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'Despicable': Park Service chief dragged before House panel, ripped over closures

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Oct. 16, 2013: National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis waits to testify before a joint hearing in Washington.AP

The head of the National Park Service was pilloried at a tense House hearing Wednesday over the agency's allegedly "arbitrary" decisions during the partial shutdown which Republicans charge were made to inflict maximum inconvenience on the public. 

"The policies have been arbitrary, inconsistent, and ever-changing," Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said. 

He alleged the National Park Service is trying to make the partial shutdown "as painful and as visible as possible." 

GOP lawmakers sharply questioned a string of recent NPS moves, as Director Jonathan Jarvis claimed his agency was trying to comply with the law and make do with limited resources. They questioned why the park service tried to shutter some private businesses on federal land, closed off open-air memorials in D.C. to most public viewing, and even blocked off parking lots. 

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said "punitive measures were taken at no savings to the American people." 

Reacting to a reported internal claim that the park service directed workers to make the cuts as difficult as possible, Issa said, if true, "it is indeed disgusting and despicable that the Park Service would do this." 

Jarvis later called that claim "hearsay." 

Jarvis was compelled with a subpoena to testify on Wednesday. He said he was willing to appear, but wanted to wait until his staff returned from furlough. 

In a series of feisty exchanges, Jarvis defended his agency's actions. 

"Turning away visitors is not our culture or our DNA," he said. 

He said that in Washington, D.C., the agency typically has 300 employees on duty to manage and patrol the District's famed monuments and sites. All but a dozen were furloughed, he said. 

Explaining the decisions to close off memorials, including open-air sites like the World War II Memorial, he said the agency took "prudent and practical steps." He said the agency has worked "diligently" to ensure "honor flights" of WWII veterans were not turned away from the memorials despite the restrictions -- allowing them access on the basis of their First Amendment rights. 

"With very few employees available, we are endeavoring to fulfill our mission the best we can," Jarvis said. 

He denied politics were involved, and said all monuments have to be staffed to protect them from vandalism and other harm. 

Democrats, meanwhile, took turns lambasting the GOP majority for holding the hearing in the first place, claiming their party was responsible for the partial government shutdown which triggered the parks cuts. 

"You can't create something and then pretend you're outraged by the result," Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said. 

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said Republicans are living in an "alternative universe" and "can't cope with reality."