6:09 p.m. October 4, 2013

Who Will Feed The Fucking Animals?

The NSFWCORP team cover the effects of the US government shutdown. Updated frequently

Ranger Steve Loves Bats
By Leigh Cowart on Mount Pisgah, NC

Early evening in North Carolina and I’m guiding my geriatric Subaru up the stomach-churning roads of the Blue Ridge Parkway. NSFWCORP contributor David Forbes is along for the ride. He’s just come from work, looking quite dapper in his suit. I’ve also just come from work, which means I had to put pants on to leave the house. We chat about local politics, variations in cinematic realism relating to armored fighting, and the Affordable Care Act as the cold air blasting from the vents numbs my fingers. Can’t turn the heat on; various things are broken and it fogs up the car. But I don’t mind; the slight chill makes it feel like fall, and as we climb in elevation, it appears we are moving fast-forward through autumn, the forest getting redder the higher we go.

Everything feels like an eternity on the parkway. Fifteen miles feels like two hours. I have to block out my peripheral vision, as much of the road appears to be a thin lip of asphalt at the very edge of a vertical drop, and it makes me feel so close to dying that I’ll get woozy if I look. It’s gorgeous.

The first time we see the barricade at the Pisgah Inn, it’s because we’re driving past it. The entrance to the property features a small, grey building and a few places to turn into parking lots. We round a corner and suddenly there they are: a few orange traffic cones and barrels, a bit of yellow tape bending in the wind, and the rangers. I circle back and park at an overlook a short distance from the inn. It's cold -- very cold -- but I'm not worried; the rangers aren't likely to be chatty with a journalist, I’ll get some “no ma’ams”, take in the absurdity, and head back down the mountain.

I walk over to the main gate, smile broadly and wave like an idiot as I walk towards the first ranger I see.

“Ya’ll lettin’ people into the Inn?”

Kill ‘em with kindness, I guess.

“No ma’am,” came the unsurprising reply. The ranger was stout, like a compact refrigerator, drinking a soda and looking bored in his reflective vest.

I continue to smile like I’m in on some joke (there is no joke). Pointing to my incredibly conspicuous yellow legal pad, I tell him I’m a journalist and begin to ask how he’s doing tonight before he cuts me off with a chirppy “Oh!” and excitedly mumbles something about the person I’m going to want to talk to. He scurries over to one of the Rangermobiles to fetch a tall man with the sort of long stride and authoritative footfall that tells me he’s the boss.

“Steve Stinnett, chief ranger.”

We shake hands. I have icicle fingers, the hand I am shaking feels like a microwaved catcher’s mitt. I’m in jeans and long-sleeves. Steve is wearing a short-sleeve uniform shirt. Shivering chihuahua interviews draft horse. I apologize for my death hand and comment on the weather. He is nothing but nice about all of this. I realize later that it’s probably because I’m the first journalist to come up and get his official statement.

We begin our chat standing by an orange cone at the entrance, but Steve asks if I want to sit at the picnic table on the lawn by the road. A forbidden picnic table? Um, yes. I definitely want to sit there.

”On Tuesday, we went to phase two”, explains Ranger Steve, referring to the 48-hours notice to vacate issued by the Park Service to the users and concessionaires at Blue Ridge Parkway. All of the concessionaires agreed to shutdown, except for one.

“Did you expect Pisgah Inn to refuse?”

Steve just smiles, gives a soft laugh. I smile back like I’m still in on the joke (is there a joke?), and rephrase the question. Still smiling, he tells me no, they didn’t expect anyone to say no, it’s a legal mandate. The National Parks Service was notified on the 2nd that Pisgah Inn was going to stay open. He re-sent the notification that they’d need to close. In the end, they complied with the 6:00 P.M. shutdown deadline on Thursday.

But Friday morning, one of Steve’s rangers notified him that the gates at Pisgah Inn were open, and that there were customers on the property. By 2:00 P.M., they had their orders: shut it down. So they did.

“Was there any resistance to the shutdown?”

