The current government shutdown has left 800,000 federal workers without a paycheck and has closed nine federal departments. Although the shutdown only affects 25 percent of the government, its impact on the environment is enormous. From interruptions in inspections at chemical facilities to inadequate staffing at national parks, the effects are widespread. If there is no agreement on the 2019 budget soon, you may start to see long-term damage to the environment.
National Parks Left Trashed and Vandalized
The national parks depend on funding from the Interior Department, but it is affected by the shutdown. Although visitors can still access many of the parks, most of the staff is missing because 21,000 park employees are currently furloughed. Some facilities, like restrooms and visitor centers, are closed.
Visitors are reporting piles of trash, smoldering fires and vandalism at many national parks during the shutdown. They have photographed human waste, discarded alcohol bottles and other garbage piling up at Lassen National Forest in California. A fire started at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site's visitor center in Oyster Bay, New York, which was the home of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Some of the worst damage happened at Joshua Tree National Park in California. Vandals have covered the rocks in graffiti, pet owners have refused to pick up after their dogs, and someone left butane tanks at the park. Although workers and volunteers can clean up the garbage in the future, they cannot replace the ancient Joshua trees that vandals cut down to access restricted areas.
John Garder, who is the senior director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), thinks the national parks have lost more than $6 million in revenue because they cannot collect visitor fees during the shutdown. Garder thinks the parks are in crisis and many areas may have long-term or permanent damage.
Environmental Protection Agency Closed
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) closed because of the government shutdown and furloughed 13,000 workers. Although 750 employees continue to work, they are not being paid. The shutdown disrupted many of the EPA's normal operations and services. For example, hazardous waste cleanup at Superfund sites and inspections at chemical facilities stopped. The EPA also stopped reviewing or approving toxic substances and pesticide products.
Not only does the shutdown pose an environmental threat, it also puts human health at risk. The EPA cannot monitor or enforce its laws with a skeleton staff of 750 workers. They cannot respond to emergencies quickly or pursue criminal activities in court. In addition, there is no one to test the soil, water and air for pollution during the shutdown.
Climate Data Unreleased
The impact of the government shutdown is widespread and affects scientists' ability to collect climate data. Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) cannot release annual temperature analysis reports. Not only does this affect the United States, but it is also hurting science organizations in other countries that depend on the data.
The NOAA also cannot release its disaster-cost estimate for last year that shows how natural disasters like hurricanes affect the country. The lack of data affects researchers around the globe who need it and cannot collect it on their own. Some researchers have lost grants and have been forced to discontinue their work on climate change. Others are stuck waiting for data that may take weeks or months to arrive.
Environmental Research Stalled
Government workers are not the only ones who are being hurt by the shutdown. It is also having an impact on scientists, researchers and students who depend on various aspects of the government. According to the New York Times, the Entomological Society of America's president, Bob Peterson, revealed that one researcher could not continue to work with mosquitoes because she cannot order more mosquito eggs from the government.
Early-career researchers have felt most of the impact from the shutdown. They cannot receive grants, and their research is being interrupted. For instance, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, one post-doctoral candidate cannot use her National Science Foundation fellowship during the shutdown, so her research stopped. In addition to a lack of funds, scientists report that the delays create critical losses of data and interrupt their ability to do time-sensitive research.
National Hurricane Center Workers Unpaid
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami continues to operate during the shutdown, but workers are not being paid. However, the NHC needs data from the NOAA and National Weather Service (NWS) to make accurate hurricane predictions, and it is not available. This affects both previous hurricane analyses and forecast models. In addition, the NHC has been forced to limit its social media presence, so it is posting fewer notifications and focusing only on important forecasts or warnings.
The NHC uses the winter months to improves its forecast models and prepare for the next hurricane season. Without essential data from other agencies, the NHC's ability to make predictions will be hurt. Also, training new emergency managers is on hold during the shutdown.
Alaska Fire Service Preparations on Hold
Alaska Fire Service is another federal agency affected by the government shutdown. It is not able to prepare or plan for the next wildfire season. During the winter, the agency conducts important work such as coordinating their operations to serve the state better. They also do planned burns as part of the necessary training to prepare for another fire. However, all of these activities are at a standstill during the shutdown.
KUAC reports that the Alaska Fire Service may need weeks to restart its plans after the shutdown ends. Creating cooperation agreements with local fire departments and coordinating efforts with the U.S. armed forces takes time and effort. Delays put the agency behind schedule and affect its ability to prepare for wildfires.
The government shutdown has a far-reaching impact on the environment. A lengthy shutdown creates the possibility of long-term damage or problems that may never be resolved. From destroyed national parks to delayed hurricane research, the shutdown may continue to affect the country for months, even if it ends soon.
- New York Times: Here’s How the Shutdown Is Delaying Climate Data and Undercutting Scientists
- National Geographic: 5 key environmental impacts of the government shutdown
- EPA: The Effects of a Government Shutdown at EPA
- UCS: The Government Shutdown Hurts Public Health and the Environment. Do You Have a Story to Tell?
- EPA: U.S. EPA Contingency Plan in the Event of a Government Shutdown
- Vox: What’s open — and closed — during a partial government shutdown
- ScienceAlert: Treasured US National Parks Are Being Devastated Due to Government Shutdown
- WLRN: Will The Government Shutdown Have An Effect On Hurricane Forecasts?
- KUAC: Shutdown Hampers Federal Firefighting Agency’s Preparations for Wildfire Season
About the Author
Lana Bandoim is a freelance writer and editor. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and chemistry from Butler University. Her work has appeared on Forbes, Yahoo! News, Business Insider, Lifescript, Healthline and many other publications. She has been a judge for the Scholastic Writing Awards from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. She has also been nominated for a Best Shortform Science Writing award by the Best Shortform Science Writing Project.