Originally published October 23, 2013 at 6 a.m., updated October 23, 2013 at 6 a.m./lk
Grangeville While the divided U.S. Congress bickered over whether and how to fund the federal government for fiscal 2014, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests supervisor Rick Brazell and a total of about 20 combined forests employees were “excepted” from the shutdown by the Forest Service higher ups – which is another way of saying that the agency’s central office in Washington D.C. asked a fraction of the workforce to stay on the job without pay Oct. 1-17.
"We just lost two weeks of prime field time we can’t get back.”
— Supervisor Rick Brazell
Nez Perce-Clearwater N.F.
The Forest Service’s preparations for an “orderly shutdown” began at least two weeks prior to the shutdown, Brazell said in an interview shortly after the government reopened. Planning intensified as it became more and more clear that Congress would not fund the government without a fight, and days beforehand, the agency “had it pretty well nailed down” which combined forests employees would stay on the job and which would not.
“We knew we were gonna have our district rangers and one fire management officer on each ranger district still working, all of our law enforcement people still working, and I was still working,” Brazell said. “We had one fire engine that stayed on, which was fortunate because they helped do a 40-acre fire.”
On Oct. 1, Brazell had to do “the hardest thing in years,” he said. “To tell 300-some people they had to go home, they’re sitting at home for some undetermined amount of time and they’re not going to get a paycheck.”
With agencies across the country getting back to “business as usual” after an agreement last Thursday, Oct. 17, funded the federal government through Jan. 15, more than 300 permanent employees of the combined forests are returning to work.
“Everyone is back to work,” Brazell said Oct. 17. “There’s probably a few who are out of town, a few may be out hunting elk and don’t even know the government has reopened.”
Some date-sensitive work, such as prescribed burning, was delayed during two weeks of prime weather.
“There were some contracts that had to be shut down – certain trail contracts or things that weren’t crucial or an emergency if we walked away, we had to shut them down,” Brazell said. “They’re scattered small contracts across the ranger districts.”
Critical work was not interrupted.
“As an example, we had some contracts going replacing culverts, and if we would have shut them down and left, if the weather hadn’t been good, it might have washed out an entire road,” Brazell said. “Because they were only a few days away from getting the culverts put in, we kept those people on.”
Timber cutting – even on timber sales under contract – was stopped, but some work continued.
“We were going through an orderly shutdown and then we got direction, which we applauded, that said timber sale operators could remove all the downed trees they had down and fix things up like some erosion control things,” Brazell said. “Because it took a while to do that, the government reopened before they left the site, so they didn’t have to incur the cost of moving their equipment out and moving it back. Nobody that I’m aware of got shut down totally on our forest.”
Each “exempted” employee – including 23 permanent employees who stayed on the job – had to be approved by the regional and national offices in Missoula and Washington D.C. Some of those who were furloughed sought unemployment, but even the exempted employees were not paid during the shutdown, Brazell said.
“The way it works is, Congress has agreed to pay all the furloughed employees back, so they’ll have to pay the state unemployment back,” he explained. “Nobody was getting paid, but certain people were expected to work.”
Litigation – on such issues as megaload transports through the U.S. 12 corridor and Idaho County’s RS2477 claim to the Buckhorn Creek road system near Elk City – was not interrupted. In some cases, the court dates simply did not come due; in others, Forest Service attorneys were exempted in order to complete court dates. The shutdown also spawned new litigation, including a lawsuit timber interests filed in order to keep logging operations from being halted.
Several large planning processes were disrupted, as meeting calendars are now being reshuffled, causing delays that will push back the combined forest plan revision and the Nez Perce National Forest’s travel plan by at least three to four months apiece.
On the Lochsa Land Exchange, “the appraisers were shut down as well, so that will be delayed somewhat,” Brazell said. “The legislators have asked us basically to stand down while they go through a legislative process, so we’re waiting to hear from the chief’s office on how they want to respond to that.”
Brazell said the chief’s response may come in “the next week or so.”
Any planning process that requires field work may be delayed, but not all will be.
“We just lost two weeks of prime field time we can’t get back. We’ve got all these projects to do, and we as a leadership team are looking at what has to come off the plate,” Brazell said. “Not all projects – and we haven’t chosen which – but some projects – whether they’re timber sales or whatever they are – will have to be delayed until possibly January, February, even spring. They’ll be delayed by a quarter, three or four months.”
“We’re in that critical time period where field season is winding down. We’ll be up against holidays and use-or-lose vacation time soon,” Brazell said. “People are excited to come back to work.”
“The last shutdown, 16 years ago, happened during Christmas time,” he noted. “I was a forest wildlife biologist on the Ashley National Forest when that happened. I wasn’t an excepted or essential employee at that time. I had four kids at home, and I was thinking about how to meet my obligations and bills. It’s a big impact, not knowing if you’re going to have a paycheck. There’s a lot of anxiety and hope that they’ll resolve the next one before Jan. 15.”