THE LOCAL NEWS OF THE MADISON VALLEY, RUBY VALLEY AND SURROUNDING AREAS

A sign at the Ennis U.S. Forest Service office lets visitors know that the office will be closed until the partial federal government shutdown is lifted. The Forest Service, overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is unfunded during the shutdown. (R. Colyer)

Shutdown woes

Montanans feeling the strain as shutdown tops 30 days

MADISON COUNTY—As of Monday, January 21, the federal government’s partial shutdown has stretched on for 31 days, the longest in U.S. history by 10 days. As the nation feels the ripple effects of the shut down in everything from airports to food inspections, the impacts are also trickling down to the state and local level and Montanans are not immune.

The Center for American Progress reports that over 6,000 of the around 800,000 furloughed federal workers are in Montana, spread across over a dozen federal offices. Those employees missed their first paycheck of 2019 on Friday, January 11.

Nearly 4,000 of those furloughed employees work for the Montana branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA includes several state agencies: 56 offices of the Farm Service Agency; the Office of Rural Development, which facilitates grants and loans for economic development and for projects like Sheridan’s new million-dollar well project; the Forest Service and the staff that manage Montana’s 10 national forests.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is also not working, including the 22 people it employs to monitor and protect agricultural products and public health. In 2013, the state FSIS inspected nearly 40 thousand head of livestock—a process that is currently stalled.

A further 2,300 employees of the Interior Department are also without pay until the federal government reopens. 

The Interior Department most notably oversees the National Park Service, which means the governing body for the 3 million acres encompassed by Glacier and Yellowstone National parks is currently shuttered. 

The situation has become so dire in some national parks—like California’s Joshua Tree—that some of them have closed completely to visitors, after vandals in Joshua Tree toppled the park’s iconic protected trees, breaking them off at the trunks and leaving them lying on the ground. Without funding, there is no staff to help in cleanup and restoration efforts, and everything from protecting wildlife and scenery in the national parks to emptying trash and cleaning public restrooms is at a complete standstill.

Last week, Yellowstone National Park reallocated some funds from recreation fees to restore a few basic services to the park, such as trash collection and reinstating the law enforcement officers who have been absent. The Park Service was reluctant to reallocate the fees, which were earmarked for future projects and now must be used just to keep the park functioning.

Volunteers around and in the park began donating money and time soon after the shutdown began, cleaning public toilets and helping to ensure some of the park’s roads remained groomed. But all administration offices are closed and won’t reopen until the government does.

Also under the Interior Department are the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which supplies health care and law enforcement to the state’s seven reservations; the Bureau of Land Management, which manages millions of acres of public lands; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the 23 wildlife refuges across Montana. As “non-essential” services, all of those offices are shuttered, their employees receiving no pay.

The lack of paychecks makes it harder for federal employees to simply put food on the table, and for the over 100,000 Montanans who utilize Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, that uncertainty will grow if the federal shutdown extends past February 1. 

SNAP received funding through the end of January, but beneficiaries could see funding completely cut off after that. Across the nation, around 38 million people utilize SNAP benefits in order to put food on the table, but since the stalled USDA oversees SNAP, there will be no renewal on February 1 unless the government reopens. 

It seems nobody is immune from the shutdown: one of the highest profile impacts for the general public has been air travel, including Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees at airports around the country. TSA sick calls skyrocketed nearly 140 percent last week, after the agents stopped receiving paychecks on January 11. That has resulted in longer lines, missed flights and even closed terminals at the nation’s busiest airports.

Montana’s eight airports employ around 170 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and TSA personnel, the Center for American Progress reports. It may not seem like many, but travelers will be at their mercy should increasing sick calls spread to Montana’s airports.

President Trump dug in his heels last week over the shutdown, refusing point blank to agree to any compromise that didn’t include his requested $5.7 billion to build a wall along the United States’ southern border with Mexico. With Congress equally determined not to allocate the funds, there is no end in sight for the shutdown unless a compromise can be found.

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