Shutdown Damage Will Persist Long After U.S. Government Reopens
(Bloomberg) -- The government may be reopening, but the consequences of the longest federal shutdown in U.S. history are likely to linger for national parks, forests, the federal workforce and cutting-edge scientific research. Some may even be permanent.
Many fire crews missed their window for controlled burns to prevent wildfires. Irreplaceable relics may have been damaged in unguarded national parks. Science experiments were abandoned. And a generation of talent may now think twice about signing up for government, while workers returning to a month of unopened emails and missed meetings will have to decide which of their priorities to sacrifice this year.
And there’s the threat it could happen all over again. Congressional negotiators start work this week to find a permanent budget solution due by Feb. 15. President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff on Sunday didn’t rule out another shutdown.
“The lapse in funding has prevented progress on projects that would normally occur at this time of year, affecting partners, tribes, local communities and businesses,” John Haynes, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said in a statement. “Qualification training in fields such as firefighting and law enforcement has been delayed. Certain fuels treatments to improve forest conditions have been delayed or canceled. Work that could only be done during winter months may not be completed.”
Ecologists and conservationists are bracing for lasting damage on the nation’s public lands and wild places -- herons poached from Florida’s Everglades, felled desert succulents that would take decades to regrow, defaced relics from rocky outcroppings in the West.
“These are natural ecosystems,’’ said Jonathan Asher, a government relations manager with the Wilderness Society. “We can’t just go out there and make it better.’’
Images of damage have already become iconic symbols of the shutdown’s toll on nature. From California’s Joshua Tree National Park, an image of the eponymous plant slashed down to make room for off-road vehicles went viral on Twitter.
But Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, said he’s heard reports of wider-ranging damage that hasn’t yet been documented. That includes harm to fossils and ancient rock carvings in Utah and Colorado, injuries to sea turtles and manatees by motorized boats in the Everglades, and sage brush trampled by vehicles.
“We’ve also heard some poaching issues in the Everglades, where folks are going in and taking birds,’’ O’Mara said. “It’s a million little things.”
The impacts may be concentrated in the U.S. West -- harsh, isolated landscapes with rugged features that betray their fragility. Even a footfall can crush living cryptobiotic crust in western parks and public lands, much less the off-road vehicles reported driving across them.
Damage that will have to be addressed stems not just from people deliberately driving or treading into forbidden areas, Asher said, but also unintentional harm, like when well-meaning volunteers slipped bleach into composting toilets.
The physical damage isn’t limited to land. The shutdown is delaying updates to government rules dictating catch and size limits for salmon and other marine species that will in some cases force fishermen to limit what they collect under outdated, unduly stringent restrictions. In other cases, too many fish may be plucked from the sea this season.
For instance, salmon fishermen worked under tight restrictions in 2018 that won’t be eased this year if federal officials can’t finalize an updated rule in time, curtailing potential harvests, said Miriam Goldstein, a marine biologist who directs ocean policy at the Center for American Progress.
A widely cited concern about the lasting effects of the shutdown, but one that’s hard to quantify, is what it will mean for the government’s ability to keep the workers it already has and attract talented workers in the future.
In the months after the 2013 shutdown, which lasted 16 days, the number of federal employees taking early retirement increased, according to data published by the Office of Personnel Management.
Roy Wright, who ran insurance and mitigation at the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency until 2018, recalled counseling his employees after the 2013 shutdown that it was worth staying put. “They’re not going to do it again,’’ he recounted telling his staff at the time. “Everyone knows that shutdowns always end poorly.’’
This time, Wright said, a similar message will be harder to get across, at FEMA and other agencies.
“There’s going to be a problem with both retention and future recruitment,’’ said Wright, now president of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. “One of the really sour pills from this will be that long-term loss of a work force that is not interested in public service.’’
The shutdown could also make it harder for the government to find contractors with the skills it needs, said David Berteau, president of the Professional Services Council, a group that represents federal contractors. “Many of them may begin to look for -- and will take -- jobs in the private sector,” he said.
