Environment threatened and 400 parks closed by government shutdown

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At 12:01 this morning, House Republicans pushed the nation into a federal government shutdown following their inability to ram through a list of right wing demands including destruction of the Affordable Health Care Act.

Among the 800,000 federal workers having to stay home today are nine out of 10 of the Environmental Protection Administration's employees - a potentially devastating blow to the environment.

The environment is taking an extra hit, however, from the decision to continue in those very same parks activities that are harmful to it. While the people are banned from the more than 400 shuttered national parks, big oil and gas companies will have no trouble getting in.

It's big business as usual for oil and gas drillers, who will continue operations as usual in 12 of the otherwise closed national parks.

While the oil and gas industries continue to use the parks to rake in their profits, the tourism and recreation industries will take blows as rangers are put out of work.

And though, outside of the parks, the Bureau of Land Management will not process new drilling permits, fracking operations at existing sites will still go on. As for inspections and oversight? "Only minimal agency personnel will be on duty," according to Think Progress. Many will undoubtedly feel that this is a recipe for disaster.

"This means we'll have to dress like oil executives if we want to visit our national parks and monuments," said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune in a statement. He said the situation is the result of "House Republicans refusing to pass routine legislation to fulfill the most basic aspect of their job: keeping the government open and working for American families. This means that Republicans who couldn't achieve their reckless agenda through elections or legislation are willing to sacrifice the health of our families and our communities to simply score political points."

The American people," he added, must now "pay the cost in lost jobs and polluted air and water. House Republicans need to ditch the political posturing and get back to work."

While drilling companies get free reign, 93 percent of the EPA's 16,205 workers will be furloughed. Other federal services that are vital to environmental health and safety, and which will be forced to endure cuts and furloughs, include:

* the Center for Disease Control (68 percent of employees will be put on temporary leave)

* the National Science Foundation, which will stop making payments to scientists

* the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which will stop nearly all work on offshore clean energy production

 *the U.S. Forest Service, which will close its offices and furlough most of its staff, save for a small number of firefighting and law enforcement personnel

 * the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which will see 37 of its 40 workers furloughed, and will cease all investigations of industrial chemical spills and accidents, including its ongoing investigation of the tragic fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas

 * the Department of Agriculture; though meat and grain inspectors will continue to work, the USDA will not issue any further economic or statistical reports, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which provides healthy food for low- income consumers, will cease operations in most states

This, for the most part, leaves the country stripped bare in terms of oversight and protections against potential hazards to human health and the environment. It also means that many, many federal workers will be forced out of work. And with the national parks' doors barred to all but oil and gas companies, that includes workers with the Association of National Park Rangers.

In a statement, the union remarked, "Our national parks have been a way of American life for over 141 years, and the National Park Service has withstood the test of time and fluctuating budgets. Our parks will be there when this crisis is over. Still, it is a sad day when Congress acts in such a self-serving way; when a small handful of members manufacture a budget crisis and are willing to shut the entire federal government down despite the damage it will cause."

Joan Anzelmo, spokesperson for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, added that among the workers that have been furloughed are "people who fight explosive wildfires, save lives in outdoor accidents, rescue injured climbers on mountain peaks, search for lost children, respond to terrorist threats, and rush into places devastated by hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, and floods to help their fellow man. The National Park Service does this vital work and so much more, day-in and day-out, year-round."

Covering another aspect to this issue, Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, remarked that due to the shutdown, there will be economic repercussions to consider. He remarked, "The closure of national parks and federal historic sites to millions of travelers will do serious and immediate harm to the economy. Shutdowns unnecessarily disrupt economic activity in communities large and small."

"It is definitely damaging," agreed Alan Rowsome, who works in government relations for conservation organization The Wilderness Society. "Restoration projects will not continue. Endangered species monitoring will not continue. Hunting will not be open on public lands. It [is going to] be very detrimental to local communities, not just to the ecology but also to the economy and to jobs."

Photo: National Park Service guide talks with visitors about the Liberty Bell at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Sept. 30, before the government shutdown at midnight. Americans soon saw the impact: National parks closed. Matt Rourke/AP