Steve says no. “People have been understanding - well, I don’t know if understanding is the right word - but the majority have been understanding to the plight of the rangers.” He pulls out his phone and tells me that I’m the first journalist to get his official statement. It’s in a email, you see, and he’s digging through his inbox for the quote.

I copy down his statement (see: Ranger Steve, below.)

While we’re chatting, I can see into the parking lot. There’s an employee sitting in the open trunk of his car, swinging his legs. (He is still there, in the trunk, when I leave.) What about him?

“No, we’re not kicking people out of housing.” There are employees that live on-site, and they will be allowed to stay and complete their maintenance duties. There is no plan to kick them out at a later date. They’re allowed to come and go as they please.

Steve mentions the Parkway closure in the ‘95 shutdown, citing some of the major thoroughfares that would have had to close if we’d shut down federal roads this year, and reminding me that while the road is open, the park is closed.

“So, if I pulled over and got out of my car to go look at a tree or something, that’d be illegal because the park is closed?”

He chuckles.”I mean, technically…”

The sky is changing into dusk, the purples and oranges of a mountain sunset reflecting off Steve’s shiny badge. His ranger hat has a leather strap around it with words on it, I think, but I can’t make out what they say. He’s friendly, relaxed, and his pants are perfectly hemmed. He tells me that of course he understands the park closure is of great disappointment to visitors, and that he’s glad that he still has most of his crew because they manage a 469 mile park.

I’m concerned about the scientists, I tell him. Can research still go on in the park?

“Researchers were contacted and told to contact the Park Service. We don’t want to impact long-term research projects, but we have to work within the bounds of what we are allowed to do.”

I keep waiting for him to say something that’s not so gosh darned nice, but apparently Ranger Steve is the fucking Paul Newman of park rangers.

I look around at the handful of rangers on site, waiting for someone to return with food, and probably coffee. Someone loudly opens a soda and I jump, the hiss of carbon dioxide jarring against the cacophony of insects. A man in a silver SUV stops to ask directions for a close place to stay the night. Actually, during our talk, cars have been stopping by every few minutes, some out of befuddled curiosity, others to condemn the closure. A ranger chats with all of them.

So, what promise does the evening hold for the rangers?

“We’ll have someone out here all night.” Steve cites the need for safety and to give the people “a location to express themselves”. He unironically smiles when he says it.

Steve is in the middle of elaborating on his answer when one of my beloved chiropterans swoops through the air above us. Unable to resist when faced with such circumstance, I squeal with glee and watch it dart and dive for its dinner.

I immediately begin to apologize. I’ve missed part of his answer. But Steve is already smiling. “A bat?”

I love bats!

My god, we fucking said it in unison. Excited, he promises to tell me a cool bat story when the interview is finished.

“Are you expecting the Pisgah Inn to attempt to re-open during the shutdown?”

He shrugs his shoulders. I think I see his eyes track a bat across the sky behind me. “The agency sees this as a consistency issue.” Not personal, just compliance. Everyone else shut down, and what’s fair is fair.

“But do you think they’ll try something?”

“Discussions are ongoing.”

Another smile. A slight shrug. And then just I’m freezing my ass off on the side of a mountain, talking to Ranger Steve about bats.

* *

Ranger Steve
By Leigh Cowart on Mount Pisgah, NC

I'm sitting on the side of a mountain, at a picnic table on forbidden property. Steve Stinnett, the chief ranger for the Blue Ridge Parkway, is scrolling through his phone, his face eerily illuminated by the glow. He hands it to me, pointing at the text.

"You're the first journalist to get my official statement!"

On the screen, a chunk of an email, dictating his response to the Pisgah Inn shutdown (see "Room at the Inn," below).

"This is a very unfortunate situation and hundreds of other concession operators in national parks around the country are closed because of the lapse in funding. We wish we could make an exception in this case, but that would not be fair to the other operators and their employees who are also out of work right now."

I copy it down in dutiful fashion, my fingers cold and uncooperative. I may be under-dressed, but goddammit, I'm first.

