Federal sites in New Mexico bounce back after shutdown

February 11, 2019 GMT

Some national forests, parks and monuments across the U.S. relayed horror stories during the 35-day federal shutdown, such as the piles of trash and human feces visitors left at Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park and the destruction of a Native-made hut at Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia.

New Mexico’s forests and parks fared far better, officials said. Still, numerous projects were put on hold, facilities went unattended and minor vandalism was discovered at federally owned and managed outdoor recreational areas around the state.

After a week or so back at work following the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, some federal officials in the state said they felt like things were getting back to normal.

But the feeling was tenuous.

With President Donald Trump’s decision still looming on whether to initiate a second shutdown by the end of this week, those overseeing national forests, parks and culturally sensitive monuments said they have to prepare for the worst while staying positive.

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“I won’t speculate about [another shutdown],” said James Melonas, supervisor of Santa Fe National Forest. “Our focus is moving forward.”

Melonas said the U.S. Forest Service has a contingency plan for national forests in case of another shutdown. The plan outlines how to handle critical health and safety issues.

During the shutdown, which started just a few days before Christmas after Senate Democrats opposed Trump’s $5.7 billion request to build a wall on the border with Mexico, unstaffed parks and monuments suffered an array of problems: trespassers, off-road vehicles, illegal camping, facility break-ins, littering, restroom overflow and human defecation on trails.

California’s Joshua Tree National Park, which remained open to visitors, recently reported it could take up to 300 years for the area to recover from damage. Hundreds of the park’s namesake trees were chopped down.

At White Sands National Monument in Alamogordo, hundreds of trespassers climbed over a barrier to wander the dunes.

Thankfully, said Kelly Carroll, a ranger at White Sands, “there was no damage or vandalism. … The park was in great shape when we reopened.”

Closer to Santa Fe in the Jemez Mountains, district ranger Brian Silva said bathroom walls were spray-painted with graffiti and folks had tried to break into a storage facility, damaging its door.

Ample snowfall in Northern New Mexico might have saved the region’s forested lands, said Silva and others. Had the shutdown occurred in the summer months when visitors were surging in, rangers said, there likely would have been an increase in fire hazards and other problems.

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Melonas said he and about four other people worked as needed in the Santa Fe National Forest during the shutdown. The crew’s tasks included feeding livestock, testing drinking water supplied to administrative buildings and campsites, and checking in with contract workers to ensure they were running operations safely, especially those providing propane to forest sites.

The top priority, Melonas said, was ensuring the public’s health and safety — “and making sure we’re ready for fire season.”

Silva agreed, adding that winter is generally dedicated to planning and preparation, including conducting pile burns, which help reduce fire hazards in warmer seasons. His team in the Jemez organized a plan for 2019 last fall, he said, and “now we have to adjust deadlines for the year.”

“When you miss more than a month of work, it sets back your program,” he added. “Absolutely, it creates anxiety.”

A few on-call staff members and one full-time law enforcement official worked throughout the shutdown to clean restrooms, restock toilet paper, pick up trash, and check on day-use fishing sites, picnic areas and one campsite that was left open.

Thanks to moisture left by the heavy snowfall, Silva said, forest crews were able to restsart the pile burn program, at least temporarily.

The wintry weather created setbacks for other crews.

At Bandelier National Monument, the first two days back to work were dedicated solely to shoveling out snow and repairing snow-related damage to roofs and pipelines, said Superintendent Jason Lott.

Melonas said he learned during the shutdown to recognize “all the little things our employees do on a daily basis that we can kind of take for granted sometimes.”

He added: “Folks were glad to be back working on the things they’re passionate about that supports the forest we love so much.”

But as things start to pick back up in the forests, workers are wrangling with the possibility of another shutdown.

Nathan Hatfield, chief of interpretation for Aztec Ruins National Monument and Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico, said simply shutting down and reopening are processes that require a lot of extra work hours.

“It took us an entire day at both parks to prepare to close,” he said, listing a host of small tasks: changing voice mail greetings, setting up automated email replies, securing buildings, disposing of food waste and placing barricades.

Whatever happens, Hatfield said, “We need the visitors to help us protect [these places].”