remain closed?â€ he asked of Yellowstone, adding that he goes there to â€œenjoy the beauty and get away from people.â€
As Yellowstoneâ€™s partial reopening less than two weeks later highlighted, people inevitably wonâ€™t stay six feet apart or keep their distance from dangerous wildlife. Crowds of out-of-state visitors, few of them wearing masks, flocked to Old Faithful geyser, and a woman was â€œknocked to the ground and injuredâ€ by a bison when she approached the animal.Â
Memorial Day weekend drew large crowds to popular national parks like Yellowstone, Zion and Great Smoky Mountain. The scenic drive in Zion filled up so quickly on Sunday that authorities had so close access by 6:30 a.m., the Las Vegas Journal-Review reported.Â
As a resident of Utah, which is home to five iconic national parks known as the â€œMighty Five,â€ Chaffetz ought to know that there are scores of park visitors who never hike a remote trail or camp in the backcountry. Instead, they stick to roads and create bottlenecks at easily accessible attractions and trails. Yet Chaffetz has emerged as one of the loudest voices demanding President Donald Trump immediately reopen parks and monuments amid a pandemic that has already claimed nearly 100,000 American lives.Â
â€œIt is bizarre. Itâ€™s a really odd fixation for Chaffetz to have right now considering a lot of these small towns in Utah are totally unprepared and would be unable to handle a resurgence of COVID-19,â€ said Aaron Weiss, media director at Colorado-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities. â€œHe knows full well there is no way to socially distance in Zion.â€Â
â€œI donâ€™t know why Chaffetz in particular is on this tear,â€ Weiss added, â€œbut it truly is going to endanger the lives of Utah residents.â€Â
In a May 15 letter, House Natural Resources Chairman RaÃºl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) urged Interior and the National Park Service â€œto exercise extreme cautionâ€ in reopening sites. â€œEnsuring the safety of NPS employees, visitors, and gateway communities is your responsibility, and human safety must take precedence over any politically motivated decisions to reopen national park sites,â€ he said.
In his op-ed, Chaffetz offered this advice for gateway towns: â€œIf a restaurant, hotel or local business feels the risk is too high, then donâ€™t open, but denying Americans access to their parks is fundamentally wrong and counter to the goal of socially distancing.â€
It is clear that Trump and his team have felt the pressure from Chaffetz and other conservative lawmakers and talking heads.Â
â€œNothing like the great outdoors!â€ Interior Secretary David Bernhardt wrote in an April 22 tweet responding to Chaffetz calling for parks to reopen. â€œWe are working to keep your public lands accessible to you and the American people.â€
Earlier that same day, Trump addressed the issue during a speech on the White House lawn, saying â€œwe will begin to reopen our national parks and public lands for the American people to enjoy.â€ And in a statementÂ on April 25, Bernhardt announced that Interior and the National Park Service would begin working closely with state governors to â€œreopen the American peopleâ€™s national parks as rapidly as possible.â€
Unsatisfied with the speed at which thatâ€™s played out, Chaffetz has continued his public campaign. Heâ€™s tweeted about it more than a dozen times in recent weeks. â€œExcept most of them are closed,â€ he wrote in response to a video Bernhardt posted May 7 about First Lady Melania Trumpâ€™s anti-bullying campaign and the importance of children experiencing the outdoors. â€œWhy are you doing these videos when you should be opening our National Parks?â€ The post kicked off a testy exchange between Chaffetz and Interiorâ€™s press office.Â
That Chaffetz suddenly fancies himself a champion of public access to federally controlled lands is ironic. In 2017, while still in Congress, Chaffetz reintroduced legislation to sell off 3.3 million acres of public land in 10 western states that he said had â€œbeen deemed to serve no purpose for taxpayers.â€ He ultimately pulled the bill less than two weeks later in response to backlash from conservationists, hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts.Â
As the powerful chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Chaffetz showed little interest in holding the Trump administration accountable. He declined to investigate Michael Flynnâ€™s contact with the Russian government or Trumpâ€™s many financial conflicts of interest, but in early 2017 vowed to probe a tweet from Bryce Canyon National Park welcoming Utahâ€™s Bears Ears National Monument â€• and a second Obama-era monument in Nevada â€• to the National Park Service family. He told the Salt Lake Tribune at the time that he suspected Bryce Canyon officials may have had advanced knowledge of the monumentâ€™s designation, of which Chaffetz was a staunch critic.Â
Chaffetz had an abysmal 2% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters.Â
Itâ€™s unclear why Chaffetz is so motivated to carry this torch during the COVID-19 crisis, or if heâ€™s considered what reopening park sites too soon could mean for the health and safety of workers, visitors and neighboring communities. He did not respond to HuffPostâ€™s request for comment.Â
But Jayson Oâ€™Neill, director of public lands watchdog group Western Values Project, has a theory.Â Â
â€œHeâ€™s auditioning for secretary of the Interior on Trumpâ€™s favorite state-controlled news station,â€ he said. The extent to which Fox News influences Trumpâ€™s thinking is no secret.
The Trump administration appears to have decided that the optics of having iconic national parks closed is too much to bear, even though reopening them too soon could cost lives. Additional national parks, including Rocky Mountain in Colorado and Arches and Canyonlands in Utah, are slated to start welcoming back visitors this week.
During the month of May, Interior has issued three separate press releases titled â€œIn Case You Missed It: Interior Continues to Safely Restore Access to Public Lands.â€
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