By Ann McCreary
District Ranger Mike Liu was one of only a handful of people still working at the Methow Valley Ranger District headquarters in Winthrop Tuesday (Oct. 1) on the first day of a federal government shutdown.
As the district’s top official, Liu said he is an “exempted” employee and still expected to work while federal government employees are on furlough. “I am working on an orderly shutdown of the offices,” Liu said.
More than 50 people employed by the ranger district were told to stay home Tuesday as legislation to fund the federal government remained stuck in the House of Representatives as a result of their opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
“During the furlough, we will have a skeletal staff that will continue to provide for law enforcement, health and safety needs, and the protection of federal properties,” Liu said in an email sent to local law-enforcement agencies, town and county officials.
Campgrounds and trailheads, including facilities at Washington Pass and Rainy Pass on the North Cascades Highway, “are being closed with signs and locked,” Liu said.
“People can still hike on the national forests, but we don’t have anyone to collect fees or clean bathrooms,” he said. People wanting firewood permits or visitor information were out of luck Tuesday.
Liu said the district’s law enforcement officer and fire staff, including engine and crew captains, were still on duty.
“We will continue to patrol areas that we have burned this fall, address hazard trees and road hazards, and oversee federal properties including our riding and pack stock at Eightmile Ranch,” Liu said. If needed, Liu said he personally would be checking on water for the horses and mules.
In the case of an emergency, Liu said, he has the power to mobilize people to respond.
Liu said activities operating under Forest Service permits will be allowed to continue, including outfitters and guides taking trips into the national forests, and people holding existing firewood permits. Cattle owners with range permits can continue to move cattle on the forest.
The cost of the federal shutdown translates into lost productivity, Liu said. “Even if it’s only one day, the impact is far more in terms of preparing for a possible furlough, the shutdown today, and start-up. We are taking time away from other duties we should be doing,” Liu said. “Instead of finishing trail work or doing road work, we’re addressing an orderly shutdown.”
Others staying home
Employees of other federal agencies working in the Methow Valley were also staying home Tuesday. Gregg Knott, an environmental consultant who works at the River Bank building in Twisp, said desks normally occupied by employees of the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey, and National Resources Conservation Service were vacant.
“People don’t understand in the Methow Valley how many things are conducted by federal agencies here,” Knott said.
His work as a consultant on environmental projects requires Knott to work closely with federal agencies. “When you consult on a daily basis with counterparts in the federal government, and these people aren’t there, you have to drop the thread,” Knott said.
One of his projects requires permits, visits and surveys from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Project managers hoped to begin work before winter. “If we can’t get them before the snow flies we’ve essentially got a five-month shutdown,” Knott said.
Farmers work with the National Resources Conservation Service on a daily basis, said Knott. “It’s a ripple effect.”
North Cascades National Park was among 401 parks across the nation closed Tuesday by the National Park Service. The park service website was shut down because it could not be maintained.
All visitor facilities including the North Cascades and Golden West Visitor Centers, park hotels, campgrounds and roads – except for State Highway 20 – were closed. Superintendent Karen Taylor-Goodrich said that park visitors in all overnight campgrounds and lodges would be given until 3 p.m. on Thursday (Oct. 3) to make travel arrangements and leave the park.
In the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, 118 employees were on furlough because of the shutdown and approximately 40 concessions employees were similarly affected. Eighteen park service employees remained on duty, providing security and emergency services.
In 2010, visitor spending in communities around North Cascades National Park totaled $1.54 million, and there were 24,659 recreational visits, according to the park service.
State parks remained open.