‘Memorial Militia’ leader gets Congress behind guaranteeing access to monuments

Chris Cox of Mount Pleasant pushes a cart near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in October 2013. Cox took it upon himself to mow and clean up the grounds around the Lincoln Memorial during the government shutdown in 2013. He was back in Washington this week for the introduction of a bill that would keep monuments and public lands open during government shutdowns.

The bearded, burly guy from Mount Pleasant who gained fame by picking up trash at Washington’s most revered monuments during the 2013 government shutdown has some muscle behind his efforts to keep the sites open even if the money gets cut off again.

Chain saw-artist Chris Cox’s efforts helped keep some of the nation’s most visible destinations operating during the depths of political turmoil. Under a proposed federal law, it wouldn’t be left to volunteers.

Dubbed the Monuments Protection Act, the legislation was introduced Thursday in the U.S. House of Representatives. It has bipartisan sponsors: one a conservative Republican, and the other a liberal Democrat.

Cox, who uses a chain saw to turn tree stumps into art by the roadside was the poster child for angry Americans after the federal government went dark for 16 days in October 2013. Republicans and Democrats were at a funding impasse over Obamacare. Non-essential workers, like maintenance crews, were furloughed and sent home.

On his own initiative, Cox went to Washington where for days he cleaned debris around the Lincoln Memorial and removed garbage from the National Mall. He wore a South Carolina T-shirt and displayed the South Carolina state flag.

In interviews, Cox said he didn’t want visiting groups of veterans and tourists to view Washington as an untidy and growing trash heap.

“Our veterans are coming here in protest,” he said. “I didn’t want to have to see trash littered ... you name it, it was on the ground out here.”

Cox’s sacrifice drew the attention of lawmakers. Through social media he was dubbed leader of the “Memorial Militia.”

After the shutdown ended, he vowed to work with U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. — one of the many lawmakers who praised his efforts — in guaranteeing access to the monuments.

During a phone interview Thursday from Washington, Cox said putting the legislation together took 15 months. If it becomes law, his hope is that the bill will prevent the nation’s public monuments from becoming pawns whenever there’s congressional deadlock.

Joining Issa as a co-sponsor is Rep. Eleanor Holmes-Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress.

The bill would require future administrations to work with local and state governments to ensure the continued operation of “national properties during any lapse in federal funding.”

For instance, the Washington city government might be called on to provide security for the National World War II Memorial, an open-air, 7.4 acre attraction near the Lincoln Memorial that was shut down during the standoff. Or in the case of national parks and forests, state officials could agree to become temporary stewards to keep it open.

Issa and Norton both issued statements of support Thursday.

“Our national parks, forests, and monuments — resources built and maintained by American tax dollars — should never be used as political leverage,” Issa said.

Said Norton, “National Parks sites nourish local budgets and belong to the American people. They deserve the highest level of public access, even when federal funding is temporarily unavailable.”

The bill still is a long way from becoming law. Additional co-sponsors are being sought and the bill will have to go through various subcommittee hearings.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551