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Nation's Parks Open For Business

With the nation at a "code orange" terror alert level and a war raging in Iraq that threatens to bring terror to U.S. shores, the country's national parks remain open for business.

"The parks are places that should be open in times of strife," said National Park Service spokesman David Barna. "We don't anticipate closing anything."

When the United States began bombing Baghdad two weeks ago, many experts predicted terrorists here would seize the opportunity to launch attacks on U.S. soil -- whether as retaliation or simply to take advantage of the government's attention being focused elsewhere.

"All Americans understand we face the continuing threat of terrorism. We know our enemies are desperate, we know they're dangerous," President Bush told the Coast Guard in Philadelphia this week.

Saying terrorists may try to launch an attack against the United States, "thinking that we're distracted," Bush said, "They're wrong. We're meeting threats and acting to prevent dangers."

At some of the more prominent parks and monuments, such as the Washington Monument, St. Louis Arch, the Statue of Liberty and the U.S. Constitution Navy ship in Boston, Barna said, many visitors now undergo a screening process to make sure they don't have any weapons.

After the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks, some major landmarks such as the Washington Monument and Capitol building in Washington were closed to the public until a risk assessment was completed. They were then reopened.

The Cape Canaveral National Sea Shore in Florida temporarily closed its space-shuttle launch watch spot after Sept. 11 upon a request from NASA.

When the nation went to code orange, 300 more park rangers were also brought in from out West to help patrol potentially vulnerable parks and memorials.

And the added security seems to be comforting tourists at least. The National Park Service says its parks attracted 270,000 visitors last year.

But the question is what will happen if and when the nation is put on red alert -- the highest alert level. Barna said some parks may be closed based on specific regional threats.

"The parks are open and we want everybody to come to the parks … we don't want to discourage them," Barna said. But "there is no magic list that if we go to red, we can do this or that."

There are various plans under consideration, however, on how to make the nation's parks -- some of which are near major airports -- safer.

Public parks near Reagan National Airport in Washington, for example, give tourists an up-close-and-personal view of planes taking off and landing there.

"It's almost like you can reach out and touch them," said a spokeswoman for the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which manages that land.

There are also playing fields for public use and a highly-used public boat launch.

Despite one report that the FBI and Transportation Security Administration were thinking about closing that park because of the proximity to the airport, all parties involved say there are no concrete plans to do so.

"Right now, we have nothing concrete to lead us to believe we would have to close them but certainly if there was any credible information that that was an issue, we would want to cooperate with that," said the parkway spokeswoman. "Obviously, it is our desire to keep park areas open for use as long as it is not a security issue."

Chris Rhatigan, a TSA spokeswoman, agreed that there is no plan to close the park but that security procedures on airport grounds around the country have been boosted.

She said that when the nation's alert is elevated to code orange, TSA tailors its security instructions to each individual airport based on intelligence information it gathers. Some of these security measures may include increased canine and law enforcement patrols inside and outside of the airport.

"The intelligence drives what we do," Rhatigan said.

For instance, new airspace control measures were put in place around the Washington region when the alert level hit orange.

One national security measure includes random vehicle searches as cars come into airport parking lots or in to airport property.

The previous time the nation's terror alert was raised to orange -- in February -- TSA ordered airports to conduct random vehicle searches. Other orders included discontinuing curb-side baggage check in and increased police surveillance.

Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, however, didn't implement the order right away, however, because "of our concern for traffic congestion," said Hartsfield spokeswoman Lanii Thomas.

After time airport officials got a traffic pattern down, they began inspections, but the alert level was lowered three days later. But on March 19, soon after the terror alert was again raised to orange, the inspections began again.

All in all, however, TSA -- being moved to the new Department of Homeland Security -- says it's keeping the nation's airports and surrounding areas abreast of potential threats and doing everything it can to protect America's travelers.

"That's where we're getting better at this, smarter," Rhatigan said.