Who felt the federal furlough?

  • Grand Canyon visitors: They could look in, but not hike in

    Sam Minkler

While his colleagues paced anxiously at home during the 21-day federal furlough, Forest Service timber contracting officer Lathrop Smith administered 13 green timber sales in southwestern Colorado. He was hampered - -there were no soil scientists, hydrologists or biologists' - but stayed on the job.

Smith was not alone. Although most of the West's federal kingdom lay dormant, private companies and state governments doled out money to keep federal projects on track. In other areas, a patchwork of humanitarian organizations responded to the pressing needs of people dependent on federal dollars.

The apparent influence of the timber industry in keeping the Forest Service's timber program rolling along irks Brooks Preston, minority staffer for the Senate Agriculture Committee. According to Preston, the Forest Service used non-appropriated trust fund accounts, such as the salvage sale account, to fund green timber sales.

"I imagine there were one or two timber sales going on in every Forest Service region," he says.

White River National Forest Supervisor Sonny LaSalle, who had three timber sales and a full deck of ski areas operating in his forest, says timber contractors like Smith were deemed "essential" because the Forest Service has a contractual obligation with timber purchasers. "If Congress and the president can't seem to agree," he says, "we are liable for a contract claim."

But Preston questions why the timber industry should be spared the pain other industries felt during the shutdown: "The EPA terminated all of its contractual agreements ... private sector folks are seeing their profits evaporate," he says. "It's strange that timber contracts are business as usual."

Ski companies didn't miss a beat when the government shut down. Not only were lifts still running on Forest Service land, but future expansion plans stayed right on track. Forest Service employee Loren Kroenke showed up at work every day at the Holy Cross Ranger Station in Colorado knowing he would receive a paycheck. Kroenke works full-time as the project manager for Vail Associate's 4,000-acre expansion on public lands and is paid by the ski company.

In Arizona, the state government and private donors paid the National Park Service $17,000 a day to keep Grand Canyon open, at least on the rim.

While ski companies bailed out federal employees in some of the West's wealthiest counties, the Bureau of Indian Affairs turned to tribal councils to help the West's poorest counties.

In North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, 1,779 families faced three weeks without general assistance payments during a brutal cold spell, according to Delbert Brewer, director of the Aberdeen, S.D., area BIA office. Schools and prisons threatened to close for lack of food. "These are the neediest of the neediest, the poorest counties in the nation," says Brewer. "They get no assistance from anywhere else." Brewer was forced to turn to the tribal governments for help even though the tribes weren't receiving their federal checks.

"The tribes are stepping in and bailing out the federal government only because they refuse to watch a bunch of people starve and freeze to death," says Brewer. "We are robbing Peter to pay Paul to buy fuel."

In Fort Belknap, Mont., Indian community groups held emergency meetings, attempting to provide the services of the BIA, says BIA Supervisor Edie Adams.

Congress sent all employees back to work Jan. 8. Forest Service researchers resumed their data collection and snowmobilers entered Yellowstone National Park. But federal employees were wary. If budget talks break down before Jan. 26, the struggle to keep the West moving without federal funds could happen again.

Heather Abel is a staff researcher and reporter. Intern Dustin Solberg contributed to this story.

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