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Shutdown would bring furloughs, closures to W.Va.

Rick Steelhammer
Seasonal Park Ranger Reed Flinn, shown here leading a hike last weekend in the New River Gorge, is among 100 National Park Service employees in New River Gorge National River facing emergency furlough Tuesday if a government shutdown takes place.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If the looming federal government shutdown becomes reality, West Virginia outdoor enthusiasts and nature-minded tourists will find many of their favorite venues closed as the state moves into one of its busiest seasons for outdoor recreation.

Hundreds of West Virginia National Guard personnel will be told not to come to work, and hundreds more will be expected to come to work not knowing when they'll be paid.

"We're looking at having to cancel training we had scheduled for this weekend, because we don't know what's going to happen," said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, state adjutant general.

"We're drastically impacting service members and their families," he said. "We ask a lot of them, and the least we can do is offer them some kind of stability. We ask them to go out there and protect their country, and they expect Washington to take care of them."

Contingency plans for a government shutdown call for all campgrounds and visitor centers in New River Gorge National River to be closed, and more than 100 park employees to be furloughed. The state's two national wildlife refuges -- Canaan Valley and Ohio River Islands -- would close, as would visitor centers and most campgrounds in the Monongahela National Forest.

"If the shutdown happens, campers in all our campgrounds will be notified [today] that they have 48 hours to vacate," said Robin Snyder, chief of interpretation and visitor services for New River Gorge National River, a 70,000-acre unit of the National Park Service.

"We'll shut down the areas that we can, but this isn't a place where you can just lock a gate and close the park, since there are so many state and private roads leading to access points," Snyder said.

If a shutdown occurs, park employees will be given their furlough notices today, and have about four hours to close down their work sites, Snyder said. Only nine "essential" park employees will remain on the job -- seven in law enforcement and two maintenance workers who run a park water treatment plant.

"Since the latter part of last week, we've been notifying special use permitees, like the climbing organizations that offer guided tours, that they would have to cease operating here with a shutdown," Snyder said.

Whitewater rafting outfitters, regulated by the state Division of Natural Resources and not the National Park Service, would continue to operate during the shutdown.

Snyder said Bridge Day, the park's busiest single day for tourism, would not be affected by the shutdown even if it continues past Oct. 19, the date for this year's celebration. "It's become a well-oiled machine over the years, and even with a limited staff from us, it will go on as planned," she said.

Only the superintendents and law enforcement personnel at Canaan Valley and Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuges would remain on the job following a federal government shutdown, according to officials at the two refuges. Visitor centers and other public facilities at the refuges would remain closed until a budget compromise is reached.

While the 919,000-acre Monongahela National Forest would remain open, most of its public facilities, including developed campgrounds and visitor centers, would close, and many of its employees would be furloughed.

Law enforcement and firefighting personnel would remain on the job, as would administrators needed to oversee major contracts, including timber sales, said Kate Goodrich-Arling, the forest's public information officer. But other "non-essential" personnel would be furloughed, she said.

A federal government shutdown would also close U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds and day use areas across West Virginia and the nation.

If the shutdown takes place, campers in Corps of Engineers campgrounds will be asked to leave by 8 p.m. today, according to a release from the agency. Campers may elect to leave their campsite reservations open for possible use after the shutdown is lifted, or receive refunds for any unused portions of their reservations.

National Guard

Hoyer, with 32 years in the military, has seen government shutdowns and the threat of government shutdowns before. But this time seems different.

"For all the years I've been doing this, this [shutdown] is the one that's got me the most concerned and the most frustrated," he said. "We did the same thing last year, played chicken up until the last minute. That's unacceptable."

Hoyer said the National Guard has about 2,600 employees in West Virginia. More than 900 are classified as federal technicians, who may work as anything from aircraft mechanics to fire chiefs to managers. They are paid by the federal government, and most will be told to stay home if the government shuts down.

State National Guard officials will keep a skeleton crew of essential technicians on hand. Hoyer said C-5 cargo missions already scheduled out of Martinsburg's 167th Airlift Wing that are deemed vital to military operations will take off as planned. But other C-5 flights out of Martinsburg and C-130 flights out of the 130th Airlift Wing in Charleston may be put on hold or canceled altogether.

