The Federal Government Shutdown and the North Country National Scenic Trail
by Andrea Ketchmark, Executive Director of the North Country Trail Association
It’s 25 days into the Federal Government shutdown. We have all seen the pictures of national parks where visitors have overrun campgrounds, left behind mountains of trash, damaged natural resources that will take years to recover and cultural resources that can never be replaced. Because the North Country Trail isn’t a traditional national park and is instead managed by a network of agencies and partners, we luckily aren’t in this dire situation. But the impact of the shutdown on the Trail and the Association is still real. The longer the shutdown extends, the more evident this will become.
As a National Scenic Trail, the administration of the Trail is put in the hands of the National Park Service, with local responsibility delegated to other federal agencies like the US Forest Service, state and local agencies, and the volunteers of NCTA and other partner organizations.
As stewards and supporters of the Trail, it’s important we recognize how the shutdown of the National Park Service and the US Forest Service is impacting the resource and those who care for it, now and each month it continues.
Supporting Our Volunteers
As part of the Volunteers in Parks program (VIP), our volunteers are treated as federal employees under Workers Compensation laws. They are covered in case of injury and tort claims. In the shutdown, these coverages are suspended and volunteers act at their own risk.
It’s January so we aren’t implementing many trail projects, but our volunteers are still hard at work doing basic maintenance, removing downed trees and leading hikes. They are still performing their jobs across 4,600 miles of Trail and they are offered little protection in return.
As spring approaches, this will only become a bigger concern as they return to the Trail in force and our trail building and maintenance events get more complex. Additionally, planning projects on federally managed land, which include more than 700 miles of the Trail, requires collaboration and planning with our Agency Partners, often months in advance of any work being done on the Trail. Their absence in this critical planning period has the potential to delay and impact the projects we hope to carry out this summer and beyond.
Funding the Work
The NCTA has a Cooperative Agreement with the National Park Service that amounts to 38% of our annual budget. Even temporary delays in funding can create cash flow concerns. Longer delays will result in budget cuts to NCTA’s programs and services and potentially staff furloughs, impeding our ability to do our work supporting our volunteers and our trail-using public.
As I write this, NCTA staff and the Board of Directors are still hard at work with usual business, but also analyzing the budget to see how many months we can sustain without our NPS funding and what contingency plans need to be put in place to weather this storm.
The Importance of the Public/Private Partnership
There is incredible strength in our public/private partnership model: A federal agency with guiding principles to carry out a mission set by Congress, and a nonprofit that can organize an army of volunteers to do the work and is able to leverage the federal dollars 6:1 is above and beyond what the government could do alone.
As a nonprofit partner we may be more flexible with our funding structure and more adaptive in the face of adversity. We are the steady hand that keeps the Trail going in times like this. But for the public/private partnership to work, we need both partners functioning and playing our respective roles to build, maintain, protect and promote the North Country National Scenic Trail.
Supporting Our Federal Partners
Last, I want to address the need to support our federal partners. I’ve watched in recent years as hard working, passionate and dedicated individuals that work for federal agencies have been belittled and berated by elected officials and the public. Their contributions to the management and protection of our public lands have been overlooked, their motives for employment questioned and the growing suggestion that we have no need for staff to manage the lands entrusted to them is worrisome to say the least.
Our colleagues and friends that work for the National Park Service, US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife, and the Bureau of Land Management deserve better. These are people that chose a career in land management and recreation because they value the outdoors, protecting resources and wildlife, and ensuring the public has these places to enjoy for generations to come. They want to follow in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. They dream of making a difference and leaving a legacy.
I too call for efficiency in using taxpayer dollars, question agency red tape, advocate for change in bad practices and call out poor employee behavior. I’ve seen my share of all of the above in my career. The truth is that we can both ask for accountability and efficiency in our government without villainizing those doing the good work. To all of our federal partners impacted by this shutdown, NCTA stands beside you. We will carry the load when you can’t and we’ll be here to help you put the pieces together when you return.
We hope you get back to work soon.