Shutdown forces closure of Mt. Rainier National Park to vehicles. KOMO News Photo (Click to read full story.)
As the federal government shutdown drags on, its impacts are being felt by people across the country and in all walks of life, including backcountry skiers and other snowsports enthusiasts.
The vast majority of winter backcountry recreation occurs on Forest Service and Park Service lands, and since the shutdown began most of the people who care for these lands and manage the recreation that occurs upon them have been temporarily laid off from their jobs. 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed and those who are working must do so without a paycheck. Although in some places volunteers and partner organizations have stepped in to pick up trash and stock and clean outhouses, or even pay some federal employees so that they can do their jobs, this only makes up for a very small amount of what the federal agencies do. Of course backcountry skiers and the public at large, prefer to be able to access and enjoy public lands, but access without management can lead to big issues.
Access and Safety
Many of the roads and trailheads that are normally plowed for winter access are not currently being plowed or maintained. For example, all vehicle access to Rainier National Park is closed during the shutdown, and while you can walk in, there’s nowhere to park outside of the Park, therefore essentially eliminating access to Rainier. With Rainier closed, ski guides and avalanche courses are re-routing to places on Forest Service land, such as Mt Baker, increasing crowding in already busy areas.
While there are some roads on federal land that are plowed by non-federal entities, or roads that access communities and therefore must be plowed for the purposes of public safety (such as the road through Yellowstone National Park that accesses Cooke City, MT), agency staff are not able to respond to emergency calls. Although local search and rescue teams remain active, the lack of agency staffing may slow down rescues because search and rescue teams won’t have access to valuable information and logistical support. Therefore, those venturing into the backcountry, and even remote frontcountry areas, are at an elevated risk.
Trail grooming is also curtailed during the shutdown. In some areas local businesses are stepping up to cover grooming costs because their business depends on visitor access to groomed trails. Of course, in many places local partners already do the bulk of trail grooming and this grooming is not impacted by the shutdown. But, many cross-country ski trails are maintained by the Forest Service or Park Service and these trails will not be groomed during the shutdown.
Finally, although law enforcement staff and avalanche forecasters are still working during the shutdown because their jobs are considered essential for public safety, they’re not getting paid. For weeks. Think about that the next time you check the avalanche forecast.
Management and Stewardship
During past shutdowns National Parks have been closed to public entry, but the Trump administration has changed this policy, keeping most of the gates open despite not having any staff on hand to manage visitation. As a result, trash and filthy outhouses in National Parks have gotten a lot of press over the last couple of weeks. These are highly visible reminders of some of the essential services that federal employees provide for the public. In many places, especially popular winter recreation areas and National Parks, volunteers have stepped in to empty trash cans and clean or re-stock outhouses. Stories about the public helping to care for public lands in this visceral way have made the rounds from National Public Radio to local newspapers. However, stewardship runs much deeper than trash and toilet paper and visitor management is much more than cleaning up after the visitors. Public land managers maintain facilities, protect natural resources, and help the public to better understand and appreciate the places they visit, among many other duties.
Unfortunately, some in the motorized community see the government shutdown as an opportunity to ride in Wilderness areas and other places that are closed to motor vehicles to protect natural resources, wildlife, or opportunities for quiet recreation. Stories and photos of snowmobiles riding past “no snowmobiling” signs, or high-marking Wilderness bowls are proliferating across social media as the shutdown continues. We’re quite disappointed in the lack of respect that this behavior demonstrates and we hope that our counterparts in the motorized community will soon speak out against such activities. If you see illegal snowmobile use you can document it and report it to the local Forest Service office once it re-opens. Documentation should include geo-located photos (use a smartphone), identifying features such as license plates or registration stickers, and any other information that will help law enforcement investigate and cite violators.
Finally, right now, all planning – from forest plans to timber sales – is on hold, adding delay to already lengthy processes. Partnerships, collaboratives, and other non-governmental efforts that complement these planning processes are ongoing, but without a major partner at the table – the Forest Service/BLM/Park Service – there’s only so much everybody else can do.
Research and Education
All Forest Service and Park Service/Department of Interior SnowSchool sites are closed during the shutdown. Every year Winter Wildlands Alliance’s 65-site National SnowSchool program introduces thousands of students to winter ecology and the joy of exploring public lands on snowshoes. Pulling this off depends on a complex series of community partnerships/collaborations at the local level. Every community and SnowSchool site is structured a little different, but many SnowSchool sites depend on the USFS or NPS/DOI playing a critical leadership role.
During the shutdown USFS and NPS conservation education and interpretation staff are furloughed (placing significant financial stress on these professionals). And as most public schools are back this week from the holiday break, we have seen the first wave of cancelled SnowSchool field trips. Thus far this scenario applies to about a dozen SnowSchool sites. It is difficult to gauge the cumulative impact of this as the shutdown is ongoing. However, hundreds of students can be served by just a handful of sites during a single day of SnowSchool. So if the shutdown continues it could impact thousands of would-be SnowSchool students. With a finite number of winter days and site coordinators’ limited ability to reschedule, this likely means many kids will miss out on their SnowSchool experience this year.
The good news is that SnowSchool sites operated by nordic centers, nature centers, school districts and other non-profits are still open and taking out their first groups of students this week!
The shutdown is also impacting many scientific research efforts. Some of these projects directly tie into the work we do, and many more are critical to understanding climate change and snow. For example, WWA SnowSchool’s plans to collaborate with the 2019 NASA SnowEx campaign are on hold due to the shutdown. During SnowEx, NASA aircraft fly overhead in states across the West and scan mountain snowpack with new sophisticated sensors designed to detect snow water content. The plan was to have students at SnowSchool sites in relevant locations hand-collect snowpack data and send it to NASA scientists to be compared with aircraft gathered data. This would give students a very authentic citizen science learning experience! But with NASA scientists furloughed during the critical project preparation period, 2019 SnowEx may or may not be rebooted.
To help students learn more about the science of snow, WWA partnered with the US Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in 2015 to install an innovative new SnowSchool Weather Station at the National Flagship Site in Boise. Though the RMRS is closed due to the shutdown, the station continues to collect data. Problems with data collection/display may occur however if the weather station instruments needs maintenance during this period.
Similarly, the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s SNOTEL station data remains accessible for now. This is important as many student across the West study historical and current snowpack data from their local SNOTEL site as part of their SnowSchool experience. The SNOTEL program runs on funds from the previous year’s budget.
Shutdown Highlights a Larger Issue
The government shutdown has led to extensive environmental damage, restricted access, a halt in planning, and interruption of important scientific research, as well as lost wages and financial stress for hundreds of thousands people. On the bright side, this shutdown is demonstrating just how important of a role federal employees and the Agencies they work for play in protecting and managing public lands.
For decades Congress has been tightening the screws on our land management agencies. The Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service all struggle with declining budgets, diminishing resources, and increased responsibility and visitor use. Our public land agencies need the funding and resources necessary to overcome infrastructure and planning backlogs and take on new challenges. People are constantly clamoring for new trails, access points, facilities, and designations but all of these take additional resources. Doing more with less only gets us so far. Congress needs to not only end the shutdown, it must also fully fund the land management agencies.