Shutdown at Talladega National Forest

Shoal Creek Ranger District Talladega National Forest office 45 U.S. Hwy. 281 Heflin, AL. The office is closed until further notice due to the government shutdown. Photo by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star

So far, Tim Johnson hasn’t been hurt by the budget battle that has shut down part of the federal government for the last few days.

If it goes on a few more days, though, the strain may begin to show.

“I’m sure we’ll feel it if this goes on into next week,’ said Johnson, owner of Cooter Brown’s Rib Shack just outside Jacksonville.

Johnson’s restaurant is a regular stop for busloads of students from the Center for Domestic Preparedness, an Anniston-based federal training center that teaches first responders how to deal with disasters. According to its website, the CDP hosts 50,000 students a year. It’s also part of the Department of Homeland Security, one of a handful cabinet-level government agencies that have been shut down since late December in a dispute over President Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump has asked for $5 billion for wall construction, something Democrats in Congress have largely opposed. Congress approved a stopgap measure in September to keep the government funded, and were working on a new stopgap measure in December when Trump declared he wouldn’t sign any funding bill that didn’t include wall funding.

That impasse happened while Republicans still controlled both houses of Congress. With a Democratic-majority House set to be sworn in Thursday, there’s no sign the White House and Congress are moving closer to agreement.

The local impact of the shutdown, so far, has largely been hidden from public view. At the CDP – one of the most high-security sites in the county, where trainees sometimes work with deadly toxins such as ricin – staff and contractors were tight-lipped about the budget impasse.

“We have no comment on the shutdown,” said David Cole, president of Logzone, a Huntsville-based logistics company that’s among at least 10 contractors that supply workers for the center.

Before the shutdown, a spokesman for the CDP said around 90 federal employees work at the center – employees who would be furloughed but likely reimbursed for their lost time after Homeland Security reopens.

Attempts to reach officials of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1945, the labor union for federal employees, were unsuccessful Wednesday.

It’s unclear how many contract workers are hit by the shutdown, and contractors Wednesday were reluctant to discuss the matter. A staffer at the building maintenance company HME said the company had 50 workers at the center, workers who weren’t being paid during the shutdown. The worker declined to tell The Star his name when asked.

Furloughed workers can apply for state unemployment benefits, said Kelly Betts, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Labor. That may be a workable option only for contractors. Betts said that if federal workers are reimbursed for their lost time, they’d have to pay any unemployment benefits back to the state.

So far, the loss of CDP students’ dollars doesn’t seem to have had an impact on local businesses. The center rarely holds classes in December – officials say students don’t want to travel during the holidays – so a holiday lull is typical.

“This is our slow time already,” said Johnson, the owner of Cooter Brown’s. With both CDP and Jacksonville State University students out of town, Johnson shut down his restaurant on Dec. 23 and had just reopened at 4 p.m. Wednesday. According to the CDP’s online schedule, classes would normally resume next week.

The shutdown also affects the U.S. Forest Service, including the Talladega National Forest, where the Shoal Creek and Talladega ranger offices were closed on Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, due to a lapse in government funding, we are shut down,” said a message on Shoal Creek’s answering machine.

Forest Service officials announced last month that they would begin a series of controlled burns in the forest in January, part of annual maintenance meant to clear away brush that could lead to wildfires. It’s unclear how that burn schedule will be affected by the shutdown.

At Little River Canyon National Preserve near Fort Payne, law enforcement agents are the only U.S. Park Service employees now working, said Pete Conroy, who runs Jacksonville State’s Little River Canyon Center, which is in the preserve.

Conroy said that in the absence of Park Service workers, employees of the JSU center have been emptying the garbage cans at the preserve and providing directions for park guests.

“We may be one of the few parks that actually has an open visitor’s center,” Conroy said.

Conroy is part of the local committee that convinced the federal government to create a national monument in Anniston – a site dedicated to the Freedom Riders, activists who were attacked here in 1961 while trying to integrate interstate buses.

The Freedom Riders monument is still being developed. Conroy said it wasn’t clear whether the shutdown would affect those development plans, though he said some teleconferences about the project have already been canceled.

“There’s no one to talk to right now,” he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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