The shutdown poses another threat to the government’s ability to do its job in the future: the cancellation of crucial, time-sensitive training.
Each year in January and February, the National Hurricane Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, runs three one-week training programs for local officials in hurricane-prone areas. The goal is to teach them how to use the center’s information to make decisions about how to respond to coming storms, including whether and when to issue evacuation orders -- actions that can affect millions of Americans.
“Most of these people have never had a meteorology class in their life,’’ said Eric Blake, a scientist and union steward at the center. “We take them through the basics of hurricanes. We teach them about the kind of info that the hurricane center has that can be very useful for them.”
The first two of those courses were canceled, and the third may go as well. And Blake said there’s no room in the calendar to reschedule those courses before hurricane seasons starts in June.
What’s happening at the NHC has parallels across the federal government. Training for air-traffic controllers ground to a halt during the shutdown, threatening to make it harder to add to a workforce already at a 30-year low, said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Missed training courses aren’t all that can’t be made up after the shutdown ends. By halting forest management practices, the shutdown has increased the likely damage from wildfires later this year.
In many parts of the country, winter is the only time for prescribed burns, which are easiest to contain when conditions are relatively cool and wet. Those burns have been scrapped for now, which means more areas that won’t be protected from fires -- after a year of devastating blazes in California and elsewhere.
Nick Goulette, executive director of the Watershed Center in Northern California, which works with the federal government on forest restoration, said the shutdown has forced the cancellation of prescribed burns during the increasingly short window for doing those burns safely.
Those controlled burns are also the very thing the president criticized California for not doing enough of. Now, Trump’s own administration has put those burns on hold, and time is running out. “You can’t discount the irony,’’ Goulette said.
The shutdown forced a weeks-long closure of the National Science Foundation, a hub for research grants. The NSF canceled more than 80 review panels, in which specialized scientists grade applications and decide what research grants to fund, covering everything from molecular biology to cyber infrastructure.
Because the upcoming calendar is jam-packed, rescheduling the sessions and clearing the mounting backlog could take months, said Benjamin Corb, with the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
NSF grants helped fund research that led to everything from the creation of Google to the development of the revolutionary CRISPR gene-editing technique, he said.
“How many Googles, how many lasers, how many CRISPRs are not getting funded now because of the shutdown?’’ Corb asked. “There are going to be long-term impacts we’re not going to even realize until we’re six months out wondering why are we so far behind, and why did that lab shut down?’’
Time and Money
Once agencies reopen, staff will have to grapple with reshuffling priorities given that time -- and in some cases funds -- have been lost.
Some agencies have tapped into so-called “no-year appropriations’’ and carryover funds to sustain operations, a short-term fix that could leave the actual programs normally reliant on that money starved for dollars later this year.
For instance, the Interior Department used carryover funds to continue some oil and gas activity, and the National Park Service tapped multi-year appropriations and recreation fee revenue to offer some services during the shutdown. Normally, individual parks keep 80 percent of recreation and entrance fees they collect, with funding required by law to go to enhancing the visitor experience. That funding helps pay for the clearing of trails, maintenance projects and education programs.
“How far are those accounts going to be spent down?’’ asked Dan Puskar, executive director of the Public Lands Alliance. “As we lose revenue today, we’ll have less to invest in conservation service corps to do trail work, we’ll have less money to work on deferred maintenance projects, less money to do education programs.’’
Even before the shutdown, there was a roughly $12 billion backlog of necessary park maintenance, Asher said. The backlog will have grown, he said, and because parks have used fee revenue to stay open, there will be even less of that money to address it.
Even when government is fully functioning, “these agencies would say there’s too much work and not enough people,” said Elizabeth Klein, a former Interior Department official. “Now they will be extra stressed to get back the time that was lost, compress previously identified schedules and clean up whatever messes occurred during the shutdown.”
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