Summit County feels impact of longest federal shutdown in U.S. history
On Saturday, the partial federal government shutdown will enter its 22nd day, making it the longest federal shutdown in American history.
Over 800,000 federal employees nationwide have been furloughed or forced to work without pay. On Friday, 15,000 Coloradans who work for a living received no money on their paycheck.
Federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services remain mostly shuttered, meaning there’s nobody monitoring our forests and routine inspections for much of the 80 percent of America’s food supply are starting to lapse.
Seafood, fruits, vegetables, imported foods and other foods prone to contamination are not being properly screened for safety. Meat and dairy are still being inspected at the moment, but those inspectors are not being paid. In the past few months, there have been numerous food safety scares, such as the recent E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce. Without regular inspections, such outbreaks may not be contained.
Many Homeland Security workers, such as TSA agents at airports, are also working without pay, with about 5 percent of workers calling in sick in what is effectively a “sick-in” protest. Five federal employees from various federal agencies forced to work without pay recently filed suit against the federal government, invoking the 13th Amendment prohibition on slavery. Several businesses, including Silverthorne-based therapy practice Slopeside Counseling, have been offering furloughed federal workers free food and services to help them get by during the shutdown.
The situation is unprecedented. It remains to be seen what, if any, impacts the record-breaking shutdown will have for the country if it continues for a month or longer. Close to home, the Dillon Ranger District office in Silverthorne is closed and none of the two dozen employees stationed there are available or answering the phone. Forest rangers aren’t making their rounds, and there’s no way to tell if damage or loss is happening in the White River National Forest until they return.
National parks and forests have remained open to the public during the shutdown due to political pressure in previous shutdowns.
However, in the past few weeks there have already been reports of wide-ranging damage and pollution in federal public lands.
Rocky Mountain National Park in nearby Grand County has been forced to close several access roads due to a lack of plowing. The snow spells danger for winter travelers who recreate without supervision, as they run the risk of getting stuck in the forest with inaccessible roads.
President Trump has refused to sign budget bills passed by Democrats to reopen the government without a border wall — even though congressional Republicans previously approved them. Trump said that the shutdown may last months or even years.
In Summit County, one of the greatest dangers to the public is the potential loss of sentinels in the forest during wildfire season. Last year, with financial contributions from the county and towns, seasonal forest patrollers extinguished 10 abandoned campfires and seven unattended campfires. But this year, without supervision from the Forest Service, it’s unclear if another seasonal patrol will be able to do the critical work that prevented fires last year.
Doozie Martin, program manager for volunteer organization Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, said that the Forest Service has been holding a strict line on media communication, and he is as in the dark as anyone else about what the shutdown will mean if it drags into the summer.
But he knows that there’s little his organization will be able to do when it comes to trail work, stewardship and volunteer efforts in the forest if there is no Forest Service support.
“We will not proceed with any projects taking place in national forests without consent, supervision and the blessing of the Forest Service,” Martin said. “Should the shutdown extend into summer, we will be following the Forest Service and its approach to it, but it’s anybody’s guess about what will happen.”
Brian Lorch, director of Summit County’s Open Space and Trails department, said that at the minimum, the shutdown is preventing collaboration with federal partners on forest projects planned for the summer. However, if the shutdown continues into the wildfire season, he has fears of the consequences.
“I think it would be a huge concern if the shutdown goes into the summer,” Lorch said. “The Forest Service is already understaffed in national forests as it is. If they’re not able to do their job, there’s a higher likelihood of some sort of bad event, whether it be poor forest management, destruction of public property or a catastrophic event. All of those could be looming if the shutdown goes into the summer.”
On its website, the Forest Service has tried to assure the public that fire safety will not lapse during the shutdown.
“Preparing fire responders for the nation’s 2019 fire suppression is part of the USDA Forest Service shutdown plan,” a statement on the site reads. “The agency is committed to supporting activities such as temporary and permanent fire hiring and some essential trainings that are critical to 2019 fire suppression.”
However, the website does not go into specifics about how such fire suppression will be done without funds, nor when or if forest management projects will recommence or how fire suppression activities will be coordinated.
Colorado’s four congressional House Democrats, including newly-elected 2nd District congressman Joe Neguse, signed a letter Friday morning demanding the U.S. Senate and White House end the shutdown.
“This shutdown puts our country’s national security at risk and the livelihoods of hardworking men and women in jeopardy,” the letter reads. “Enough is enough. We call on Senate Republicans to immediately act and join Democrats to fully reopen the government and end this senseless shutdown.”
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