WASHINGTON The crown of the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. monument symbolizing freedom and democracy, may reopen to visitors by the July 4th holiday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on Tuesday.
One of the first sights seen by millions of immigrants who arrived in New York harbor in the 19th and 20th centuries, the statue was closed to the public after the September 11, 2001 attacks because of safety concerns.
The museum gallery and observation deck at the landmark's base were reopened to the public in 2004, but access beyond that point remained prohibited.
"We will endeavor to do everything we can," Salazar told Reuters when asked about the likelihood of reopening the crown by July 4, the anniversary of American independence. "We may have it opened up to a smaller group of people."
Salazar said his department is considering implementing a ticketing or lottery system to allow small groups to enter at specific times of the day, similar to crowd control and safety procedures taken at the Washington Monument.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat and leading advocate for reopening the crown, welcomed the possibility.
"I can't think of a better birthday present for our nation. Reopening the crown of lady liberty will restore a quintessential New York and American experience," Weiner said.
Weiner has said that reopening the attraction would also boost tourism in his state and in neighboring New Jersey.
The National Park Service closed the crown because access to the top of the statue, which depicts a robed woman holding a torch, is limited to a narrow stairwell with a handrail on one side. In the event of an emergency, there is no quick exit.
"If you put several hundred people in there and there is some kind of event, lots of people could be killed very quickly," Salazar said.
Salazar expects a report by April 15 assessing safety concerns of re-opening the crown and options on how to proceed.
"Those are the kinds of things we're looking at with our aspiration being that we do have the Statue of Liberty opened up," he said.
While the number of visitors to Lady Liberty, which the United States received as a gift from France in 1886, has fallen in the past eight years, numbers are rising again.
About 3.2 million people visited the statue in 2007, up from 2.5 million in 2006 but below the 3.6 million in 2000, the park service said.
Allowing visitors to climb to the crown is likely just a first step in Salazar's self-proclaimed "ambitious" agenda for America's landscape.
He said the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, due to come up for a vote in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, "is one of the most significant bills in the last 50 years with respect to our treasured landscapes."
The legislation combines more than 160 measures introduced by the previous Congress, including measures for new wilderness designations, wild and scenic rivers, national parks, hiking trails and historic preservation initiatives.
(Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Paul Simao)