Question: How do the feds close a million square miles of public land in the event of a government shut down?
Answer: They don't.
Not for lack of trying. Roads to popular areas like the Grand Canyon boat launch at Lee’s Ferry have been blocked, much to the chagrin of boaters, some of whom travel across the world for a Colorado River trip. Most of our national parks, forests and wildlife refuges, however, are not surrounded by barbed-wire fences. For backcountry enthusiasts, Tuesday’s government shutdown almost looks like a good thing - no RVs at the gate, no fees, no crowds. But there's another, less visible consequence: With 86 percent of National Park Service and 10,200 Bureau of Land Management employees sent home this week, environmental law enforcement is taking a major hit. The Park Service's contingency plan requires it to maintain the minimum staffing necessary to protect life and property, but history shows that in the absence of full governance, rules get broken.
The last time the government failed to compromise and ground to a halt, in 1996, the Western Watersheds Project received reports that some Idaho ranchers took advantage of the situation, turning their cattle out to forage on land that was supposed to be off-limits. Similarly, in Vermont, where I worked as a reporter after severe flooding from Tropical Storm Irene, some landowners used the lack of oversight as an opportunity to illegally dredge streambeds, exacerbating the risk of future flooding. When no one's looking, a little bit here and a little bit there can't hurt, right?
Even in the old West, enforcement was nearly always in place to protect resources. Mining camps employed “enforcement specialists” and developed specific laws to deter violence and theft, realizing that people couldn't necessarily be counted on to do the right thing. This week, with just 600 BLM employees left to patrol 264 million acres of wide-open Western land, similar fears have emerged.
"Absolutely I would say we’re worried," says Travis Bruner, public lands director for the Western Watersheds Project. "Livestock trespassing and other illegal activities happen with regularity even when the Forest Service and BLM are on duty."
Along with cattle trespassing and its attendant habitat degradation, Bruner and others worry about illegal off-roading, timber harvesting, and the thieving of cultural and historic artifacts, as well as, to a lesser extent, poaching. Marijuana farmers who illegally grow pot and divert water on Forest Service land might benefit from the shutdown, too.
Several years of budget cuts have already left their mark on environmental enforcement. Here in Paonia, our local Forest Service has been without a law enforcement officer for several years due to lack of funding. And opponents of the Environmental Protection Agency are likely dancing on their desks this week: A full three-quarters of its enforcement unit are now home twiddling their thumbs. That means more opportunities for air and water polluters to evade detection, says Frank O’Donnell, president of the Clean Air Watch.
“Some of our biggest polluters are only on good behavior when they think there’s going to be enforcement,” he says. “When the cat’s away, the mice will play. Without oversight, people sometimes misbehave. That’s as true for big corporations as for an individual, and that’s our fundamental concern.”
Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News. Follow @KristaLanglois2.