Federal employees back at work, for now
by Nathaniel Smith
The Times-Independent
Jan 31, 2019 | 2432 views | 0 0 comments | 104 104 recommendations | email to a friend | print

The partial shutdown of the federal government is over, and Moab’s nearby national parks have reopened. Yet Canyonlands Natural History Association, the nonprofit organization that was instrumental in keeping visitor centers staffed during the political impasse, is still preparing for a second freeze.

The 35-day impasse, the longest in U.S. history, ended on Friday, Jan. 25 when President Donald Trump signed a short-term deal to temporarily reopen the government while negotiations over funding for a border wall continue. The stopgap agreement will last until Feb. 15, at which point the government could shut down again.

“If we don’t get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down again on Feb. 15, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and the Constitution of the United States to address this emergency,” Trump said in his address on Friday. Were the president to declare border security a national emergency, he could theoretically use money to construct a wall without congressional approval. Many pundits and politicians have already questioned the legality of such a move.

Regardless of how negotiations proceed over the coming weeks, CNHA is already preparing for a second shutdown. According to Roxanne Bierman, the executive director of CNHA, the organization spent about $12,100 to keep the visitor centers of Island in the Sky and Arches open for a two-week period in January.

During the first part of the shutdown in December, funding from the State of Utah kept the Arches visitor center staffed. However, heavy snowfall and a lapse in state funding closed the park at the outset of 2019. Roads into Arches and the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands were impassible until Jan. 11, when workers from the Utah Department of Transportation plowed the snow off of them.

Bierman said the CNHA’s board of directors approved a donation of up to $54,000 to go to the National Park Service. They estimated that money would last for about 30 days, including both personnel and maintenance costs. Around the time of CNHA’s decision, the NPS was authorized to use entrance fee money to fund basic operation and maintenance, so CNHA’s donation only had to cover visitor center personnel, said Bierman.

The remaining donation money, about $41,900, is being saved in case of another shutdown, said Bierman. There is also money from Alsco, a linen and uniform rental company based in Salt Lake City since 1889. On Jan. 24, just a day before the government reopened, Alsco pledged to give $100,000 to keep Zion, Arches and Bryce Canyon open at least through Feb. 18, Bierman said.

The pool of money from Alsco was divided based on visitation numbers from the previous year, and Arches received $19,600, said Bierman. In the announcement of its donation, Alsco stated, “If the federal government shutdown ends before the money is used, Alsco will work with the natural history foundations to apply the remaining funds toward high-priority park programs.”

According to Bierman, Alsco has made good on that promise. She said she was “really impressed with Alsco” for the commitment to the parks. Bierman said the current agreement is that CNHA will hold on to Alsco’s donation until it is “certain there will not be another shutdown.” In the event of another shutdown, CNHA will use Alsco’s funds for Arches and its own money for Island in the Sky, Bierman pointed out.

“The good news for us is that we feel somewhat prepared to be able to weather [another shutdown] for a little while,” Bierman said. She also noted that soon Moab’s visitation will begin picking up, at which point more personnel will be needed to staff the visitor centers.

The past furlough will have ramifications beyond what we’ve already experienced and may expect, explained Bierman. An example she gave was how the timing threw off the Park Service’s seasonal hiring process. “When it’s over, it isn’t as though we can just go back to business as usual immediately,” she said. She described how time consuming the hiring process can be and noted that the NPS has not been able to even begin yet. “We’re a little concerned about their ability to staff the visitor centers,” she said.

Bierman expressed appreciation for the dedication of Park Service employees. “The NPS was remarkable through this whole thing. People who were supposedly furloughed who needed to come into work to get the absolutely essential things done were working anyway,” Bierman said. “No one was getting paid at that stressful time. I was very impressed they did everything they could to keep things going at our national parks during the shutdown.”

When the latest impasse ended, it was announced that the 800,000 federal employees who were furloughed or forced to work without wages would receive back pay. However, as the Washington Post and other outlets reported, more than a million federal contractors, often the lowest-paid workers in government jobs, are not guaranteed any back pay. That includes the cooks, guards, janitors and other support positions at federal buildings.

Both Republicans and Democrats agree another shutdown is not in the country’s best interest, but at this point it is still uncertain if either side will relent on the border wall debate before the fast-approaching deadline of Feb. 15.

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