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In its third week, government shutdown poses challenges for tribes, fire managers

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
CongressEnvironmentTribal nations

Near the small central Nevada town of Austin, the Yomba Shoshone tribe sits on 4,700 acres of land. Its revenue for all of its municipal services comes from one place: Washington, D.C.

Since the federal shutdown began, many of those services have come to a halt. With funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs frozen, tribal administrator Andrew Perera said the tribe was required to furlough its employees, leaving several tribal members without a paycheck.

“We are representative of what the rural, smaller tribes have to deal with,” Perera said. “We don’t have a casino. We don’t have the ability to set dollars aside for a rainy day.”

Many members of the community have continued to work as volunteers. The chief of the tribal police and several officers are still reporting to work, and the tribe is dipping into reserved funds to test water quality. But each new day of the shutdown places more strain on the tribe.

“We don’t have the ability to do that forever,” he said.

Now in its third week, the partial federal shutdown has left more than 3,000 Nevadans out of work — the large majority of them working for the Department of Interior — and many more federal contractors. In a state containing more than 85 percent federal land, its impacts have often been dispersed and localized. As the shutdown drags on with little end in sight, its impacts could become more apparent, affecting everything from wildfire management to road repairs.

As of Wednesday morning, 154 individuals had filed state unemployment claims, according to the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. Thousands of federal workers are eligible to file, and that number could rise as employees miss their first paycheck on Friday.

Federal employees are not the only ones feeling the shutdown’s impacts. Janet Reeves, who runs Nevada Urban Indians Inc., said her Reno-based health clinic receives about 70 percent of its funding from the federal government. Since the shutdown began, Reeves has had to cut her employees back from four days to three days. If it continues, she said she will have to cut more days. The rest of her funding, for the most part, comes from the state, which disburses federal grants. She said that revenue could also start drying up in a few weeks due to the shutdown.

“I listened to the speech yesterday that the president did — and I do listen to the news,” Reeves said. “This is not just about the [national] parks. It’s affecting a lot of programs."

President Donald Trump addressed the shutdown last night during an Oval Office address in which he continued to push for a wall along the Mexican border. Trump reportedly stormed out of a meeting on Wednesday with congressional Democrats who have refused to include $5.7 billion dollars for the concrete barrier, calling it immoral. He called the meeting a “waste of time.”

Meanwhile, on the 20th day of the federal shutdown, about 3,500 federal employees in Nevada continue to go without work and federal agencies have stopped important work across the state.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the Department of Interior, which manages a large chunk of the 85 percent of federal land dispersed across the state. According to estimates from the Center for American Progress, of the roughly 3,450 federal employees who have been furloughed, nearly one-third — 2,090 workers — have some role in the Interior Department. The progressive think-tank used Office of Personnel Management data to compile the estimates.

In addition to affecting nonprofit contractors and recreation, the timing of the shutdown has slowed large-scale efforts to help rural communities recover from massive wildfires last year.

Two massive fires that swept through the Great Basin in 2018 burned more than one million acres of public land used for grazing, hunting and recreation that supports rural economies. To preserve the land and avoid future fires, which are often fueled by flammable invasive grasses, the state planned to reseed the burned areas this winter with help from the federal government.

Ecologists stress the importance of reseeding in the winter when there is moisture and some snow cover on the ground. Reseeding has already been a challenging task because there is a lack of seed and it can be difficult to wrangle the equipment or funding to do the reseeding.

The shutdown has added another layer to these challenges.

“In order to get ahead of annual invasive species and to capitalize on weather, it is critical to implement rehabilitation treatments when the environmental factors allow,” Kacey KC, the state’s firewarden wrote in an email. “If the window of the first fall/winter following the fire is missed, it could be a full year before those conditions exist again. This allows time for invasive flashy fuels to take hold causing annual fire cycles, thus nullifying the effort in the future.”

Although state agencies have continued to seed in some cases, the shutdown has imposed challenges in a state where most of the burned land is managed by the federal government. Rep. Mark Amodei called the Interior Department’s record of managing shutdowns “awful.”

“When management at the Department of Interior doesn’t think Nevada district managers or the new state director are key personnel to the [Bureau of Land Management’s] existence and management of more than 67 percent of the land mass in Nevada – then you can imagine the lack of concern about daily operations for fire restoration and other matters,” Amodei said in a statement on Tuesday. “Which is why, shutdowns don’t work, and [the Interior Department’s] track-record of managing them is awful.”

According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Amodei said last week that blame for the shutdown rested with Democratic leadership for not funding the wall.

Across the country and in Nevada, the shutdown is adding to an existing backlog in immigration courts and making it more difficult for farmers to apply for federal assistance or loans. If the shutdown continues, it could affect grant funding that the state receives for transportation.

The Nevada Department of Transportation, which received about $380 million in federal funding last year, said that apart from some delays in reimbursements, their projects are continuing to move forward. The state agency said that it received commitments for first-quarter funding before the shutdown. But a long-term shutdown would have consequential impacts on the state agency, according to a fact sheet that was first reported by the Nevada Appeal.

“Longer-term federal funding lapses or insecurity could threaten many Nevada road projects with either having to be delayed or cancelled,” the fact sheet said. “To not receive the nearly half of Nevada transportation funding which comes from federal funds could be devastating to our ability to provide for Nevada transportation needs, including the rehabilitation of rural roads.”

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