Partial federal government shutdown will mean no staffing, safety concerns for White River National Forest
While most Americans are celebrating Christmas cheer this week, a partial government shutdown is leaving over 800,000 federal employees out of work and without pay for the third time this year.
The shutdown, which came about as a result of President Trump’s refusal to sign any budget that does not have significant funding for a border wall, cuts off funding for the federal Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security, Housing, Justice, Interior and Treasury departments, among other key agencies.
The U.S. Forest Service, which owns much of the land in and around Garfield, Pitkin, Eagle, Summit and Rio Blanco counties, is a part of the USDA and will slowly wind down its operations over the next few days. Essential personnel — such as forest law enforcement and firefighters, employees whose programs are funded through other means, and employees overseeing time-critical projects that would be compromised without tending to — will stay on as excepted or exempt from the shutdown.
During the first few days after a shutdown, around 60 percent of USFS employees will stick around as excepted or exempt. However, that percentage will decrease as the shutdown continues, until bare skeleton staffs remain to oversee only the most vital operations.
According to the agency’s closure contingency documents, any Forest Service employees not excepted or exempt must do the minimum work required to wind down their work before being furloughed. They will be barred from working again until funding is restored. That includes forest rangers and other forest management personnel.
Because of citizen uproar in previous shutdowns over the closure of public parks and monuments, which ruined vacation plans and prevented veterans from visiting memorials, Congress and the president have been keeping those federal properties open to the public. However, there will be no staff on hand, and so services like bathrooms, visitor information and campgrounds will all be closed.
Across all of the national forests in Colorado, the most important item to note is that there will be no plowing on forest roads, so any impassable areas will remain so until service is restored. The good news is that areas that have special use permits on Forest Service land — such as ski resorts — will remain open and unhindered, but without any Forest Service assistance or management if required.
Some have opposed allowing visitors entry into national parks and forests without any staff on hand. Tim Fullerton, a former Obama administration official in the Department of the Interior, said on Twitter that he believed it dangerous to keep parks open.
“If someone falls, gets lost, or has any issue … they’re on their own,” Fullerton said.
Fullerton added that trying to use local law enforcement as a stopgap to patrol the national parks and forests would also be dangerous, as they are not familiar with the area or the terrain in these federal public lands, and could become liabilities themselves.
There is a real concern about visitors getting lost or stranded in the backcountry, as they have several times already this year. While mountain search-and-rescue groups remain on call, the lack of Forest Service staffing may hinder rescues and cut off a valuable information and logistical support resource for rescuers.
Aside from health and safety concerns, environmentalists are also concerned about the possible damage caused by visitors misusing public lands without any oversight. During last January’s shutdown, a hunter illegally poached a pregnant elk at Zion National Park in Utah, while snowmobilers in Yellowstone got dangerously close to the park’s famous hot geysers.
Despite the shutdown, many critical federal services — such as the U.S. Postal Service and agencies responsible for federal aid such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Social Security — will continue to function as normal as they are either exempt or considered essential.
There remains no timeline for a federal budget to be passed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, said Saturday that Congress will be in recess until Thursday, meaning there is no chance of the government reopening before then.
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