For 34 days in December and January, the government shutdown not only impaired the livelihoods of 800,000 federal employees, it brought almost the entire federal scientific apparatus to a halt. Worse, there are indicators that the Trump administration willingly took advantage of the shutdown to expedite strategic projects in the oil and gas, mining, and timber sectors—the consequences of which may be felt for months, maybe years, to come.
Despite furloughing everyone except the most essential government employees, and pulling the plug on federal agencies’ research and oversight obligations, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s work on Superfund sites and coal-burning energy plant monitoring, the administration decided to maintain skeleton crews at various agencies to press ahead with controversial energy, timber and mining projects.
These skewed priorities—which elevated industrial concerns over public health and environmental safety—were on display all over the country, but nowhere more than Alaska. According to Meredith Trainor, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, based in Juneau, the Forest Service kept busy during the shutdown with work necessary to complete an environmental impact statement that will forward the Trump administration’s objective of eliminating roadless restrictions on more than half of the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest. Trump’s Department of Agriculture has termed this effort the Alaska Roadless Rule, but it would be better described as the Alaska Roadless Exemption.
Spread across a 500-mile-long coastal archipelago, the Tongass is one of the last intact temperate rainforests in the world. Existing roadless restrictions have been in place since the final days of the Clinton administration. While they have been an annoyance to Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and current governor Michael Dunleavy—an ardent Trump supporter who has described his state as “America’s natural resource warehouse”—Trainor said the value of roadless areas to the region’s wildlife, tourism and forest health vastly outweighs whatever wealth loggers could extract via new roads. “Tongass timber is probably some of the world’s most expensive timber to log and to process and there’s no market for it, so right now about 90 percent of the timber logged isn’t processed. There are no mills that want anything to do with it,” said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, in Eugene, Oregon. “So timber is exported as raw logs to China, and basically the Forest Service has become a log broker for China. We’re about to sell gas to China, too. We’re becoming a bit of a colony.”
Adding to the injury, the Forest Service pressed ahead during the shutdown with preparations for a 500 acre old-growth timber sale on Prince of Wales Island that Trainor’s group formally objected to. Trainor feared the administration took advantage of the shutdown to circumvent the public input process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act. “Processes that were already problematic are being rushed, and the prioritization of who gets to work during this furlough is not focused on protecting communities or resources or the interests of people, but on furthering Murkowski’s and the Trump administration’s priority of getting more access to log a forest that the people from Southeast Alaska would rather see protected,” Trainor said in January amid the shutdown.
Elsewhere in Alaska, federal employees continued to work throughout the shutdown on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration, a project opposed by 70 percent of Americans, none more so than the native Gwich’in people, who depend on the region’s caribou herds for survival. “The coastal plain is sacred to the Gwich’in people and critical to our food security and way of life,” Bernadette Demientieff, a Gwich’in activist, said in a press release last week. “It is no place for heavy machinery and destructive seismic testing.” Federal employees also worked throughout the shutdown on expanding energy leasing on the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and on opening Bristol Bay to copper, gold and molybdenum (a compound used in steel alloys) mining. The Bristol Bay project, known as the Pebble Mine, has been virulently opposed by commercial and recreational fishermen and native tribes for over a decade because of the threat it poses to critical salmon spawning habitat. During the shutdown, the Army Corps of Engineers continued working on an environmental impact statement required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as part of the Pebble Mine permitting process. A draft statement was released on February 27.
While the Trump administration has repeatedly celebrated its emphasis on “local collaboration,” its willingness to forward the Bristol Bay project tells a different story. A recent poll of regional voters commissioned by the United Tribes of Bristol Bay found that 75 percent of respondents oppose the Pebble Mine project and 80 percent believe the project would harm the fishery—which accounts for about 5,000 jobs and $150 million in labor income. Rather than benefiting locals, the Trump administration seems to be accommodating the interests of the Pebble Mine’s ultimate beneficiary: Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Canadian mining company.
The indicators that the Trump administration capitalized on the shutdown to do an end-run around NEPA are not limited to Alaska. On December 20, 2018, the day before the shutdown began, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decided to renew leases that could allow a Chilean mining company to develop an industrial copper mine on the flanks of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, a unique and irreplaceable aquatic and forest ecosystem. As in Alaska, resistance from Minnesota’s local conservation and recreation community has been fierce. (Both the Democratic and Republican nominees for governor in last November’s election campaigned on the promise to protect the Boundary Waters from mining.) The shutdown-eve lease renewal triggered a NEPA-required public comment period that ended on January 22. Under pressure from conservation groups and from Minnesota Senator, and 2020 presidential candidate, Amy Klobuchar, the BLM extended the comment period by a mere eight days to January 30, which meant federal employees were only available to field questions for two days out of the entire comment period. “An eight-day extension to an already short 30-day comment period clearly shows this administration is trying to fast track the construction of this mine,” said Lukas Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters. “It’s clear they don’t want meaningful public input.”
