The United States entered into its first federal shutdown in 17 years at midnight after Congress failed to agree on the terms of a new fiscal year budget. As a result, all non-essential federal employees have been forced to take furloughs, or mandatory unpaid leave, until such time as a budget deal is announced. This has created an adverse effect on those agencies entrusted with the duty to monitor and protect our valuable cultural resources. While many public lands managed by the BLM remain open, they are not being serviced by any rangers. Other public lands, like our National Parks, have been closed completely, with no visitor access. Campers currently in a National Park have been given notice that they are to leave within 48 hours.
This shutdown means more than a freeze in the flow of fiscal services – it means that our nation’s cultural heritage is left exposed. We are all too aware of the unfortunate criminal acts performed daily by looters and treasure hunters. A lack of protection to these lands and sites creates a situation in which criminal activity may be left unnoticed. Furthermore, the work that is done behind-the-scenes with mapping, cataloging, and interpretation has come to a halt. Any active projects meant to preserve recent discoveries will not be completed until employees are allowed to return to work. Each agency has given a contingency statement defining their essential staff. For the BLM, this includes 300 to respond to emergencies involving safety of human life, and protection of IT systems at the National Operations Center. The Forest Service has allowed 1,400 in law enforcement, safety officers, and support staff necessary for asset protection and public safety to be exempt from furlough. The National Park Service will keep 2,139 employees on staff in positions of law enforcement, EMS, Fire, and USPP. Although the agencies’ contingency plans make clear that these employees are to protect life and property, the details do not inherently include archaeological sites – especially those that lie open without barriers, parking lots, and visitor centers.
For a complete list of each agencies’ shutdown contingency plans, please visit whitehouse.gov/omb/contingency-plans.
Please remember that preserving the remains of our cultural resources is essential to the understanding of our human history. The presence of minimal staff on our public lands should not be a green-light for increased looting and defacing of archaeological sites. Help us by spreading this message to ensure people are aware of the vulnerability to our cultural resources.