Shipping, Social Security open; most parks, campgrounds closedThe U.S. government shutdown has affected federal agencies in the Northland in a number of ways, but many key services will continue to function, officials announced Tuesday.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
Duluth shipping traffic will keep moving and Social Security checks will keep arriving in mailboxes.
The U.S. government shutdown has affected federal agencies in the Northland in a number of ways, but many key services will continue to function, officials announced Tuesday.
National park campgrounds have shut down, but camping is still permitted in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The shutdown should have little immediate impact on Lake Superior shipping. Lock, dam and hydropower operations in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich, will continue to operate, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district office in Detroit. Most construction and dredging projects will continue to operate with minimal staffing as well.
Coast Guard services to maritime commerce, such as the issuance of licenses, will be delayed, but port, waterways, coastal security and safety functions will continue, according to the American Association of Port Authorities. Eighty-eight percent of Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Coast Guard employees will remain on the job.
The maritime visitors’ center near the Aerial Lift Bridge, however, will be closed.
Social Security field offices are open with limited services, according to the agency. Offices will remain open to conduct hearings before an Administrative Law Judge, but Social Security card centers are closed. Social Security payments to beneficiaries will continue with no change in payment dates.
But others will not be so lucky.
Duck hunters just outside Voyageurs National Park are affected by the shutdown. With the park near International Falls closed until Congress restores funding to federal government agencies, hunters can’t get the park permits they need to transport firearms and ducks legally taken outside the park across park waters, said Tawnya Schoewe, chief of interpretation at Voyageurs National Park.
Park employees worked until noon Tuesday to tie up loose ends, and then all but five essential employees were furloughed — laid off without pay, Schoewe said.
Those essential employees are all law enforcement officers, she said.
All parts of the park, including campsites, boat launches and visitor centers, will be closed.
The shutdown is tough on employees at Voyageurs National Park, Schoewe said.
“A lot of people are single-income,” she said. “It’s just like when people get laid off anywhere else.”
At Apostle Islands National Lakeshore near Bayfield, four of the park’s 20-25 employees will remain on duty during the shutdown for law enforcement, maintenance and to supervise a reconstruction project at five lighthouses, Park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker said. The lighthouse work will continue because money already has been allocated, Krumenaker said.
A cruise boat that tours the park will be able to operate during this weekend’s Bayfield Apple Fest, which draws thousands to the community, but the boat will have to stay outside of the park’s boundaries, which extend one-fourth mile from each island.
Grand Portage National Monument also is closed.
Hunters, anglers and birdwatchers will not be allowed to use the nation’s 561 national wildlife refuges, including Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge near McGregor and Whittlesey Creek refuge near Ashland. In addition, visitor centers and other buildings are closed.
While more than 7,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees are furloughed until an appropriation is passed, some services and programs will continue, including law enforcement and firefighting emergency operations, feeding at hatcheries and programs financed by sources other than annual appropriations.
“Closing off public access to our national wildlife refuges and public lands is the last thing we want to do, but is consistent with operations called for during a government shutdown,” Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said in a news release. “This is difficult news for the families, birdwatchers, hunters and anglers, and recreationists who enjoy the great outdoors on the refuges — as well as for the many local businesses that depend on the tourism and outdoor recreation economy they generate.”
Furloughs also have begun at the Minnesota National Guard. The organization has about 2,100 full-time military personnel, 1,118 of whom are technicians subject to furlough. The 148th Fighter Wing has more than 240 military technicians subject to furlough.
Veterans Affairs clinics in Superior, Hibbing and Ely will continue to operate as usual.
“It’s not like 17 years ago, when we were part of the shutdown,” said Ralph Huessner, a public affairs officer for the Veterans Health Administration. He explained that VA medical operations have since been classified as “essential services.” Huessner said all scheduled medical appointments will remain valid and pharmacies will continue to fill prescriptions.
During the 1996 shutdown, many VA staff continued to work without pay until a budget agreement was reached and retroactive pay was approved.
Joe Johnson, senior vice president of North Shore Mortgage in Duluth, said there was some concern that the federal shutdown could delay the processing of VA and Federal Housing Administration loans.
“But for now, it seems to be business as usual. And that’s a good thing, because the housing market is finally going pretty good and we’d hate to see it slow down,” he said.
Johnson said he is aware of rural development loans that were being processed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture being delayed, however.
The U.S. Railroad Retirement Board has announced that during the shutdown, ongoing benefit payments will continue and all RRB offices are expected to remain open. RRB field offices, operating with reduced staffs, may accept new claims for unemployment and sickness benefits, but will not be allowed to accept new applications for retirement, survivor and disability benefits.
U.S. Forest Service offices and visitor centers, including those in Superior National Forest and Chippewa National Forest, are closed. However, most Forest Service campgrounds remain open. Visitors to the BWCAW may continue to enter the wilderness area, writing self-issuing permits at entry points.
We’ll still get weather forecasts. The National Weather Service office in Duluth, and all others like it, remains fully staffed and operational, with forecasters unaffected because they are considered essential employees, said Carol Christenson, warning coordination meteorologist at the Duluth office. Local Weather Service office websites will continue to updated, although the NOAA.gov website is shut down.
News Tribune staff writers Peter Passi and John Myers contributed to this report.