The fire station the National Guard operates at Yeager Airport in Charleston will also remain staffed, Hoyer said. "If those firefighters aren't there, it's not just our airplanes, but everyone's airplanes that can't take off and land," he said.

Air-traffic controllers at Yeager and other airports would not be off the job if the government shuts down.

Federal courts

Teresa Deppner, clerk of court for the Southern District of West Virginia, said Monday that federal courts would be able to operate for at least 10 days if the government shuts down.

"Judge John D. Bates, the director of the administrative office of U.S. Courts, provided an advisory to the judiciary -- the judiciary doesn't have to shut down immediately, we can continue operating, utilizing fees and no-year appropriations for an estimated 10 business days," Deppner said.

That money would be used to pay judges, court employees and attorneys with the federal public defender's office, Deppner said.

"They told us to continue to operate, but funding should be conserved as much as possible," she said.

An advisory on the court's website said that electronic filing would remain in operation. After Oct. 15, the situation would be reassessed, according to the notice.

Mine inspections

Some coal-mine safety inspections will continue, even if the federal government shuts down, according to a U.S. Department of Labor contingency plan.

Under a shutdown, active staff at labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration would be cut from 2,355 to 966. MSHA, though, would continue "to perform certain activities which, if not performed, would significantly compromise the safety of human life in the nation's mines.

But instead of performing legally mandated regular inspections at all of the nation's underground and surface mines and mining facilities, MSHA inspectors would visit only certain operations.

"MSHA will perform targeted inspections at mines which have been prioritized based on the mine's history of the hazards that put miners' lives at risk," agency chief Joe Main said in his contingency plan, dated Sept. 10. "Hazard-specific inspections will also be conducted across the nation to address those conditions and practices which have been recent key causes of death and serious injury."

Main said that "if unforeseen emergencies, such as a mine disaster" occurred, additional employees would be identified to work.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration would send home all but 230 of 2,235 employees it has to protect the health and safety of workers at non-mining businesses around the country.

OSHA said it would maintain one safety inspector and one health inspector in each of its area offices. In West Virginia the agency maintains an area office in Charleston that polices workplaces around the state.

Meanwhile, only eight of the 470 employees of the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement would remain on the job in the event of a government shutdown. OSM would keep another 21 employees on call, the agency said in its contingency plan.

Other agencies

Last week, the IRS released a contingency plan to keep operating for at least five days following a government shutdown. However, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, the IRS would essentially close its local field offices and cut off customer service for the duration of the shutdown.

"The IRS would halt taxpayer services such as responding to taxpayer questions, including telephone customer service functions," the Treasury Department said in a statement on its website.

Local Social Security offices will remain open during a shutdown, but services available to residents will be cut back, according to Peter D. Spencer, Social Security's deputy commissioner for budget finance and management.

During a shutdown, local residents will still be able to apply for benefits, change their addresses or make other clerical changes, but will not be able to get replacement Social Security cards, verify benefits or replace Medicare cards, Spencer said. Social Security officials will also not be able to answer questions from third parties or reply to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The state's college students who receive federal financial aid -- and workers being paid through grants -- could be affected, but not immediately.

"With the government shutdown, we should be in good shape and can manage it in the short term. Things like student aid have already been paid for this semester, and come in a lump sum. The fact it's happening at this time in the calendar means it doesn't have much impact," West Virginia University spokesman John Bolt said Monday. "If it goes on for much longer, however, and we get into 45 days or so, we would have to make some other arrangements."

Matt Turner, chief of staff at Marshall University, said the potential for students' financial aid to be affected is not an immediate concern, but said certain employees could face challenges if the shutdown continues.

"What could happen, is if it were to last longer than a few days, it could cause some delay for employees who are paid strictly by federal funding and are doing research for our university," Turner said.Staff writers Mackenzie Mays, Ken Ward Jr. and Kate White contributed to this report. Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169. Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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