During a recent break in the winter rains, the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge bustled with activity. Sandpipers and avocets poked around in the tidal wetlands. A cyclist peddled along the five miles of levee trails above the mud flats.
Marin County resident Anthony Lewis was out for a stroll in the sunshine.
Notably absent, though, were any of the workers who maintain these salt marsh trails, empty the overflowing garbage cans and explain the wildlife to curious visitors. The refuge, just eight miles south of Petaluma, is the closest federal land to the city. It is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the five federal employees have all been furloughed during the government shutdown.
If a visitor trips and falls or twists an ankle, a park ranger won’t be able to assist them. But Lewis doesn’t seem to mind. He’s been collecting pocketfuls of rocks, a practice he isn’t sure is entirely legal.
“I feel bad for the people who can’t do their jobs, but it won’t stop me from coming out here,” he said. “It’s better, there’s no one here to hassle you.”
As the longest government shutdown in history plays out in Washington, Petaluma residents are starting to feel the impacts. From minimal staffing at popular public open spaces to the threat of losing federal food subsidies, the shutdown is casting a long shadow over many aspects of people’s lives.
It is even more directly impacting some Petaluma residents who work for the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Parks Service and other agencies and federal contractors, who are not sure when the next paycheck will arrive.
“For us, our greatest concern is that we are here to protect the natural resources,” said John Dell’Osso, chief of interpretation at Point Reyes National Seashore, 18 miles southwest of Petaluma. “The important message is that we are open, however, if you go on a hike and do get injured, response times are much slower.”
Dell’Osso, a Cotati resident, is working without pay during the shutdown like many employees deemed essential. Others have been furloughed, meaning critical work is not getting done. Dell’Osso estimated 10 to 12 National Seashore employees live in Petaluma. Other Petaluma residents include employees of NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Coast Guard. Some federal employees spoke on background since they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Science projects take a hit
Federal scientists, who are studying the impacts of climate change on the marine life off of Point Reyes, aren’t able to plan future experiments. Point Blue Conservation Science of Petaluma has several federal contracts that are affected by the shutdown, including a cooperative agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to carryout research on the Farallon Islands.
Negotiations over another longterm agreement with Fish and Wildlife are on hold during the shutdown, according to Pete Warzybok, a senior marine ecologist and Farallon program leader for Point Blue. Meanwhile, without federal workers to provide logistics, like resupplying the islands with fuel and fixing the broken water pumps, Point Blue scientists may have to leave the tiny, biologically diverse islands west of the Golden Gate, something that hasn’t happened since 1968.
“It’s anxiety producing for us,” Waryzbok said. “We have a lot of empathy for our colleagues on furlough. They want to be fulfilling their mission. It’s frustrating for a lot of people. If this drags on, it’s going to become an issue and we may have to take staff off the island.”