Federal officials are working out the details of $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts to military and domestic programs that were to be implemented as part of the March 1 federal sequester.
Those cuts would be the start of $1 trillion in reductions over the next decade designed to stop government overspending. The largest hit will be a 14 percent cut to the U.S. Defense Department. But smaller cuts to agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Agriculture could impact residents and visitors in the Eastern Sierra.
The sequester emerged from the refusal of House Republicans to raise the debt ceiling in 2011 without significant deficit reduction. In response, Democrats and Republicans agreed to the Budget Control Act, which cut domestic spending over the next 10 years by about $1 trillion. Democrats refused to agree to more cuts without additional revenue from taxes, and Republicans refused to agree to tax increases.
Instead, Congress set up a committee to find further deficit reductions. To push the committee to reach a deal, negotiators established a fallback mechanism, the sequester, meant to be so onerous – $1.2 trillion in across-the-board, automatic spending cuts to both military and domestic programs – that it would never happen.
Without a deal in place, the sequester came March 1.
Under the sequester rules, federal agencies do not have the discretion to choose which programs to cut as the percentage cuts must apply to specific programs, projects and activities. Everything is subject to the same percentage cut. That spreads the pain, but it also prevents agency managers from focusing the spending cuts on programs that may be ineffective or inefficient.
Last week, Manzanar National Historic Site announced that federal funding cuts will mean reduced summer hours and no seasonal employees.
In the past, Manzanar would extend its hours in the summertime, April 1 through Oct. 30. This year the site will be operating on its winter hours, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily, throughout the summer.
“As with other federal entities in the Eastern Sierra, we have been impacted by mandatory budget cuts and hiring freezes,” Manzanar Superintendent Les Inafuku said. “Manzanar’s vacant positions include park rangers, maintenance workers and an administrative assistant, and we will face a long delay in bringing new coworkers on board.”
While Manzanar officials have been forthcoming with the impacts expected from the sequester, officials with the Inyo National Forest have issued a gag order, forbidding any employee from discussing the sequestration with the media or public at-large.
In an internal Forest Service memo leaked to The Inyo Register, Forest Service officials told staff that “the WO (Washington, D.C. office) and RO (Regional Office) have asked that employees not discuss the sequestration with media or any external partners, permittees or other non-Forest Service organizations.” The memo goes on to state that “Absolutely no comments from us on sequestration, even if non-media (is) doing the asking, the answer is, ‘We don’t have any information to provide on that subject at this time.’ Period.”
The memo states no Forest Service employees are to be permitted to be quoted in any newspaper articles on the subject of the sequestration, as “no agency employees are cleared to provide information on the sequestration.”
A Forest Service employee with the Washington office, who asked to be identified only as a Forest Service spokesperson, said, the Forest Service is looking at an across-the-board 5.2 percent reduction.
“The Forest Service will do everything it can to mitigate sequestration impacts to firefighting efforts and protect communities,” the spokesperson said. “However, the 5.2 percent reduction caused by sequestration will reduce the agency’s initial attack capability which will increase the probability of larger, costlier fires.”
The spokesperson went on to say the reduction of funds could result in 500 fewer firefighters and 50-70 fewer available engines, and will impact aviation assets nationwide.
“Severe fire conditions are expected for the season ahead, but the Forest Service will continue to work with state, local and interagency partners to provide firefighting resources to high-risk locations despite a reduction of funds,” the spokesperson said.
But the sequester will also impact recreational users on Forest Service-managed lands nationwide.
“Impacts on cuts in recreation at specific forests and grasslands are still being determined,” the spokesperson said. “We do estimate, however, that there will be an across-the-board temporary closure of 670 campgrounds, trailheads and picnic sites around the country in peak use season in the spring and summer but we are still determining which, exactly, those areas will be.”
The spokesperson went on to say that the closure of recreational sites “would likely result in loss of the opportunity for 1.6 million visitors to national forests, thereby harming the economies of remote rural communities that depend on recreation dollars to stimulate their local economy.”
The situation doesn’t appear any brighter for the agriculture industry, according U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Vilsack said in February that the sequester will mean furloughs of up to one-third of the USDA’s employees, generating sweeping impacts to local agriculture producers.
“A nationwide shutdown of meat and poultry plants during a furlough of (meat) inspection personnel” could result in “as much as 15 days of lost production, costing over $10 billion in production losses,” Vilsack said.
Phone calls to the Inyo County Agricultural Commissioner seeking comment on local impacts of the furloughs were not returned as of press time.