Move Along, America; Nothing to See Here

The views are still there in America's national parks, but visitors may not be able to get to them because of the government shut-down. The budget impasse also means no USDA payments and skeleton crews for public lands. Lost in the noise is the expiration of the farm bill, with no renewal in sight. 

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Congress can’t seem to do much, but it did accomplish the nearly impossible: shutting down the great outdoors.

The National Park System is among the federal agencies suspending operations because of the federal budget impasse.  That means park visitors and the businesses that cater to them are out of luck.

In the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, for example, the closure comes at the busiest time of year. The park typically sees a million visitors in October, the peak of the fall foliage.

Rangers closed access roads October 1. Campers have 48 hours to leave. Scenic pull-offs on park property will be blocked. Even the National Park Service’s website has a message that the agency’s webpages are off line because of the shut down. (We wonder whether the park service considered posting this clip from the movie “Vacation” instead.)

The National Park Service, which is part of the Interior Department, will furlough more than 21,000 staff. That will leave a crew of about 3,000 to serve the entire system’s law enforcement and other critical needs. 

Also in the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management will furlough all but about 600 of its 10,000 year-round employees. Most of those workers will be responsible for law enforcement and property protection on the 247 million acres under the bureau’s control, according to the bureau’s closure plan.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, a vital agency for tribal governments and Indian Country residents, will retain nearly two-thirds of its workers, including nearly all employees in the Indian school system run by the Bureau of Indian Education. The bureau’s closure plan says those workers are “financed by a resource other than annual appropriations.” 

Columnist Mark Trahant says the Bureau of Indian Affairs learned its lesson during the 1990s, when it furloughed some 13,500 workers and created grave disruptions in Indian Country. Though smaller, the 2013 Indian Affairs furloughs of federal workers and the halt of federal payments will affect tribes and contractors. 

Indian Health Services, which is part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, will operate at close-to-normal levels, according to Indian Country Today.  But Trahant said that the 21-day shutdown in the 1990s caused concern over securing medical supplies and medical services from outside providers. 

Over at the U.S. Forest Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture, the plan calls for keeping about 40% of staff (13,000 of 32,000) on the payroll for fire suppression, law enforcement and protecting property like fisheries, nurseries and research facilities. The Forest Service manages 190 million acres.

In USDA Rural Development, which provides loans, grants, housing and other support for rural communities, only 53 workers out of more than 4,700 would be left if the government shut-down lasts more than a day. After two days, there will be no staff in state field offices and none in programs like Rural Housing, Rural Utilities and Rural Business Service.

“No new [Rural Development] rural housing loans or guarantees would be issued, which would result in a setback in construction start-up, as well as a potentially costly inconvenience to buyers and sellers,” the department states in its shut-down plan.

The closure will also delay or stop loans and grants for community facilities like health clinics and fire stations and for broadband programs. “No loans or advances would be made or issued for modernizing rural America’s electric and telecommunications infrastructure,” the USDA document states.

The department will maintain a skeleton crew to process payments coming in on the agency’s loan portfolio of $190 billion.

Though USDA will be accepting payments, it won’t be making any. That means land-owners who are counting on money from Uncle Sam for crops or conservation programs are going to be disappointed.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said the donnybrook over the federal budget has overshadowed another congressional miscue – failure to pass a new farm bill, which expired September 30.

“The U.S. Congress has put all Americans in a dire situation,” Johnson said in a press release. “The uncertainty created by the failure to come to an agreement on how to fund the government has overshadowed a situation that impacts the livelihood of so many family farmers, ranchers, fishermen and hungry people in this country.”

Johnson called for Congress to enact a new, five-year farm bill, rather than extend the current bill again.

The American Soybean Association, which represents the industry and some growers, said pretty much the same thing.

“Congress has yet again failed its most basic duty: to debate and pass legislation,” soybean association President Danny Murphy said in a press release. “And, frankly, we’ve run out of ways to say we’re disappointed.”

 

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