Impacts Of The Shutdown On The Tongass

The U.S. Forest Service employs about 400 people in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.

And most of them are on furlough, awaiting a call from the federal government that they’ll soon be back to work.

With the partial U.S. government shutdown in its second week, KTOO’S Rosemarie Alexander takes a look at the impact on the Tongass.

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The taped closure sign notes “The office will reopen once Congress restores funding.” Photo by Heather Bryant, KTOO - Juneau.
The taped closure sign notes “The office will reopen once Congress restores funding.” Photo by Heather Bryant, KTOO – Juneau.

The telephone message at Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center is similar at offices throughout the Tongass:

“We are not in the office at this time.  We are on furlough without out access to email due to the lapse in federal government funding.”

But the forest isn’t closed.  There are no gates across the hundreds of trails and miles of roads.

“I’ve had a number of questions in the last 24 hours about guides and special use permits for outfitter and guiding, and for the most part they’re still active, says Tongass supervisor Forrest Cole.  “We haven’t shut down any of that.”

Folks with current reservations are also welcome to use Forest Service cabins, but new reservations can’t be made because the reservation system is shut down, Cole says.

“They might need to bring their own toilet paper,” says Juneau District Ranger Marti Marshall. “They can use the outhouses, we’re just not servicing them.”

The Forest Service also is not collecting garbage.

And that is a pack it in, pack it out message” she says. 

Marshall is one of 10 Tongass district rangers who are working during the shutdown. They’re called “accepted” employees.

“Maybe the most frustrating for all of us is we’re only to work on the accepted activities, law enforcement and activities that protect health and safety. I’d love to be catching up on my pile of work on my desk, but no,” she says.

As for the number of Tongass employees laid off due to the partial government shutdown, Cole says “it’d be easier to tell you how many people are on.”

In addition to the rangers, the list includes law enforcement officers, most like those in the Juneau district have a wide geographic territory to cover.  They’re not always able to check the Forest Service buildings,  or for example, Ketchikan’s fleet of boats.  So that falls to the rangers.

“They’ve got to run them every so often or the batteries go dead and they fill up with water and sink,” Cole says.

Cole says the aviation program manager and a fire coordinator are working as well as a few employees responsible for shutting down projects, including about 25 active timber operations, the largest on Lindenberg Pensinsula and Zarembo Island.

“We’ve given them time to do an orderly shutdown; erosion control work,  get volume that’s in the water out, and get it scaled,” he says.  Normally the the timber crews would work until snow falls.   

 Most of those laid off from logging projects are not federal employees.  But some others from the private sector are still working on road construction crews on Prince of Wales Island. Cole says projects allowed to continue depend on a variety of factors, and that decision is made case-by-case.

In the Juneau Ranger District, the snow is coming down the mountains above Mendenhall Glacier.  But with the hurried shutdown, a crew remains on call to complete a trail project, or pull out equipment when the snow flies at lower elevations.

The project is called “the Aztec stairs of torture up West Glacier Trail,” Marshall says, laughing.

With so few boots on the ground in the Tongass,  Marshall says the Forest Service is counting on its communities to help during the government shutdown.

“Since we aren’t out there, we want people to be our eyes and ears. If they see something suspicious or damage occurring, please call Juneau Police Department or our law enforcement officers,” or police in other Tongass towns.

It’s fortunate the Southeast Alaska tourist season ended just before the federal shutdown and the forest is winding down for winter.

 “Thank goodness  we’re not in the desert southwest or back east, where it’s fall color time, when it would be their busy time of year,” Marshall says.

Both Marshall and Cole worked for the Forest Service during the last government shutdown in 1995 and understand the anxiety some employees are feeling.

“Everyday people were wanting to know if they were going to go back to work or not,” Cole recalls. “It finally worked itself out.” 

Marshall says “it’s just difficult to listen to the news.  And I hope we don’t come back to a mess.”

Marshall says  if people see vandalism or other damage to Juneau District Ranger property, or anything  out of the ordinary, they can call her 789-6244.

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Rosemarie Alexander is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.