Impact of federal shutdown hits home

Locally the BLM and Ochoco National Forest offices are closed due the government shutdown


by: RON HALVORSON - The above note was left on the Bureau of Land Management Prineville District Office door following the shutdown.

The man at the front door of the Prineville office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seemed perplexed, although the vacant parking lot and the red “CLOSED” sign were obvious clues that something was amiss that Tuesday morning.

“All I wanted to do was get an ATV permit,” he explained. “I didn’t think they'd be closed.”

Lest any doubt remained, a notice taped to the inside of the glass door explained.

“The Bureau of Land Management Prineville District Office is CLOSED because of the government shutdown,” it proclaimed. Citizens were advised to call 911 in an emergency.

A government shutdown occurs when an annual funding bill hasn’t been passed by Congress and/or signed by the president, and there is no continuing resolution in place as a temporary, stop-gap measure. According to the Congressional Research Service, 17 shutdowns — either total or partial — have occurred since 1977. Some have lasted less than a day. The longest and most recent, in 1996, lasted 21 days. This year’s iteration is not a total shutdown. Some agencies and services will remain open for business, including the Social Security Administration (beneficiaries will continue to receive checks), the U.S. Postal Service (expect regular mail delivery), and the military, according to the Government's website. Also on the list are air traffic controllers, prison guards, and border control agents — services deemed essential to the nation’s well-being.

According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 818,000 civilian workers, out of nearly 2.9 million nationwide, were planned for furlough — roughly three of every 10.

The fact that some agencies will remain open is no source of solace for the local BLM. The employees who did show up for work on Tuesday were tasked with shutting things down, and had four hours to do it. “Basically we’re looking to kind of wrap up work that’s planned for the next few days,”said BLM employee Lisa Clark, speaking as a citizen and not an agency representative. “If we have meetings we have to let them know that we might be unavailable. Make those contingency plans. Those things that you do on a day-to-day basis, get those things done today, and then people head home. There are not going to be people even answering my voicemails, or responding to my e-mails.”

Most, but not all employees were placed on furlough. “Basically our law enforcement and fire are excepted,” explained Jodi Weil, from the BLM’s state office in Portland, Ore. She added the state director was the only excepted manager — others, including local district managers — would be on call. More than 98 percent of the 1,994 BLM employees in Oregon and Washington were furloughed, leaving 27 excepted and 142 on call.

The situation was comparable at the Ochoco National Forest office next door, with a sign on a locked door that also advised customers to obtain firewood permits at Bi-Mart or R and R Grocery.

Local impacts of these two agencies’ closure will also be similar. Non-emergency permits and authorizations will not be issued. Land management projects will be put on hold (unless funded in a prior year and not requiring agency oversight). And although the public lands will remain open for recreation, supporting services at campgrounds, such as restrooms and garbage pickup will cease. Some sites may be closed altogether.

Tracy Wrolson, acting district forester for Oregon Department of Forestry’s Central Oregon District, foresees no problems for his office as long as the Interagency Dispatch Center remains open as planned.

“Our main thing is to make sure they still do have some fire staff on, and some dispatch,” he said. “That’s the most important thing for us, even though we’ve just gone out of fire season, and we have the rains in. People are still doing burning and things like that, so it’s good to have that support still available for us.”

It’s not likely the shutdown will have any immediate effects to Crook County, either, according to Commissioner Ken Fahlgren.

“We’re working through a forest collaborative trying to bring natural resources back into the community, so there will be some effect there if this goes very far along,” he said. “Direct services in our county, not today.”

According to Fahlgren, the state has said they have 30 days before state processes — and grants — would be affected.

Prineville City Manager Steve Forrester echoed Fahlgren’s perspective. Although an interagency habitat conservation plan meeting scheduled for Wednesday was cancelled, he sees no problems unless the shutdown is lengthy.

“A prolonged shutdown would delay our progress on completing the habitat conservation plan, which is a multi-year process anyway, but it would delay it even more than it normally does,” he said. “Obviously our federal lawmakers are focused on the budget issues and shutdown issues, and not focused on this very important piece of legislation for this area, this community, so again, (I have) concerns on how that process will be affected.”

Another concern Forrester has is specific to grants. He said the city currently has a Federal Aviation Administration grant related to an automated weather observation system at the airport.

“So far, it looks like that process is far enough into its completion that we don’t think that will be affected,” he explained, “but the paperwork surrounding — getting payments and corresponding with the federal agency as we build that project out — is in question.

“We’re hoping that everything goes well and gets resolved, but at the same time, that's where we are today."

Crook County School District Superintendent Duane Yecha said he isn't aware of any short-term effects and said the shutdown doesn’t seem to be impacting the state budget — yet.

“Grants, funding of federal programs, sequestration, those kinds of long-term funding issues, the title money, those kinds of things, but nothing at this point.”

A longer shutdown will likely impact federal human service programs, according to the contingency plan posted by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Service. This could affect funding for such programs as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Child Nutrition Program.

The shutdown also means that federal employees may not get paid. Federal employees were paid retroactively following the 1996 shutdown. Locally, this could not only affect the personal finances of the 360 federal employees in Crook County (as of August, according to the Oregon Employment Dept.), but also the local economy. Federal workers have been encouraged to apply for unemployment benefits, and the Employment Department's website highlights the process for them to use.

Economics and inconvenience aside, the shutdown is a source of frustration for both affected federal employees and the public.

“Me, as a person, there’s a lot of frustration at the federal level,” said Clark. “It’s hard. We want to come to work. Many have asked if we could even volunteer, and we can’t.”

“I’m extremely frustrated,” shared an anonymous U.S. Forest Service employee, "that people that we elected can't get their act together."

Fahlgren agreed, and offered some advice.

“It’s more the bigger issue to me is why can't they work together over, in this case, a law that’s been passed so many years ago, and now we're trying to put it into practice, and we’re not able to get there with the inability of our congress not working together.

“It’s just so frustrating to work at any federal level. It’s not just what’s happening today. It’s more the federal parts of our community, the forest service, the BLM, and how little we can go forward on a lot of projects. It just shows us once again that we have to fend for ourselves, and work through our own local issues and not depend on that (federal government) to go forward as we used to.”




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