The reverberations from contentious battles being waged on Capitol Hill over the budget and the debt ceiling are being felt in the Eastern Sierra.
The U.S. Forest Service has already laid off a handful of staff and is bracing for what could be a tough 2012. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives leadership is proposing a continuing resolution that would trim $74 billion in government spending, including a $38 million cut in Forest Service funding for the next fiscal year.
According to a statement from Inyo National Forest spokesperson Nancy Upham, cuts and trims so far are actually fallout from this year’s 2011 budget, which arrived late this year. “By the time the budget arrived (in June), we had staffed visitors center, hired rangers, and were ready to go for summer, and the numbers came in lower than expected,” Upham explained. The Forest Service has so far laid-off seven temporary employees, though two of those were reassigned and are being paid out of grant dollars; another two permanent positions are being left unfilled.
Closures include four campgrounds: Upper and Lower Deadman, Hartley Springs and Obsidian. Trims in operating hours have been implemented at area visitors centers, including the Mono Basin Scenic and Mammoth locations, Bishop’s White Mountain Ranger Station. Schulman Grove near the Bristlecone Pine Forest and the Interagency Visitors Center in Lone Pine.
Also 1 p.m. interpretive tours at South Tufa site at Mono Lake have been cancelled. (Mono Lake Committee and State Tufa Reserve still conduct tours.) Upham said other agencies including the Town of Mammoth Lakes, Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association and even the National Parks Service have pitched in to help stretch hours and “keep the train on the tracks.”
“I apologize for any inconvenience this is causing, especially so late in the summer season,” commented new Inyo National Forest Superintendent Ed Armenta. “I am thankful to all our partners in providing assistance and helping us in service to the visiting public.”
How does all this affect Town Wildlife Specialist Steve Searles? Mammoth Police Chief Dan Watson said no changes are expected to the Town’s contract to patrol Forest Service lands within the Town limits, but added there is still no hint on the horizon of any progress on allowing Searles to perform his wildlife management duties on Forest Service land. A proposal to get Searles qualified and duly permitted was filed in January but is still awaiting a determination.
In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which already claims it’s woefully underfunded to effectively manage endangered species, is set to take a $72 million hit, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund would be cut by a whopping $348 million.
Environmental and other conservation groups are also budget targets. The House seeks to cut $1.6 billion from the EPA’s overall budget, including $25 million from the EPA’s state and local air quality management programs, and $48 million from the agency’s Brownfields program, which promotes restoration and reuse of contaminated lands. In addition, the Natural Resource Conservation Service stands to lose $46 million, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund could be gutted by as much as $34 million.
Even the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors earthquakes and other activity, might have to ride out a $27 million temblor.
It remains to be seen how the cuts will impact Devils Postpile National Monument, which celebrated its centennial earlier this month. Devils Postpile is governed by the National Park Service, which would lose $51 million. “We’re in wait-and-see mode,” said Postpile Superintendent Deanna Dulen. “There’s so much uncertainty about the budget. We haven’t seen anything with any definition on it yet. We’re playing it conservative … we’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”