While the longest government shutdown in American history came to an end more than a week ago, the effects may linger for months and years in Central Oregon’s forests.
The 35-day shutdown cost forest managers and other U.S. Forest Service employees more than a month of work on long-term forest restoration projects, while cutting into the window for them to plan and carry out controlled burns ahead of the region’s wildfire season.
“We’re not going to get those weeks back, so we’ve got to be realistic,” said Patrick Lair, public affairs officer for the Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River National Grassland.
Employees from the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests emphasized that the forests will be ready for fire season, but acknowledged that the shutdown eats into their time to train employees and plan controlled burns.
In addition, long-running forest restoration projects, including the long-awaited effort to remove hundreds of dead and dying ponderosa pine trees northeast of Sisters, may be extended or delayed.
“There will be some tough decisions on what we can do on the now-shortened timeline,” said Ian Reid, Sisters district ranger for the Deschutes National Forest.
The shutdown began Dec. 22, forcing hundreds of thousands of government workers across the country to accept furloughs or work without pay until the government fully reopened five weeks later, on Jan. 25.
Kevin Larkin, district ranger for the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District of the Deschutes National Forest, said the start of January is typically when district staff begin reviewing job applications for temporary and permanent hires during fire season and start planning future projects. This year, however, the forests were left with a skeleton crew during the shutdown, which forced the remaining staff to pick and choose between projects.
Larkin said the Forest Service prioritized hiring temporary and permanent workers for the spring and summer. The Forest Service typically hires around 150 employees ahead of the summer fire season, and Larkin said he’s confident the agency will have a full cadre of seasonal employees by the time Central Oregon’s wildfire season rolls around.
“There’s no reason to think we won’t be fully staffed,” Larkin said.
However, Reid added that the shutdown made it harder to plan prescribed burning projects for this season and upcoming fire seasons. These projects, which typically take place in the spring and fall, are designed to reduce the buildup of flammable plants in the forest that can fuel devastating wildfires.
Reid said the district tries to plan ahead and maintain ready-to-go plans for controlled burns and projects that can be implemented quickly when the weather cooperates. He said the shutdown cut into this surplus, which may impact burn projects this autumn and beyond.
“In a perfect world, you’d have a little bit of a buffer,” Reid said.
Despite the shutdown, Reid said he was optimistic that the Sisters district can match the 2,349 acres covered by controlled burns last year. Larkin added that his district will prioritize ongoing burn projects close to Bend and other population centers.
Larkin said the agency also uses winter for preliminary planning and training meetings ahead of fire season. The shutdown meant that some of those meetings will have to be rescheduled, which could cut into the window for controlled burns during the spring, Larkin said.
The shutdown may also delay some long-term projects in both Central Oregon forests. Reid said the U.S. Highway 20 corridor public safety project, an effort to remove hundreds of ponderosa pine trees along the highway that were inadvertently poisoned by a weedkiller before they fall onto the highway, has been delayed. Reid maintained that the project, which was slated to begin this spring, remains a priority for the Forest Service, though he did not provide an updated time frame.
“We’ve got to get that thing done, there’s just too much at risk there,” Reid said.
Lair said the Ochoco National Forest is still reviewing its list of projects since returning from the shutdown, though he said it’s likely some projects would be delayed.
Despite the stress caused by the shutdown, Larkin and other forest managers praised the community for its help and support. Businesses and nonprofits offered free and discounted services to furloughed workers.
“We all heard about it; we all knew about it,” Larkin said. “It was appreciated.”
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