The Trump administration’s apparent disinterest in input from the American public calls attention to the common denominator among many of these expedited projects: a foreign beneficiary. It’s as if Trump’s “America First” agenda is somehow dependent on handing out favors to foreign entities—something the Mueller investigation seems to be uncovering, too, though we’ll know more with the long-awaited release of his report. Some of those interests will probably bid on the slew of offshore oil and gas leases that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management retained staff to prepare amid the shutdown, while a sister crew at the BLM prepared a new round of some 400,000 acres of onshore leases and continued issuing drilling permits.
“They are moving full speed ahead with the planned March oil and gas lease sale, with almost no opportunity for comment from local communities,” said Ashley Korenblat, who owns a tourism outfit called Western Spirit Cycling Adventures, based in Moab, Utah. “Again, the BLM is prioritizing oil companies over communities.” Meanwhile, no one was available during the shutdown to help Korenblat process applications for permits to bring bike tourists onto public land trails in Utah and Oregon—a hiccup she feared would cost her business as potential clients looked elsewhere for guaranteed opportunities. “They think every community would love to have another oil well or another coal mine,” Korenblat said of the Trump administration, “but the reality is that many gateway communities are looking to get off the oil and gas rollercoaster. They have plans for their communities and they don’t want those places to be leased. Now they’re not able to comment.”
In other cases, the shutdown came at a personal scientific cost—damaging data sets that are not only vital to the public, but are also a life’s work. Denverite published a story about Jill Baron, a U.S. Geological Survey ecosystem ecologist and Colorado State University professor. For three decades, Baron has made weekly treks to high mountain lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park to take samples from the lake beds, analyzing their content for traces of environmental contaminants the way an archaeologist studies strata to understand the chronology of eons. “That work revealed traces of lead, and then nitrogen, that correspond to the Colorado gold rush, the automobile’s rise, leaded gasoline’s fall and the agricultural revolution that boomed after World War II,” Denverite’s Kevin Beaty wrote. In more recent years, Baron believes her samples have documented the explosive growth—and ecological significance—of Colorado’s Front Range communities. Baron has endured previous shutdowns, but the most recent shutdown created the largest hole in her research to date. “Baron’s weekly collection is all about consistency, and losing even two weeks of readings disrupts her ability to see the full picture of pollution way up at the Loch,” Beaty wrote. “Nitrogen and ammonia are a cause of concern for the fragile ecosystems up there, and data from the project has been used directly in state policy that aims to curb how our lives down below impact other parts of the state.”
Baron’s project is just one of hundreds, possibly thousands, that were directly or indirectly affected by the shutdown. Longitudinal research is painstaking, methodical and cumulative; scientists may seem to toil in their own silos, looking at a seemingly arcane detail in a sea of interrelated phenomena, but the sum of their findings is a tower from which we can try to see into the future and plan for what lies ahead. While interruptions to research are not usually an immediate matter of life and death or “national security”—the only arena of government that reliably captures the broad public’s attention—they are more than inconveniences, and we may not have to wait long to see just how much damage Trump’s monkey wrench has done
The Trump administration was flippant about the harm the shutdown caused to 800,000 furloughed federal employees, so it would be unreasonable to assume that he and the GOP leadership were up nights worrying about the possibility that coal-burning power plants might be spilling more contaminants into the air than usual, thereby violating the Clean Air Act that he has tried to defang; or that East Chicago residents were denied their opportunity to have a meeting with the EPA about the proposed cleanup plan for a Superfund site that has poisoned their families for generations; or that public land-dependent recreation businesses suddenly found themselves stranded.
It is unfortunate, but unsurprising, that the same Trump who advocated “raking and cleaning” the forests as a way to prevent catastrophic wildfires in the wake of the devastating Camp Fire in California last November—which left 86 people dead—created a situation that prevented the Forest Service from the “raking and cleaning” that ought to be taking place right now. Normally, wildland firefighters take advantage of the colder winter months to carry out prescribed burns, fuels treatment projects, off-season trainings and hiring for the coming fire season—all of which helps stack the odds in their favor. This winter, they lost five weeks of momentum. “Folks are not looking at what the consequences might be five years from now. It’s more than just a month-long government shutdown,” said Joe Stutler, a former smokejumper with four decades of wildfire experience who currently serves as a senior advisor to Deschutes County, Oregon, and regional co-chair of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. “It’s cumulative, because the work has to be every year to be effective.” While Trump and his allies stoked fears about the southern border, they seemed blasé about the increased risk to fire-prone regions and wildland firefighters caused by the shutdown.
Trump was brazenly unconcerned about the environment before the shutdown, and there is no reason to think anything has changed. A brutal irony is that Congress passed a back pay bill and Trump signed it, which means tax dollars will pay for all of the work that was not done and for the overtime required for the feds to catch up. With the three-week spending period up and another shutdown averted, President Trump has instead declared a national emergency to build a wall that 60 percent of Americans oppose, and that will likely be an ecological catastrophe.
The longest shutdown in American history did significant damage to the environment, scientific research and the communities that surround public land. It’s damage that will not be easily remedied, and in some cases, won’t be.