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Shutdown - Forest Service

With the government shutdown continuing, and the Forest Service offices in the background closed, the employee parking lot stands empty last week except for one official vehicle, apparently unmoved for several days.

Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber would rather not be working from his Kalispell living room.

“I live five minutes from the office, so I can get there easily,” Weber said from his home last week as the federal government shutdown headed into its third week. “These people are very mission-driven. They want to get back to work. There’s so much work to do and they’re not being allowed to do it.”

Weber said about half a dozen of his colleagues are excepted from the federal furlough, meaning their jobs must go on although they aren’t getting paid. The rest of the national forest’s roughly 160 full-time-equivalent staff are ordered to stay home, not check email, or do any of their regular duties.

So that means someone has sent emails to hundreds of wildland firefighters asking if they are available for work this summer, but no one is on hand to start training and certification classes.

Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation fire trainers are at work. But the advanced fire management classes needed by incident commanders go through an interagency training program led by the federal government.

“Typically we’d be starting to spool up with new classes right after the new year,” said Paul Fieldhouse, who recently retired from the DNRC Fire Safety and Training Program and previously managed the Northern Rockies Interagency Training Center. “We were typically training 1,500 students a year.”

Forestry and recreation planning staff cannot plan for timber sales and trails maintenance. And those are the people who often serve as the eyes and ears for the two law enforcement officers who have the entire 2.5 million acres of the Flathead National Forest to patrol. That’s hampered investigation into a possible snowmobile trespass incident in the Swan Crest where a snowmobiler was rescued from an avalanche that may have occurred in a nonmotorized wilderness area.

A few things can still occur. Weber said some hazardous fuels treatment burns will take place this month because they’ve been excepted from the furlough due to the limited fire safety window. The Flathead Avalanche Center remains in operation for public safety. But logging and fuels management projects that rely on frozen winter ground to keep heavy equipment from damaging sensitive soils may be delayed into the melting spring breakup if the shutdown doesn’t resolve soon.

Similar situations exist throughout western Montana. Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality has a long list of remediation and clean-up projects in partnership with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. On Tuesday, its staff and EPA representatives were supposed to meet with Missoula County officials and residents about progress on the Smurfit-Stone Container mill investigation.

“That meeting had to be postponed indefinitely,” Missoula County Water Quality District Supervisor Travis Ross said on Monday. “We’re unable to communicate with the project manager at EPA right now.”

Similar delays have affected the feasibility study of the Barker, Hughesville and Carpenter-Snow Creek mining district remediation projects by Great Falls, canceled public meetings on Libby Asbestos Superfund Site decisions, impeded scoping work at the Westside Soils Operable Unit in Butte and postponed community engagement activity at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Complex.

DEQ spokeswoman Kristi Ponozzo added some more examples. State investigators had to step in to check potential drinking water contamination on an Indian reservation that usually would have been handled by EPA staff last week. The federal agency’s Compliance Data Monitoring Portal website was down for several days, preventing analysts from uploading drinking water tests on issues like e-coli contamination.

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Forest Service air quality data has also been unavailable, which affects local government ability to OK burning permits or fuels reduction projects. And the federal Office of Surface Mining’s Coal Information Management System has been put on hold, preventing the state from permitting new coal operations.

Montana State Forester Sonya Germann said the recently expanded Good Neighbor Authority program has lost momentum because of the federal shutdown. The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation wants to add eight and a half full-time staff to handle the federal-state cooperative forestry work this year, but has no federal partner to work with.

“That could the impact number of timber sales and forest restoration projects we can get on the ground this fiscal year,” Germann said on Monday. About 30 million board-feet of timber on up to 5,000 acres of federal land was slated for state management this year.

Germann said the shutdown also affects federal money that gets passed through the state to private contractors.

“The state will be on the hook to reimburse those awarded grants,” Germann said. “And we’ll have to delay any new future grants until we know the Forest Service will open back up.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.