Behind the Scenes – How the Sequester Hurts
One of the most popular islands in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was closed to daytime visitors earlier this month because a bear, or possibly more than one, had been stealing food from kayakers and campers.
Though the hungry bruin is oblivious to the federal sequestration, the government's automatic spending cuts that went into effect in March are affecting national parks, forests, trails, wildlife refuges and scenic waterways in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
For the most part, the sequestration is not being felt much by visitors, but behind the scenes fewer people are being hired for seasonal work, maintenance is being deferred and invasive species management has been halted. There are fewer people enforcing rules, advising visitors of safety concerns, leading educational hikes and talks, cleaning toilets and maintaining trails — and taking care of misbehaving bears.
At the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior, the Budget Control Act has meant only half the usual 14 seasonal employees were hired this summer. Among the unfilled openings are maintenance workers and a park ranger. Plus permanent positions that recently opened can't be replaced, like the mechanic responsible for maintaining the four drinkable water systems, three on islands and one at Little Sand Bay, as well as 10 solar panel arrays that power ranger cabins and lighthouses, Superintendent Bob Krumenaker said.
There's no longer a staff person who would normally devote time to handling unruly bears' behavior and alerting visitors how to safely store food. So when a clever bear boarded a boat beached on Sand Island, opened a cooler and ran off with sausages and Cokes, park managers decided to close the island to daytime visitors.
"The bear problem on Sand Island is not caused by sequestration, but our response to the bear is affected by sequestration," said Krumenaker, who doesn't know when Sand Island will reopen.
"The two things I worry most about is the safety of visitors and the condition of the natural resource. If we can't protect wildlife from the people and people from the wildlife, something's got to give."
The Apostle Island Visitor Center in Bayfield is open every day during the summer months from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Two years ago it was open until 6 p.m. during the peak season. There are fewer staffers to talk to kayakers at boat landings and advise them of water and weather conditions. Fewer people spread among the 21 islands means a longer response time in emergencies, Krumenaker said.
The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway has cut almost $200,000 from its budget this year, and that means hiring nine fewer seasonal employees and leaving open the terrestrial biologist position. The cuts included two law enforcement officers, two maintenance workers and three people who would normally handle education programs.
"There are less patrols on the river," Riverway Superintendent Chris Stein said, "less opportunity to interact with park visitors and instruct them on the rules and fewer safety inspections of boats."
The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway includes 250 miles of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers in northwestern Wisconsin.
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail has cut $46,000 from federal funding it funnels to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to support operations spread over nine scientific reserve units that preserve evidence of glaciation including Devil's Lake State Park, Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area, Kettle Moraine State Forest and Campbellsport Drumlins.
That means less money to buy supplies for volunteers who maintain 630 miles of the Ice Age Trail like hand tools, hard hats and chainsaws as well as safety training and wood to build walkways across marshlands. The travel budget has been scaled back, though none of the six employees in the Ice Age Trail's Madison office will have to take furlough days.
"We've dramatically reduced our costs almost to the point of pulling the copy machine and going to pencils," Superintendent John Madden said. He added, "I'm confident my budget next year will be less than this year."
At the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, which cuts a large swath across northern Wisconsin, there have been no changes due to the sequestration. The same number of seasonal employees have been hired, visitor centers remain fully staffed and open, and maintenance is being done as scheduled, Forest Supervisor Paul Strong said.
The sequestration is affecting the U.S. Forest Service nationally with about 500 fewer firefighters hired this year — in many cases they're seasonal employees — as well as 50 fewer fire engines to battle forest fires around the nation, said Jane Cliff, a spokeswoman for the Eastern Region of the U.S. Forest Service based in Milwaukee.
The National Park Service's Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program has been affected in the state because the Wisconsin field office has sharply curtailed travel to communities seeking help for recreation projects. Since March Angie Tornes, Wisconsin field office manager whose office is in Milwaukee, has been unable to attend some meetings on projects such as the Lake Michigan Water Trail, Merrill's River Bend Trail and the Niagara Escarpment Greenway project.
For the Lake Michigan Water Trail, Tornes has worked with the Wisconsin DNR, Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission, boaters and paddlers to identify public access points along the state portion of the lake. But because her travel budget has been cut she's missed meetings where locations were selected.
"The sequester has been a huge energy drain for everybody in rearranging schedules, canceling meetings and delaying projects," Tornes said.