Federal shutdown affected Colo. & San Luis Valley

by Mary Lowers

The latest federal government shut down, beginning on December 22, 2018 and ending on January 25, 2019, was the longest in history. This shutdown dragged on for thirty-five days. Since the enactment of current budget and appropriations systems in 1976, there have been twenty funding gaps, ten of which resulted in shutdowns with federal employees being laid off or furloughed. This funding standoff is around the issue of a border wall between the US and Mexico costing billions of dollars. This wall was one of President Trump’s campaign promises, which have little support in much of the western and southwestern US. The reprieve from the federal shutdown through a continuance agreement will only last until February 15, by which time it is hoped a resolution of the standoff will be underway, or we may face resumption of the federal closures.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis called the ramification of this shut down, “a real life issue with enormous costs to Colorado.” Our state has many jobs tied directly or indirectly to the government in Washington, DC. According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, there are some 53,200 federal workers in this state. Federal workers in the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture were the employees most affected by the shut down. Here in the San Luis Valley (SLV), people are employed by the US Department of Fish and Wildlife, US Bureau of Indian Affairs, US Bureau of Land Management, US Geologic Survey, and the National Park Service, 

and all these agencies are part of the Department of the Interior. 

In Crestone we are surrounded on three sides by land controlled by the National Park Service (NPS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The US Forest Service is in charge of 65% of Colorado’s forests. The BLM manages nearly 500,000 acres of public lands within the Rio Grande Basin.

Luckily for the SLV, closures due to the shutdown happened in this snowy winter when there are less visitors. The Great Sand Dunes National Park announced the website would not be updated during the federal shutdown, there would be limited emergency and rescue services available, national park services such as rest room maintenance, trash collection, facility and road maintenance would be unavailable. The Park however, remained open as did many parks nationwide but was unstaffed at the entrance and visitors center. The snow accumulation kept visitors away because the shutdown meant no snow plows. Nationally some parks that remained open to visitors, although unstaffed, were vandalized during the shutdown. Many citizens came forward to empty trash cans and clean rest rooms at parks during the shutdown. The sand dunes reopened on January 27 with all facilities open and roads plowed.

State Forester Mike Lester said there’s a concern about the government shutdown putting twenty four million acres of national forest at increased risk of wildfire. The shutdown stopped the employees who do mitigation work during the winter from doing their critical job. Lester said, “During the winter employees spend time burning mitigation piles which if not cleared become fuel for large wildfires.” The shutdown put this mitigation work behind a month.

And then there’s the trickle down effects of the federal shutdown. Fewer visitors will come to the SLV because of park conditions making it difficult to access them safely.  Governor Polis expressed concerns about the shutdown’s “amplifying effect on federal contractors.”  Contracts depending on federal funding are currently on ice due to the shutdown. Laid off and furloughed federal workers are not being paid which means there’s less money from their families being spent at businesses. Food banks and other programs that depend on federal funding can keep operating for a couple of months before they find it difficult to serve their clients.

The federal shutdown affected a quarter of the government. Eight hundred thousand federal workers got IOU’s rather than pay checks. Many low wage federal workers hired under contracts to companies providing services such as food service, housekeeping or janitorial services were excluded from wage reimbursement. While shouldering a great burdenm, these workers have little recourse but to pray the federal government does not shutdown again on February 15 when the continuing resolution which ended the thirty five day shutdown expires.

Federal employees I tried to contact to get their reaction to the shutdown were reluctant to talk on the record. Their bosses are asking them not to speak up about the federal shutdown fearing reprisals from the federal government such as reduced funding and cancellation of important federal contracts. The seeming disregard on the part of the federal powers for the citizens working for them that are trying to pay the rent and put food on the table is worrisome to many federal workers and citizens alike.