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ACE member with chainsaw

American Conservation Experience crew member John Anderson segments a downed tree as part of a forest thinning project. Anderson now works for the City of Flagstaff Fire Department.

While the public watches legislators attempt to figure out a way to fund themselves in the United States Capitol, in Flagstaff, city workers expect the United States Forest Service’s transitioning workers and missed deadlines to cause delays and pile-ups once furloughed workers return to the job.

The Coconino National Forest is one of the leading partners in projects like the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project. The local forest thinning project works to prevent catastrophic wildfires, improve forest health and protect local watersheds through collaboration between Flagstaff, the state and Coconino National Forest. Without federal funds, many Forest Service employees have been furloughed and have not been able to move projects forward or help outgoing and incoming workers transition.

Paul Summerfelt, a wildland fire management officer who is closely involved with the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, works together with the Forest Service as a city employee. Summerfelt said the federal employees have given him "radio silence" since the shutdown began. Members of the Forest Service were unable to be reached to comment for this article.

If the shutdown extends past New Year’s Day, Summerfelt expects the Forest Service's work will start to add up. He said that the actual forest thinning in FWPP should be able to continue unimpeded in the short term, although problems may arise if contractors finish contracted plots of land before the government funding is reinstated.

A new forest thinning contract in the Dry Lake Hills was expected to be put out to be bid upon by private contractors on Jan. 1. The shutdown means that the deadlines will continue to approach with Forest Service employees unable to communicate on the status of the bids. It is unclear what the fate of the contract will be.

"The issue is the contracting staff on the Forest Service side is not a big shop," Summerfelt said. "They've got many other projects they're working on at the moment as well. Where this one will get balled up with all the others, or when it will come out, I'm not sure."

Planning meetings for other recently awarded contracts in the Dry Lake Hills area were also scheduled for early this month.

"They were going to come in and go through their operating plans and start in early January," Summerfelt said. "Although work has been awarded, work is being delayed."

In addition, there are staff members in leadership positions who will be leaving the local district for jobs in other parts of the country. The work needed to prepare the incoming staff by late January isn't simple, Summerfelt said.

"It takes a while to bring somebody up to speed on what’s occurring, to understand what's transpired already, the agreements, commitments and all that," Summerfelt said.

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He did admit that if this shutdown had to happen, having it happen during the winter holiday season is fortunate as workers were already planning to take holidays.

"I wouldn't call it a silver lining. I'd call it grey," Summerfelt said. "It's not a good thing, but it's better than if we were in the middle of the summer."

Despite the time of year, he expects that the longer the shutdown lasts, the greater the impact on their projects.

"Personally, I'd have to say, it's a terrible way to run a government," Summerfelt said. "It creates a lot of side issues."

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