Photograph by Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
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A once vibrant Joshua tree was found severed in half in an act of vandalism in the national park on January 8, 2019. It's just one of many issues linked to the government shutdown.

Photograph by Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

5 key environmental impacts of the government shutdown

From trashed national parks to stranded marine mammals, the gridlock in Washington is causing real hardship on the ground coast to coast.

As President Donald Trump and Congress continue to wrangle over funding for a border wall and the overall 2019 budget, the federal government remains shutdown since December 22, 2018, making it the longest furlough of large numbers of government employees in U.S. history.

While politicians in Washington haggle over long and short-term budgets, the stoppage of many functions of government reverberate across the country. Here's a look at some of the key impacts that relate to the environment:

1. National parks at risk

National parks have been hit hard by the government shutdown. In some large parks like Joshua Tree and Yosemite, visitors have reported human waste from overflowed toilets and piles of strewn trash. The National Parks Conservation Association says parks have also been impacted by off-road vehicles, vandalism, and visitors hiking in restricted areas. The soil and plants and animals could face years, if not indefinite, damage as a result of some of this unregulated activity. (Read how.)

The decision to keep parks open during a government shutdown is a departure from policy under previous administrations.

Before leaving office, Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued a policy document outlining that national parks would remain open with only law enforcement personnel. When parks closed during previous shutdowns, the government faced vehement public criticism. The move to keep them open this time was thus likely motivated by public backlash as well as Zinke's stated desire to support local businesses that rely on national park tourism (even though a number of those businesses are hurting anyway, as visitation drops).

On January 6, more than two weeks after the shutdown began, the administration announced it would be dipping into revenue from visitor fees to pay for maintenance at some parks. Joshua Tree, which has been especially hard hit, was slated to be temporarily closed, but by dipping into recreation fees, the park service will keep it open. Environmental NGOs have said the funds won't be enough and will deplete money badly needed for the National Park Service's existing massive maintenance backlog.

2. Stopping monitoring of toxic chemicals

Many government science agencies affected by the shutdown are charged with monitoring things that are important to the health and safety of millions of Americans. And much of that monitoring has ground to a halt.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, monitors the presence of toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and other pollutants in air and water. But at sites across the country—from North Carolina to Alabama—those pollutants are going unmonitored. Normally, a former head of the EPA's enforcement division told the New York Times, more than 200 inspections take place each week across the country. None of those are happening.

3. Stopping screening of food

At the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is in charge of keeping track of safety for over 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, funds to pay the inspectors that make sure foods are safe to eat have run dry. This has left produce unexamined and shellfish unmonitored for dangerous contaminants—just weeks after an E. coli contamination crisis on romaine lettuce left at least 62 people in 16 states sick.

4. Disrupting critical long-term science

Some of the key monitoring projects that are being affected by the shutdown extend beyond immediate human health concerns. Scientists rely on continuously collected datasets that, in many cases, extend over years and even decades in order to monitor a host of changes—everything from shifts in forests to the climate to demographics. But now, many of these monitoring projects have been disrupted.

For example, at Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia, a forty-year-long record of acid rain pollution will have its first significant data gap since its inception, because the scientist in charge of collecting samples was barred from entering the park during the shutdown. And at the Hubbard Brook Long Term Ecological Monitoring site in New Hampshire, researchers trying to retrieve monitoring equipment from the far crannies of the park can't reach their tools because their snowmobiles are locked up in Forest Service garages.

On January 24, the independent science nonprofit Berkeley Earth annouced that 2018 was likely the fourth warmest year on Earth since 1850. The group noted that official numbers from NASA and NOAA are delayed because of the government shutdown.

"Global mean temperature in 2018 was colder than 2015, 2016, and 2017, but warmer than every previously observed year prior to 2015," the group said in a press release. "The slight decline in 2018 is likely to reflect short-term natural variability, but the overall pattern remains consistent with a long-term trend towards global warming.

5. Marine animals at risk

The program that rescues whales, dolphins, seals, and other marine mammals that become stranded, entangled, or sick or otherwise injured shut down along with most of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which operates it.

The Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program operates a network of volunteers and biologists in all the coastal states–to respond to emergency calls. The program was created through a 1992 amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and is overseen by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. In 2012, the network responded to more than 4,500 marine mammal strandings. But these activities are now on hold.

This story was originally published on January 14, 2018 and updated on January 24 with information about 2018 projected to be the fourth hottest year on record.