Tamarac closed, but bigger issues on horizon
White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor didn’t get much sleep Monday night, as she anxiously watched national news reports on television and waited for word on whether Congress would manage to stave off a threatened shutdown of federal services.
“We haven’t had a (federal) government shutdown for quite some years now,” she said Tuesday afternoon. “There have been threats of a shutdown, but somehow Congress has come together at the last minute to avoid it. This time, Congress didn’t.”
The effect of a long-term shutdown on White Earth cannot be underestimated, Vizenor said.
“Approximately 57 percent of our overall budget at White Earth is federal funds,” she noted. “So if this shutdown continues beyond a week, we are going to feel it…
“At the present time, today, the impact is that we really have no one to call for any kind of information, technical assistance or to follow up on the various projects we have going,” Vizenor continued, referring to the fact that the Minnesota Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which serves the whole state — including the White Earth Reservation — was closed down on Tuesday.
The federal government, Vizenor said, provides funding for White Earth’s housing programs, natural resources management, financial assistance for the needy, foster care and residential care for children and adults — even basic medical care, through the Indian Health Service.
Some local Indian Health Service employees were working at half pay Tuesday, she said. Even though they will receive back pay for their lost wages once the shutdown ends, it could take up to six weeks to process, Vizenor added.
“We here at White Earth hope that Congress comes together soon and does what it’s elected to do — to serve the people,” she said. “This government shutdown is affecting the lives of real people.”
One of those “real people” who is feeling an immediate impact from the government shutdown is Detroit Lakes resident Emma Swanson.
She and her husband had been in the midst of purchasing a home in Detroit Lakes, one that was large enough to accommodate their two young children, aged 1 and 2, and their two dogs.
Unfortunately, the purchase was dependent upon a mortgage loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture — a loan that is now on hold due to the government shutdown.
“We can’t get a closing date or anything until the shutdown is over,” she said. “I’m a little bit upset, I guess you could say. We were hoping to move in (to the new house) this month, and now we don’t know when it’ll be.”
Compounding the issue is the fact that the Swensons will have to vacate the home they are currently renting by Nov. 1.
“We’re hoping for a short shutdown, or I guess we’ll have to start looking for another place to rent.”
With two dogs and two small children, finding a rental property that will fit their needs is not going to be a simple process, she added.
Some offices that receive federal funding for their programs, such as Becker County Human Services, won’t see an immediate impact from the shutdown at all — but according to Human Services Director Nancy Nelson, the longer the shutdown continues, the more likely it becomes that programs like the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition service will be cut back, or shut down entirely.
“The state says they have enough money to keep us going for a while,” Nelson said Tuesday. “Our issue is going to be for how long the government shuts down, as to which programs will be affected.
“For right now, it’s business as usual,” she added.
One place where it’s definitely not business as usual is at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, where all but a small percentage of its employees were put on unpaid furlough until further notice.
“All of our lands and facilities will be shut down, as of today,” said Chuck Traxler, assistant regional director of external affairs for the USFWS. “We’ll remain shut down until there are (federal) appropriations to open them back up. We will maintain a very minimal staff presence to help with public safety and ensure that our properties are safe and secure.”
Locally, the USFWS staffs the Tamarac and Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuges, as well as the Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District, which have all been closed to public access for the duration of the shutdown.
Yes, this means there will be no fishing, hunting, hiking, bird watching or any other recreational activities allowed on these public lands so long as the shutdown continues, said Tamarac NWR’s manager, Neil Powers.
“Tamarac will be closed to all public access,” he said. “That will include all our hunting and fishing programs as well as our other outdoor recreational opportunities — bird watching, hiking, photography, wildlife observation and so forth.”
It also means that environmental education programs such as the ones that bring hundreds of students from area schools to visit Tamarac during the school year will have to be postponed or canceled altogether, he added.
“Our staff are currently working on closing those public access points,” said Powers on Tuesday morning, noting that the work on closing down the refuge should be completed by noon.
All public access points will be gated or roped off, with signage, so “the public should be aware that the refuge is not open,” he added.
Unfortunately, one popular tradition at Tamarac that could be an immediate casualty of the shutdown is the annual Tamarac Fall Festival, which is set to take place on Saturday.
In a letter to festival planning committee members and volunteers that was sent out Tuesday morning, committee chair Nancy Brennan said: “If Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge opens by Thursday morning, we will rush to get the big tents set up and proceed with our set-up.
“If the refuge does not reopen Thursday morning, we will not have enough time to do the site preparations and we will be forced to cancel the Fall Festival.
“If the shutdown is ‘short,’ can we reschedule? It looks unlikely, but not impossible,” she added.
In other words, stay tuned. For current information on the status of the shutdown as it pertains to the USFWS and other Department of the Interior programs, visit the websites, www.fws.gov and www.doi.gov/shutdown.
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.