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What a Government Shutdown Would Mean for the Environment

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A view within the Angeles National Forest

Here is why, perversely, I would almost welcome a federal government shutdown, should Congress not resolve the looming budget impasse. Perhaps then the caviling crowd, the tea-stained partisans who affect to despise government, will discover how essential its functions are in our daily life.

This is critically true in terms of the environment, built and natural. The air we breathe; the water we drink; the streets and freeways on which we drive; the national forests, parks, and wildlife refuges, scenic beaches, rivers, and grasslands on which we and our families play--all these and so many more are safeguarded, underwritten, and promoted as a result of the federal government's beneficial actions.

As citizens, we have fought hard for these services, we pay for them through our taxes, and as a result our health and welfare, and that of other species, are significantly better off.

Among the federal agencies that might close their doors in case of a shut down are:

"¢ The Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for more than 300 million acres across the American West, including heavily used recreational sites for boaters, bikers, and campers
"¢ The Environmental Protection Agency, whose work is so vital in establishing and regulating public health
"¢ The Fish & Wildlife Service, which defends marine and terrain habitats and the threatened and endangered species that inhabit them
"¢ The U. S. Forest Service: whose rangers on the ground monitor the extraordinary high-country forests that account for upwards of 60% of the potable water consumed in the western states
"¢ The National Park Service, whose mission is to protect the nation's most beautiful landscapes and historic landmarks, an inestimable public heritage

The potential impact of these closures in Southern California is immense. Our region is home to all manner of public lands, many of which could be closed just as spring fever strikes. Take as an example the stunning array of landscapes within a day's drive of downtown Los Angeles that the National Park Service oversees: Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Death Valley, the Channel Islands, and Joshua Tree National Parks could be closed to the thousands hoping to spend a little down time among their restful settings. Ditto for the Santa Monica National Recreational Area and Cabrillo National Monument.

During the 1995-96 Gingrich shutdown more than three hundred National Park Service sites were closed nationwide, meaning millions of tourists--and their dollars--were told to leave the parks. The same thing will happen tomorrow, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar predicted in a memo to departmental employees: "For the American people, a shutdown of the Department of the Interior's services would disrupt everything from family vacations and small businesses that rely on tourism to renewable energy projects. Visitors to America's national parks, wildlife refuges, and BLM public lands will be turned away. Most U.S. Geological Survey scientific work, data collection and analysis will be halted. And many economic and social programs administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs will temporarily cease."

But what if you wanted to hike up into the snow-capped mountains of the Angeles or San Bernardino National Forests? Or do some serious fishing in the Los Padres or birding in the Cleveland National Forests? The Forest Service's visitor centers will be closed, and there will not be any rangers around to answer your questions or guide you on your way.

You'll be out of luck too if you want to spend time poking around any one of the Southland's accessible wildlife refuges during this prime time for bird migrations. The San Diego, Tijuana Slough, and Salton Sea sites might be shuttered along with Seal Beach and the Coachella refuges.

It also will be that much tougher to take full advantage of the historical, recreational, and natural wonders of the massive California Desert District, an 11-million-acre swath of the Mojave that BLM manages.

There will be other losses, too. Workplaces will not get any safer, if OSHA is not on the job. The vital protections that the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration provide day in, day out will be compromised. That happened in the last government shutdown, when NIH clinical trials stopped accepting patients and the CDC had to stop its disease surveillance programs.

And after the devastation that Japan, New Zealand, and Haiti have experienced of late, can you imagine any political party being so detached from reality as to slash the budgets of agencies devoted to seismic and volcanic monitoring, or the National Weather Service and its Tsunami Warning System? Do we really want to tether federal watchdogs who, among other crucial tasks, are supposed to inspect mining facilities, onshore and offshore oil-and-gas production, dams and aqueducts, hazardous-waste dumps and Superfund sites, as well as nuclear-power generators?

That there are people holding elected office who are willing to jeopardize the public's health and safety is stunning; that there are politicos and their corporate bosses who think nothing of imperiling our lives and landscapes, is appalling. In their recklessness, they ignore the serious costs--human and environmental--that will result from holding the federal budget hostage. If the government shuts down, we all lose.

Yet maybe that will be the silver lining, exposing once and for all the sheer madness of the GOP's machinations to grind down the federal government and the significant, life-supporting services it provides to all Americans.

More on the Shutdown

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West."
The photo used on this post is by Flickr user puck90. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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