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How would a government shutdown affect Southwest Colorado?

Public land access, social safety nets, airport workers could be impacted
Mesa Verde National Park closed during the last federal government shutdown in December 2018 and January 2019. The government could once again be hurtling toward closure by Sunday. (Durango Herald file)

The federal government is lurching toward a shutdown and will run out of funding at 12:01 a.m. Sunday if lawmakers fail to pass legislation to keep it open. The effects of a shutdown would be wide-ranging but, in many cases, still remain unclear.

The funding legislation is caught up in a web of political disagreement in the House of Representatives.

The Speaker of the House, California Republican Kevin McCarthy, is facing significant roadblocks from members of his own party. Congress must either pass 12 individual appropriations bills or a continuing resolution as a stopgap measure.

But some hard-line conservative lawmakers, including Rep. Lauren Boebert, have indicated they would not support a continuing resolution, which remains the most likely path away from a shutdown.

“Continuing resolutions may seem like a good option but they only delay the work from getting done,” a spokesperson for Boebert said in a text message to The Durango Herald. “She is committed to getting the work done before Saturday at midnight to avoid the shutdown. We need long term solutions to this debt crisis.”

If Congress fails to pass the necessary legislation to keep the lights on, much of the federal government would come to a standstill, potentially impacting federal land managers, public safety employees, aviation operations and social safety nets.

Boebert’s spokesperson said she spent Thursday morning in the House Oversight Committee’s first hearing in the impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden and had meetings on spending bills later in the day.

“Everyday Americans work numerous jobs to stay afloat, I’m pretty sure Congress can handle working on two issues at once,” the spokesperson said.

There are nearly 350 personnel involved in managing the blazes across the San Juan National Forest as of Thursday, many of whom would likely continue working without pay if the government shuts down. (Courtesy of San Juan National Forest)
Public land

Spokespeople for the agencies in charge of managing millions of acres of land in the Four Corners – primarily the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service – have been tight-lipped on what might happen if the government shuts down.

“We haven’t been given any direction,” San Juan National Forest Spokeswoman Sabrina Kohrt said Tuesday. “ … Everything has been hectic this week.”

In past shutdowns, employees such as firefighters and law enforcement have had to continue working without pay and are compensated for their hours once Congress restores funding.

Seasonal staff members have already left most recreation areas for the summer, Kohrt said.

In the last government shutdown, only employees who performed work related to safety, health, the protection of life and property or those whose positions are not funded through congressional appropriation have continued to work.

There are currently three wildfires burning in the SJNF, in addition to ongoing prescribed burns. There are nearly 350 personnel involved in managing the blazes as of Thursday, many of whom would likely continue working without pay.

“Typically, it’s public safety,” BLM Spokesman Steve Hall said. “So it would be some firefighting staff and some law enforcement people to keep the facilities safe. That’s what it’s been historically, but I can’t speculate on what it will be this time.”

During the last government shutdown, which stretched over a month from December 2018 to January 2019, Mesa Verde National Park was initially open but had very few staff members. The park closed days into the shutdown because snow covered up roads and no plow drivers were being paid to clear them.

“The majority of national parks will be closed completely to public access,” said a senior official at the Department of the Interior.

The agency’s contingency plans typically include bare-bones staffing necessary to “protect life and property.”

WIC, SNAP and other benefits

Social safety nets funded through different federal agencies could be impacted by a shutdown eventually.

Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, is administered through San Juan Basin Public Health and serves approximately 800 moms, infants and children in La Plata and Archuleta counties.

In the event of a shutdown, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, through which federal WIC funding flows, said the Department of Agriculture will allocate additional funds to CDPHE to ensure that Colorado WIC clients can still access their benefits, at least until the end of October.

Martha Johnson, the county’s director of human services, said programs administered through La Plata County, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid, would follow a similar course.

“We should not see a direct impact of the shutdown through the month of October in La Plata County,” Johnson said. “If the government shutdown goes longer than one month, then we may start seeing some impacts in our food, Medicaid and cash assistance programs. But right now, the state and the federal government are continuing to assess what that will look like.”

Postal workers will continue to be paid and deliver the mail, even if the federal government shuts down Sunday. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald file)
Mail delivery

One piece of good news is that mail will be delivered, post offices will remain open and postal workers will continue to be paid even in the event of a shutdown.

“Because we are an independent entity that is funded through the sale of our products and services, and not by tax dollars, our services will not be impacted by a government shutdown,” said U.S. Postal Service spokesman James Boxrud in an email to the Herald.

Airport staff

Like firefighters and law enforcement, federal employees at airports would continue to work in the event of a shutdown, but would not be paid.

Transportation Security Administration and air traffic controllers would still show up to work, and Durango-La Plata County Airport Director Tony Vicari said that travelers would not be affected.

“Those services will be available, but if the shutdown extends for any duration, unfortunately, we see the results of federal political saber rattling affect local workforce, which is a shame,” he said. “ … Obviously, when folks miss a couple of paychecks, that really starts to affect people’s ability to pay the bills and support themselves and their family.”


This story has been updated to clarify that the San Juan National Forest staff are unaware of who may continue working in the event of a 2023 government shutdown.

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