Gov. shutdown felt at local level
Tourism, trails, sage grouse caught in crosshairs
Times Staff Writer
Originally published 2013-10-03
Effects of the federal government shutdown are rippling through the Gunnison Valley.
It’s the first time the federal government has shutdown in 17 years, closing local offices and leaving federal workers with nothing but time on their hands. Even volunteers who maintain public trails in the area have been told to “hold” until the government is rolling once again.
Local branch offices of federal agencies — such as the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and National Parks Service — remained temporarily shuttered as of press time. “Closed” signs hang on the doors of local offices and messages on voice mail machines explain why employees are not at work.
And the shutdown threatens to delay even further the decision on whether to “list” the Gunnison Sage-grouse as an endangered species.
The shutdown began at 12 a.m. Tuesday, after the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives failed to reach an agreement on funding the government. At the center of the argument is the Affordable Care Act, or so-called “Obamacare,” with House Republicans attempting to block funding of the health care reform law and Senate Democrats refusing to budge. A stop-gap budget passed six months ago ran out Sept. 30.
Local federal offices closed
According to BLM state officials, only 31 of the 708 federal employees in Colorado will remain on duty during the shutdown — mostly law enforcement officers, fire fighters and petroleum engineers. Another 154 employees will remain on call.
“Most of our people are still trying to find ways to do their jobs even though they are not being paid,” said Steven Hall, the communications director for BLM Colorado. Hall spoke to the Times Tuesday, just before leaving his office on furlough. “These are very dedicated civil servants who really do have the best interest of the public and, at least for now, they are furloughed.”
Hall went on to explain that in the Gunnison Valley, only law enforcement officers will remain on the job until federal lawmakers reach a solution.
“Those folks will be dealing solely with emergencies, taking care of federal property, and trying to ensure bad things don’t happen on public lands during the furlough,” said Hall.
Local Forest Service employees first learned of the possible shutdown through a phone call Monday evening. An emergency meeting was held Tuesday morning notifying them that they are officially furloughed.
Shawn Cleveland is a forestry technician and forest protection officer with the agency. His position is seasonal, and was set to end in November. But Cleveland says he was counting on the income until the job was completed.
“It’s very hard. I was counting on at least three more paychecks,” said Cleveland. “The people who cut the paychecks are shut down as well. We can’t even get paid for the time we’ve already put in. It’s a financial burden because now there’s no money coming in and we can’t work.”
Forest Service workers were told the shutdown could last anywhere from a few days to months if Congress can’t come to an agreement, according to Cleveland. He says he’ll use the time off to look for another job. If the funding lapse is resolved quickly, he plans return to the Forest Service to fulfill his seasonal work.
Tourism, trails take hit
Furloughed employees aren’t the only ones to take a financial hit. Communities dependent upon tourism dollars likely will also feel the effects. While non-regulated public lands are still accessible, National Parks and monuments have been padlocked. The National Park Conservation Association — a national parks advocacy group, estimates $30 million will be lost every day as a result.
“The locks on the gates will not only make for bitter memories, but will also mean that local hotels and restaurants will be empty, shops and guide services will lie dormant, and millions of dollars that communities need will be lost,” wrote Trevor Kincaid, the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, in an e-mail Tuesday.
Curecanti National Recreation Area saw almost one million visitors in 2011, which brought in $41 million to communities surrounding the area. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park had 168,336 visitors, which brought in $8.5 million dollars in the same year. That spending combined supported 621 jobs in the area.
Gunnison Trails also was forced to cancel its Trailwork Tuesday this week. The BLM instructed the group to suspend all its activities on public lands. Gunnison Trails had intended to work on Dave Moe’s trail at Hartman Rocks Recreation Area Tuesday evening. Executive Director Dave Wiens says the shutdown couldn’t be at a worse time.
“While Hartman’s is in pretty good shape, just about every trail out there sustained damage from the wet September that we’ve had,” said Wiens. “This was really going to be an opportunity for us to get out there and get work done on every trail. There are some trails with some hug ruts that are borderline dangerous if we don’t have any opportunity to get out there and work on them.”
Wiens spoke to the importance of maintenance before the snow starts to fall.
“In a typical fall, we can really set our trails up well for the winter, and now we re not able to do that,” he said. “So we’re hoping for a quick resolution so we can get cranking again next week.”
What about the sage grouse?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) has also prohibited public access to agency properties and cancelled fish and wildlife management activities and public programs.
Should the shutdown continue through the weekend, it is unlikely that the FWS will host an informational meeting and public hearing set for Monday in Gunnison.
Those meetings were scheduled as part of the next steps in process of proposing to list the Gunnison Sage-grouse as an endangered species. The informational meeting is intended to explain the draft economic analysis released last concerning listing, followed by a public hearing.
Gunnison County Wildlife Conservation Coordinator Jim Cochran notified the Gunnison Basin Sage-grouse Strategic Committee by e-mail that the FWS intends to wait as long as possible to determine whether to cancel the meetings.
“If the federal budget issues are not reconciled earlier, we will not know if the hearings are going to be held as scheduled until late afternoon Friday,” Gunnison County Wildlife Conservation Coordinator Jim Cochran indicated Tuesday via e-mail.
Two FWS public hearings in New Mexico and California previously scheduled for this week were cancelled Tuesday.
(Chris Rourke can be reached at 970.641.1414 or email@example.com)