Former Interior Secretary: 'I Just Can't Express How Damaging' Shutdown Is To Public Lands

Download Audio
Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell speaks during the Outdoor Retailer show July 26, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell speaks during the Outdoor Retailer show July 26, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

The partial government shutdown is nearing the four-week mark, and it's having an impact on the hundreds of thousands of government workers who aren't at work and aren't being paid. But the shutdown is not just personal — it's also affecting national parks and other public lands.

There are overflowing trash cans and toilets, thefts of artifacts, trees have been chopped down and there have been multiple fatalities.

Sally Jewell, who served as interior secretary under President Obama from 2013 to 2017, says it's a "huge mistake" not to close the parks that have remained open during the shutdown.

"I appreciate that people love their national parks and want access. But when we went through the shutdown in 2013, the issue was parks can't be open in terms of roads and access without people there to manage them," Jewell (@sallyjewell) tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "And we've seen that with the garbage piling up and the human feces in the parking lot that these employees face."

Illicit off-road driving in places like California's Joshua Tree National Park is just one example of damage that will long outlast the current shutdown, Jewell says.

"You have people riding four-by-fours on cryptobiotic soils, which take hundreds if not thousands of years to recover," she says.

Interview Highlights

On the importance of cryptobiotic soils, and the long-lasting nature of the damage

"It's like an old-growth forest. It's an old-growth ecosystem coming up from the soil that is very important habitat to a number of species in that part of the desert Southwest. And when you put a footprint in that, or a tire track, it basically destroys that ecosystem and the continuity of that ecosystem with the soils around it. You can see footprints that people have done when they've walked off trail where they're not supposed to go that will just basically be there forever."

"The destruction of these resources is something you can never get back."

Sally Jewell

On issues like the theft of old-growth timber

"These trees are part of national parks. They are part of wilderness areas and protected areas, and they're designed to preserve these places unimpaired for the future, to preserve the ecosystems that are attached to them. The destruction of these resources is something you can never get back. I mean, they're hundreds of years old. We did see the theft of old-growth timber in, for example, Olympic National Park. These are assets that belong to all American people in the places that are most special. And when you are an employee who is in the forever business, then the destruction of those resources for personal gain no matter what is something that just strikes at the core, at your core, saying that people don't care about these places."

On morale among people conducting scientific research

"One of the biggest impacts of this shutdown is a sense that people have that their work is not valued. If you are a scientist working on eDNA to prevent the invasive Asian carp from getting into the Great Lakes, and you have lost that data, you've actually lost your experimentation fish you were working with, and you may have missed some data of invasive species that have migrated into places like the Great Lakes that nobody wants. I just cannot express enough the long-term impacts, that is not just about this data being lost, but potentially a gap in data and the ability to correlate that will impact this work for years."

On whether it's too late to close the parks altogether

"No. I mean I think that you have seen some park superintendents make the decision to close their doors because of the damage that's being done. Some of them have shut the gates, and in the case of a national park close to me, Mount Rainier National Park, it was closed. They then used fees — which should be for visitors services and deferred maintenance and so on — they used those to reopen the gates temporarily and I'm sure they're getting pressure to do that."

"One of the biggest impacts of this shutdown is a sense that people have that their work is not valued."

Sally Jewell

On other adverse impacts currently being felt

"Some of the things I think people don't recognize are the preparation work for the very important field season coming up. So for example, young people from all over the country come to work on public lands through youth conservation corps crews. Those crews don't know whether they're going to have work to do or not, because those contracts have been delayed. On fighting fires right now, the work that would be done this time of year, like prescribed burning and fuel reduction and thinning of the forests, are not being done because of this shutdown.

"Systems like the stream gauges monitored by the USGS, or the seismic monitors, or the ocean buoys that are sending back data — those things break. People cannot go out and fix things like that. We had an outage in a Department of the Interior computer system over the course of a weekend that impacted the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. So we're lucky we didn't have any volcanic eruptions or major earthquakes, but we could have, and if we had, the warning systems, the ability to respond would have been significantly impeded because of that shutdown of the Interior computer system.

"These are the kinds of things happening behind the scenes that could impact all of us. I just can't express how damaging this is long-term to the people of the United States and the dedicated men and women that devote themselves to this work that we all benefit from."

Alex Ashlock produced this interview, and Savannah Maher edited it for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on January 16, 2019.


Headshot of Robin Young

Robin Young Co-Host, Here & Now
Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live