As we all know, the federal government has been largely shut down for partisan reasons.
Some members of the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives decided they would support a short-term resolution to continue funding the government only if that spending plan would eliminate all funding for “Obamacare”—the federal health care program.
The Democratic-led Senate, unsurprisingly, voted to reject any provisions to defund President Barack Obama’s signature first-term legislative achievement.
The House then stood firm. It rejected the Senate’s “clean continuing resolution” that had stripped out provisions to defund the Affordable Care Act and would have simply continued funding the government at current levels for about two months.
The president and Republican leaders in Congress are now working—thus far unsuccessfully—to broker a deal.
One question, among many, arising out of this impasse is how might this shutdown affect the environment?
Furloughs Halt Progress on Weighty Issues
Initially about 800,000 out of 2 million federal workers were “furloughed” (i.e., forced to take unpaid leave), although approximately 350,000 (primarily civilian military contractors) were recalled shortly after the initial shutdown.
Impacts have been widespread, ranging from reductions in disease and food inspections by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, to lack of product screening at ports by the Consumer Products Safety Commission, to slowing of the processing of loans for low- and moderate-income buyers of homes and first-time homebuyers by the Federal Housing Administration, to some reduction of Veterans services.
Federal environmental agencies have also been very hard hit. At the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, about 93 percent of its 17,000 employees were furloughed. At the Bureau of Land Management, 10,152 of 10,800 employees were furloughed. Similar impacts on workforces have occurred at other federal environmental agencies such as the National Park Service, Forest Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
These layoffs are having major effects on the environment—and most of these impacts are not positive.
With the EPA shut down, there will be no advancements in air pollution regulations, including much-needed improvements to the national ozone standard that have been long called for by the independent experts and medical professionals that advise the EPA. These improvements are needed to protect people and the public health.
The “regional haze” rule for Wyoming, which would limit air pollution that causes haze in our national parks and wilderness areas, had been scheduled to be finalized in mid-November, but with the government shutdown, progress has been delayed, and nothing will happen on this front as long as the government is closed.
Many other EPA functions are on hold, such as laboratory research into pesticide human health impacts, and emissions standards certifications for vehicles, the latter of which is delaying some new model cars from reaching showrooms.
And approvals of new pesticides and industrial chemicals are also being held up because the EPA cannot review their health and environmental effects, as required by law.
At the BLM, on the other hand, the environmental impacts of the shutdown may be as much positive as negative, at least in the short term.
The agency has stopped reviewing and approving applications for oil and natural gas drilling. The agency has also stopped work on pending oil and gas lease sales. And the “mega projects” that the Wyoming Outdoor Council has been very concerned about (such as the Continental Divide-Creston, Moxa Arch, and Normally Pressure Lance oil and gas fields) will not be moving toward approval during this shutdown.
That said, popular BLM campgrounds are closed, and places such as the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper are not open. And we are discouraged that the shutdown has halted the agency’s progress on critical revisions to the land-use plans for the Lander, Cody, Worland, Buffalo, and Rock Springs areas.
The BLM Resource Advisory Council will not be holding its scheduled November meeting in Laramie, at least as of today.
Regardless of these conditions, good or bad, the Wyoming Outdoor Council has close professional relationships with many BLM employees, and, for their sake and the country’s sake, we want them back on the job as soon as possible—rather than at home doing weaving and yard work, or whatever else.
Closures Deliver a Blow to Local Economies, Hunting and Fishing
The impacts of the government shutdown on the National Parks have probably received the most media attention so far. The National Parks, Monuments, and Historic areas throughout the nation, such as Yosemite, Mount Rainier, the Gettysburg battlefield, and other Civil War memorials, have been closed—and people are not happy about it.
In Wyoming, even though park visits might be slowing down this time of year, as snow falls, we no longer have access to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and Devil’s Tower and Fossil Butte National Monuments.
Some states, including Utah, Arizona, and New York, have paid to reopen the parks, but Wyoming has not taken that step.
The economic impacts of the loss of tourism dollars have been significant and very unwelcome in the communities that surround these national parks. One estimate from retired Park Service workers was that 700,000 people per day would have been visiting the parks if they were open and this was costing surrounding areas about $76 million in visitor spending per day.
Another unfortunate effect of the shutdown is that National Wildlife Refuges were closed to hunting and fishing just as many hunting seasons were about to open. This can be a big blow to hunters and their families, who plan all year for these hunting seasons.
Some of these areas have been reopened, mostly in the Midwest, to allow pheasant and duck hunting. In Wyoming, the National Elk Refuge and Seedskadee and Pathfinder National Wildlife Refuges are closed to hunting, as are other refuges.
Courts About to Run Out of Money
And finally, an issue of interest to a group like the Wyoming Outdoor Council is the courts. We sometimes take environmental issues to court to get them resolved. Federal courts are currently open but they will run out of money sometime around October 17 or 18.
If that happens, they too will be greatly scaling back services. All “nonessential” work will be stopped. What this probably means is that criminal cases will proceed (because the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to a speedy trial in criminal matters) but civil cases will probably not proceed, or will be greatly slowed.
All in all the environmental impacts of the government shutdown are mixed, but mostly negative. So we’d like to see the government up and running as soon as possible. And, we would like to see these dedicated public servants back on the job.
When it comes to the environmental protection work that the Wyoming Outdoor Council does, the shutdown has had little impact so far. But this will change if the shutdown continues for an extended period.
Many of our longer-term efforts include engaging with these key government agencies. Our work, for example, to convince the EPA to adopt and improve regulations to better protect human health would be affected. The same goes for a long list of other matters, including our multiyear efforts to help the BLM to better manage oil and gas development and to provide farsighted stewardship of our public lands; to help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to fully protect imperiled species such as sage-grouse; and to encourage the U.S. Forest Service to adopt better, more carefully crafted long-term land-use plans, among many other things.
Eventually, if the shutdown continues, these important long-term efforts will all be affected—slowed down at first and maybe eventually brought to a halt. No matter what happens, of course, we will adapt. But with any luck this shutdown will be short and we can continue to make progress on the weighty environmental issues that affect all of us. We hope so.
Contact: Bruce Pendery, chief legal counsel, Wyoming Outdoor Council, email@example.com