Stay tuned tomorrow for more on chief ranger Steve and the Pisgah Inn shutdown.

* *

Room at the Inn
By Leigh Cowart in Asheville, NC

Tucked high and away in at milepost 408.6 of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Pisgah Inn is taking a stand.

“There are rangers circling the parking lot right now,” owner Bruce O’Connell tells me with a nervous chuckle. “Got here about fifteen minutes ago.”

A much beloved feature of the area, Pisgah Inn made the national news this week for defying the government shutdown. Bruce O’Connell, whose family has run the inn on a concession contract since the late 1970s, was emboldened by the footage of WWII veterans pushing past the barricades to get to their memorial in Washington. In response to the National Parks Service mandate to shutter by Thursday, October 3rd, at 6:00 P.M., he and Pisgah Inn general manager Rob Miller announced that they would not be closing the 51 room inn.

In a press release, O’Connell gave a measured defence of his decision, pointing out that since the Blue Ridge Parkway will remain open, there will be visitors in need of services (food, water, shelter, bear-free toilets) and that open businesses along the parkway provide safety and security for travelers.

“The Pisgah Inn operations are supported by revenues received from visitors, not federal funds, and those operations are conducted by a private company which allows us to continue operating even though federal funding for the National Park Service itself has been partially suspended.”

In the release, O’Connell also took care to note that this act was in no way intended to belittle the President or Congress, nor is it a show of disrespect for the National Park Service, rather the move to remain open was about the safety of visitors and property. On the Pisgah Inn Facebook page, the post announcing the refusal to close garnered over a thousand “likes”.

But facing mounting pressure the Pisgah Inn did indeed shut down Thursday as required.

“Due to the fact that a resolution to the shut down becomes more of a distant promise every day, the Pisgah Inn in cooperation with the National Park Service has decided to cease operations at 6PM this evening Thursday Oct. 3, 2013. We regret the inconvenience and disappointment of our guests but we hope for their understanding.”

O’Connell tells me over the phone that when he made the decision to close, he felt “a little threatened”. But then he slept on it. And in the bright autumn morning of October 4th, his decision just didn’t feel right.

“I had to act.”

And act he did. At 11:30 this morning, Friday October 4th, the Pisgah Inn re-opened to the public.

“There are guests in the restaurant, guests in the gift shop, and we have one room booked for tonight.” He mentions that though there has been a lot of confusion, there have certainly been a lot of travelers coming in from the open Parkway.

I ask if they’re running any specials or have any discounts. He says no, this isn’t about the money. Of course if any guest has problems, or is forcibly removed, they’ll be compensated for their trouble, but they aren’t running specials to capitalize on the chaos. He sounds tired and frustrated. Indeed, October is peak season for the Pisgah Inn, with people waiting years for a room amid the brilliant fire-leaved trees of the Blue Ridge Mountains. So if not money, then what?

“This is about convictions and conscience. I respect the government, I respect the park service; this is not about the people, it’s about the process. Our government process needs repair and I don’t know how to fix it besides following my conscience.”

He tells me he’s nervous. That he’s not the bravest man in the world, that he didn’t ask for this, doesn’t want to be a leader. That he’s worried he’s made a mistake. His concession contract is up next year and he’s afraid that after this, the government will not renew it.

“But you know, I’m 60 years old. I’ve been here 35 years. What do I have to lose?”

Against the turd stew backdrop of the government shutdown, O’Connell’s desire to do right by his conscience is refreshing and clean like the first whispers of winter. He’s not doing this to talk to reporters or be lauded with praise. He’s not doing this to drive customers to an already thriving business. In fact, this very act could cost him dearly, and he’s certainly not doing this to for martyrdom. No, it appears that Bruce O’Connell has re-opened the Pisgah Inn just so he can get some damn sleep at night. Because it’s the right thing to do.

“If not now, when? If not me, who?”

...

