Government shutdown squeezes conservation groups, strains public land use

Nevada does not have a national park as heavily-trafficked as Yosemite, where human waste has piled up in the absence of federal employees during the partial government shutdown.

But in a state where more than 85 percent of the land is managed by the U.S. government, Washington gridlock has taken a significant toll on field work in areas the public rarely sees.

Small businesses and nonprofits across the state regularly contract with land managers such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees recreation, grazing and mining. When the shutdown started, many groups received notice from the agencies that they could no longer do work under those agreements until the funding issue was resolved.

The result: Some employees could no longer be paid under the contracts.

“It’s crushing us,” said Jerry Keir, executive director of the Great Basin Institute.

The Great Basin Institute, a nonprofit that conducts field work for the BLM on range conditions, has had to tap into its reserves, spending $130,000 in the past nine days to make sure its staff — many of them young and seasonal — could still be compensated.

In Ely, the government shutdown has forced workers for the Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition to forgo their normal salaries, working fewer hours because they are not allowed to work in an agency building or use BLM property during this time.

Betsy Macfarlan, the executive director, said employees can put in some hours on their personal computers but some tools, like Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, are only available through the agency.

 In Eastern Nevada, a rural region dominated by federal land, Macfarlan said the shutdown could have a ripple effect on the local economy. Many residents work as federal employees for the BLM or Great Basin National Park and are uncertain about when they’ll get their next paycheck.

“Those who are back East and don’t live with public lands don’t understand this stuff and the direct impact it has on rural communities,” Macfarlan said.

The partial government shutdown began 13 days ago because of a confrontation between Democrats and President Trump, who has insisted on federal funding for a border wall. On Wednesday, lawmakers appeared hopeful that renewed talks between congressional leaders and the president would end the shutdown, but Congress, with split party leadership, remains divided over how to proceed.

Democrats, who take over the House of Representatives today, had said they planned to vote on a spending bill without funding for a border wall. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Wednesday that the Senate would not consider a plan if it did not have the support of the president, who continues to demand border wall funding, The New York Times reported.

Stuck in the middle are about 800,000 federal employees and even more federal contractors.

The Southern Nevada Conservancy, a nonprofit that operates the visitor center and collects fees at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, is one of those contractors.

Andy Hart, its executive director, said the organization likely lost $67,000 in retail sales at the popular climbing and hiking spot in the last 10 days of December, typically one of the busiest times. Moreover, most of conservancy’s employees have gone without pay.

The Southern Nevada Conservancy, which also works with the California Trail Interpretive Center near Elko and the Forest Service at Mt. Charleston, said most of its work has ceased as visitor centers closed. The group, which donates its profits to public land, is continuing to pick up trash at Mt. Charleston, post updates on social media and guide tours at Red Rock.

Hart said he has requested that his board of directors use reserve funds to provide back pay.

Red Rock has remained open during the shutdown. And Patricia Potter, president of Friends of Red Rock, said that overall, the recreation area abutting Las Vegas has remained relatively clean, even amid the spike in visitation over the holidays.

“I’m happy to report that so far, so good,” she said.

If the shutdown continues for another few weeks, Potter warned, the park could see an uptick in trash and toilet issues. But for now, the BLM continues to have a limited presence, easing concerns about illegal activity. Although most BLM employees are sent home during government shutdowns, the agency keeps some law enforcement at work.

“BLM law enforcement is doing a yeoman's job,” she said.

Red Rock is a draw for professional and amatuer climbers across the country. They have continued to visit the park over the holidays, but some said the shutdown created logistics issues with overcrowding at dispersed campsites.

“It’s more difficult to plan trips,” Jorge Jordan, the president of the Southern Nevada Climbers Coalition, wrote in an email. “The campsite is closed, sending people to various dispersed camping sites that were getting pretty crazy packed during the holiday.”

Jordan said the shutdown also affected access to climbing routes due to backed-up roads and temporary closures.

In less-trafficked areas of the state, the shutdown could still have adverse impacts, Patrick Donnelly, state director at the Center for Biological Diversity, argued. With fewer employees patrolling more than 50 million acres of federal land in Nevada, Donnelly said there was more opportunity for illegal behavior and the misuse of land.

“This could mean resource damage from illegal off-road driving, trash dumping, poaching wildlife, shooting in unauthorized areas, or other potential harmful acts,” Donnelly wrote in an email.

For groups like the Great Basin Institute and the Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, the shutdown adds to existing funding problems with Washington. Both groups were affected this year by delays in issuing grants and changes to contracting under the Trump administration.

The delays led to a $1 million drop in BLM funding this year for the Great Basin Institute, which dispatches its employees on surveys across Nevada and the West to collect professional rangeland data. Keir said the organization has often had to fill the gap with its own funds.

"While the institute is prepared to use contingency funds for such purposes, the cost for doing business with a dysfunctional government are growing,” Keir wrote in an email.

During the government shutdown in 2015, the Great Basin Institute spent about $160,000.

For Macfarlan’s Eastern Nevada organization, the combination of budget delays and repeated government shutdowns has forced the group to strike a deal with its landlord to allow the team of ecologists, botanists and wildlife biologists to work rent-free for six months.

“That’s the continuation of last year’s [delay] on agreements and the shutdown,” she said.

In addition to active land management, federal agencies in Nevada are constantly engaged in a process of soliciting public comment as they decide whether to permit projects on federal land. These projects, which are required to go through an environmental analysis, range from solar fields to mines.

Donnelly said the shutdown affected an online portal used for public commenting in the environmental analysis process. The public is typically given a defined period in which they are allowed to comment on projects. The agencies incorporate those comments in a final environmental analysis.

“We’ve written a letter requesting a blanket extension on all open...comment and protest periods [at the Department of the Interior], for a duration of the length of the shutdown, to be commenced as soon as government reopens,” Donnelly said.

Update: This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 4, 2019 to correct the title of the president of the Southern Nevada Climbers Coalition.