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Government shutdown hits close to home

As Week 4 of the federal government shutdown begins, the familiar faces dressed in the customary khaki shirts with the FWS insignia embroidered on the shoulder are noticeably missing from the landscape of the more than 40 Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA) scattered across St. Croix, Polk and Dunn counties that make up part of the USFWS St. Croix County Wetlands Management District. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia

The sign on the door reads, "Due to the lapse in federal appropriations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is unable to fully staff the properties under its management.

"Visitors are advised to use caution if choosing to enter units of the National Wildlife Refuge System, as most FWS personnel will not be available for the duration of the shutdown.

"Law enforcement personnel will remain on duty to provide emergency services and protect government property. However, any entry onto Refuge System property during this period of federal government shutdown is at the visitor's sole risk."

As Week 4 of the federal government shutdown begins, the familiar faces dressed in the customary khaki brown shirts with the FWS insignia embroidered on the shoulder are noticeably missing from the landscape of the more than 40 Waterfowl Production Areas scattered across St. Croix, Polk and Dunn counties that make up the USFWS St. Croix County Wetlands Management District.

Whether you are a birder or a Boy Scout, a Friends member, a hunter or monarch enthusiast, chances are you have met Bridget or Chris, Caitlin or Joel, or another of the eight permanent and four temporary staff members of the district. When they are not busy managing the wetland, grassland and oak savannah habitats on 43 WPAs, they can be found working with other federal and state agencies in partnership with private landowners restoring wetland and upland habitat on private land.

These are the people in the news who are not getting paid, who are being furloughed right now due to the inability of the Congress and the President to agree to fund the government. These are people many of us know, in some cases, work with, and across the board, from whose knowledge and experience we benefit. Right now all or a portion of their family income is in jeopardy. Groceries, mortgages, rent, car payments, utility bills, savings, all on hold, indefinitely.

Bridget Olson, Project Leader for the district, sent out a calendar listing 10 events upcoming in 2019. A number of those events have become eagerly anticipated, annual opportunities for a wide range of community members from Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, to birders and paddlers, to families and volunteers. From the woodcock walk and bird banding to duck counts, frog program and Conservation Day, USFWS staff work to find meaningful ways to educate and involve community members in the challenges of habitat restoration.

The first of this year's public programs, the Annual Winter Walk scheduled for Jan. 26, is in danger of being canceled.

"That would be considered a non-emergency. Normally Tom goes out there and plows out a parking area and might plow out a path for everyone to walk on. Because we co-sponsor this with the Friends group, this is the kind of thing we would have to cancel," said Olson.

The district website refers visitors to the Department of the Interior website (www.doi.gov/shutdown) where the intricacies of deciding who continues to get paid and who gets furloughed is explained. Four pages into the explanation, the reporter decided to call Charles Traxler, Director of External Affairs for the Midwest Region of the USFWS for some help.

"Our appropriation lapsed right after Christmas which means we implemented a furlough. That means all employees except essential employees, those needed to do the work to maintain public equipment, make sure that pipes don't freeze, water control structures don't fail, etc., that essential infrastructure is maintained, are laid off. At the St. Croix District that means the manager and one maintenance person are considered excepted service, so they are working. The other permanent employees have been furloughed, which means they are not working," explained Traxler.

"Tom (Marcouiller) and I are here to protect lives and property. Those are considered essential functions. That's what we have to focus on, not our normal day-to-day tasks, beyond that, it's not getting done. The office is closed. However, the lands, the WPA's are open. If it doesn't take a staff person to be there to oversee a particular activity, they're open," said Olson.

Any of the ongoing programs requiring FWS staff, like those supporting monarch and Karner Blue butterflies or any of the private/public land partnerships or programs conducted with the high school ag students, are all on hold until the shutdown ends.

What's not getting done right now at the FWS station on 95th Street is planning for the upcoming year, prioritizing projects, strategizing partnerships and applying for funding.

"This time of the year, we would normally be doing our planning, so strategizing, looking for grants, talking to our partners about what their needs are and what our overlapping priorities are and how we could work together. We would be laying out our priorities for the year, our tree work, which WPAs we are going to burn or graze. Those are things that aren't being addressed at this time," said Olson.

Including the current shutdown, the U.S. Federal government has shut down a total of 21 times since the passage of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, which established the federal budget process in 1976. Given the contentious nature of the government the last three administrations, it is not surprising to learn the last time the government shut down was in 2013 for 16 days. However, the real hayday for shutting down the government came between 1976 and 1979 when it shut down six times in three years; however, the majority of those shutdowns were of short duration, typically a week of two.

"The folks who are on furlough get a notice that says they have been furloughed, basically laid off, so that allows them to apply for unemployment insurance. There is a separate letter available to them explaining the situation which they can use, for example, to speak with a mortgage lender. But there are not specific government protections for that. That is something they need to negotiate on their own with their lender or landlord," said Traxler.

Although essential personnel like Olson and Traxler are currently working, they are not getting paid. However, once an appropriation is approved, they will get back pay for all of the time they worked.

"For folks who have been furloughed, that is still an unanswered question. For the last couple shutdowns, they have received back pay, but that is a decision negotiated between Congress and the President," said Traxler.

As Olson mentioned, despite the lack of manpower, the WPAs and other refuge properties are open to the public.

"Waterfowl Production Areas and other refuge properties are open, subject to the regular rules and regulations. The furlough has no impact on the lands themselves. So if WPAs are normally open for small game or fur bearers , or hunting, hiking, wildlife photography, etc., that is all still open to use. We just ask that people be respectful of the property and other people out there and to pick up after themselves," said Traxler.

At the end of the day, people like Olson and her staff sign up to serve the public and protect natural resources. They become collateral damage when politicians can't compromise. Olson stays in close contact with her staff while they all await a resolution. How do they feel about the standoff?

"We would much rather be working," said Olson.

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