Runner fined for Valley Forge workout

KING OF PRUSSIA — The National Park Service is literally making a federal case out of a guy going for a run.

A Chadds Ford man was issued a citation for entering Valley Forge National Historical Park Sunday to go running on some of the park’s miles of multi-use paths, which are closed to the public for the duration of the federal government shutdown.

“I just went for a run like I always do,” said John Bell, 56, a real estate broker who has run 100 marathons in his life, raising more than $100,000 for charity.

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“I’m a marathon runner. I’ve been going down to Valley Forge for probably 25 years,” Bell said. “I had no idea the park was even closed.”

Bell said he drove to the park Sunday morning and noticed that internal park roads were barricaded, much like they are at night after the park closes, so instead he drove to a remote parking lot off of state Rte. 23. He proceeded to run about five miles through the 3,500-acre park. He returned to find a pair of Park Rangers in the parking lot.

“When I came back my car was surrounded by two ranger vehicles with their lights flashing... ,” Bell said. “I felt like I was a terrorist.”

Bell said the rangers asked him if he “watched the news,” and told him that the park was closed because the government is shut down. Bell said they had already placed a $100 ticket on his car.

“I’ve got to go to federal court if I want to fight this thing,” he said.

Bell’s attorney, Jeremy Ibrahim, said that the fine was for violating a federal regulation regarding use restrictions on public lands. The violation carried a $75 fine and $25 in processing fees. He thinks the ticket is outrageous.

“As a lawyer, I can say that while the government in Washington is shut down, due process and the Constitution are not,” Ibrahim, who is representing Bell pro bono, said. “That park is a national treasure.”

Bell said that there were dozens of other runners, walkers and bikers throughout the park the day.

“For some reason, this was some sort of selective enforcement,” Ibrahim said.

Michael Litterst, acting as chief spokesperson for the National Park Service, which administers 401 parcels of federal land totalling 84 million acres, including Valley Forge, said in an emailed statement Tuesday that the parks are closed for the safety of the public.

“With more than 20,000 of our 23,000 employees furloughed, our limited workforce is concentrating on the protection of life and property and are enforcing the closures as necessary,” Litterst said. “As always, our first priority is for the public’s safety and we are therefore asking people to respect the posted closures so that our limited staff can concentrate on protecting park resources.”

A departmental source said that there have been 20 citations issued at Valley Forge for violating the closure since the government shut down began on Oct. 1.

In the National Park Service’s Northeast Region, 485 employees have been exempted from the furlough, according to a department contingency plan for the shut down published Sept. 27. Of the 3,266 workers still on the job nationwide, 2,139 are involved in law enforcement, emergency medical service or fire fighting activities. The National Park Service website is not operational and users are automatically redirected to the site of the Department of the Interior, which oversees the park service.

Locally, the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Tinicum is also closed to the public for the duration of the shutdown. Calls to Fish and Wildlife Service personnel, who manage the refuge, went unanswered Tuesday, though that department’s contingency plan indicates that some workers involved in security and animal care remain on the job nationwide.

Bell said that he thinks the citations are inappropriate and unnecessary, as evidenced by the many people still utilizing the park without incident. He thinks his run-in with the rangers is just grandstanding for political purposes.

“They’re trying to make this shutdown something that it’s not,” Bell said. “(The rangers are) never around, but they’re here for something like this? They really don’t need to be doing this.” He added that he has never encountered a Park Ranger in the park before.

Barring people from the park may be more dangerous than allowing them to exercise on the public land.

“The park is public. It’s a safe place,” he said. “Don’t stop people from exercising, because you’ll force them out on the roads where it is much more dangerous.”

Ibrahim said that he and Bell intend to challenge the citation in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and he believes they are on sound legal footing.

“He did not know the park was closed or else he wouldn’t have gone,” Ibrahim said. “An 8 by 10 inch piece of paper is not enough notice. People are still using the park.”

He is upset that the actions of people as far away as Washington, D.C., are effecting the everyday lives of Pennsylvanians.

“The hard-working American part of me thinks this is a travesty,” Ibrahim said. “People want to go for a run or take their little doggie for a walk. They are denied that by people who probably will never have any interest in visiting the property.”

It’s not about the money, Ibrahim said. It’s about the principle.

“If Congress needs the $100 to balance the budget, John would be happy to give it to them,” he said.

Bell is fighting the ticket because he believes that closing the park to the public is nonsensical and hopes that his stand will help alter the government’s stance.

“Hopefully these guys change their policy,” Bell said.