Bayou-Diversity (20 January 2018) Note: This essay was written after the government shut-down that occurred Dec. 15, 1995 to January 6, 1996, twelve years before the author retired.
To those of us who work in the government sector, the recent Federal shutdown was an unprecedented exercise in frustration. My agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was one of the departments held as a political hostage. It is one of the smallest agencies with a budget of less than 1 percent of the total federal budget. In fact more money is spent annually on our military bands than on all 500+ National Wildlife Refuges combined.
The impacts of the shutdown were at best a major inconvenience to the several dozen Fish and Wildlife Service employees in our area. Impacts on other private citizens were most directly felt with the loss of recreational opportunities such as hunting, fishing and birdwatching. All National Wildlife Refuges were closed during the peak of the hunting seasons. Thousands of visitors were turned away during the holiday season. Many had scheduled vacations months earlier to take advantage of the refuge hunts. General requests for information, programs, and school presentations went unanswered.
Economic impacts due to the refuge closures were especially noticeable in the smaller rural towns such as Tallulah and Crossett. Income for sporting goods stores, motels and campgrounds is directly tied to refuge visitation or the lack thereof. Additionally, local refuges implant more than one million dollars annually into the economy through the purchase of supplies and services used in the daily operation and maintenance of the areas. During the shutdown nearly all of this activity ceased.
Impacts of the shutdown on natural resources were more subtle and easily overlooked by the layman. Winter is the prime time to plant trees and more than 1,000 acres of fields were scheduled to be planted back to bottomland hardwood species. The window of opportunity to plant is narrow and the disruption may preclude much of the work this year. Thousands of dollars already spent on site preparation and growing seedlings may go to waste.
Many wildlife surveys critical to management are conducted in December and early January. In order for the surveys to be relevant to those in previous years they can’t be rescheduled. The midwinter waterfowl survey is especially important as the data gathered in this count are used to plan next year’s hunting seasons. This survey was canceled as was the annual bald eagle survey. The Christmas Bird Count, used in the management of songbirds, was canceled at Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge.
Routine activities such as pumping up impoundments and manipulating refuge crops for wildlife came to a halt. Important research studies such as one involving radio tracking threatened Louisiana black bears were shut down with months of critical data gathering jeopardized. The closure of the raccoon hunting season on local refuges disrupted efforts to control an unnatural overpopulation of these predators which prey on resident birds.
So did shutting down natural resource agencies save any money? From my perspective as an on-the-ground manager, not a penny. In fact the shutdown cost us dearly any way you measure it. Unprocessed bills continued to pile up in each administrative office and the law requires that interest be included on any late payments. These and overtime work necessary to meet other legal obligations will negate any possible savings. The loss of employee productivity was especially wasteful as was the loss of public recreational opportunities. Lastly, the natural resources themselves took a hard to measure hit that was totally unnecessary. The whole scenario was a good example of how not to wisely manage our natural resources.