This afternoon, Jon Ostendorf of the Asheville Citizen-Times and USA Today reported that at around 2:00 P.M. the National Park Service has physically blocked the entrance to the Pisgah Inn. Two hours later, O’Connell told me there were rangers guarding the gate, and that the inn was closed. All of his live-in employees were still behind the guarded gate.

I spoke with an employee at the Pisgah Inn, who preferred to go unnamed. If I came to the Inn would he come out to speak to me? No, said, citing a desire not to potentially make anything worse, mentioning the game “Telephone.” No one wants to make a bad situation worse by spreading a rumor; it seems that everyone wants to do the right thing.

“Right now, we’re all in limbo.”

His voice carried unmistakable tension. Some employees have left; others have no where else to go. He tells me that owner Bruce O’Connell is no longer on the premises, having “gone down the mountain.” The employee had financial concerns. “We’re all just people, and we have bills to pay.” He said that for some, a continued shutdown would be “catastrophic”.

“We’re just trying to lay low and hope for the best.”

* *

The Water Must Flow! (Or: Rejoice, no interruption in our shitburger supply!)
By Yasha Levine in Santa Monica, CA

In California, the federal government — through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — oversees one of the biggest aqueduct systems on the planet.

The system spans Oligarch Valley and includes hundreds of miles of pipes and canals, almost two dozen dams and reservoirs, and eleven hyrdo powerplants. Some of that water hydrates about four million people. But the vast bulk of it provides irrigation to 1/3 of California's total farmland.

So does the government shutdown mean the feds have turned off the tap? And if so, what are California's oligarch farmers going to do?

I called the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation here in Sacramento to find out.

"Our water delivery, our power generation and those types of uhm, activities that we're responsible for are not affected by the shutdown," Pete Lucero, Public Affairs Officer for the Bureau's Mid-Pacific Region, said over the phone.

"Reclamation has over 5,000 employees and about 3,300 hundred employees are furloughed. So what's that — about 60 percent of our staff is furloughed? And the remainder are considered to be necessary for the services that we provide."

"How does that work?" I asked him. "Are they working now without pay with the expectation that this end that they will be remunerated?"

He sounded weary and was a bit gruff: "We are not assuming anything. We are coming in and doing our jobs as directed. It is up to the Congress to determine if the folks that are doing it are getting paid. It is not up to us."

"So they are essentially doing this for free at the moment."

"I wouldn't say that. I'm just saying that the Congress hasn't determined what's gonna occur."

Pete Lucero would't say that. But they are — working for free, I mean. Yessir, the good women and men of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are working without pay to make sure the Resnicks, Boswells, Woolfs, Harrises and all the other California oligarch famers get their farm water.

So we can all rest easy: the U.S. government shutdown won't interrupt our supply of shitbeef and designer nuts...

* *

The science of the shutdown
By Leigh Cowart in Asheville, NC

The shutdown is terrible news for science. Research has come to a screeching halt as scientists are furloughed or lose funding. In addition to the furloughed federal scientists - which means most of them, save for those involved patient and animal care, there are grad students, postdocs, research assistants, and primary investigators all over the country who are running out of money for research expenses and salary. Sometimes no grant means no rent.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) has furloughed 73% of its nearly 19,000 employees; the National Science Foundation (NSF) is “operating" at a 98.5% furlough rate. Both institutions have stopped processing grants; whether or not existing funds can be accessed will depend on the nature of the funding already in place.

The NIH is unable to accept new patients unless their Director deems them medically necessary. As the Wall Street Journal reported today, this means cancer kids are going to be turned away from potentially life-saving clinical trials.

Crucial government websites have gone dark. NSF.gov is just a depressing outline of the catstrofuck. PubMED wil be updated to “the extent possible". NASA’s website is now completely unavailable, instead reading “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available. We sincerely regret this inconvenience." FastLane is down. Research.gov is down. Social media presences? Silenced.

A federal scientist on forced furlough is shitty and straightforward enough, but what about everybody else? I spoke to Jared, a researcher and contracter, one of the many who provide support to federal staff, thereby bolstering the work force without adding permanent employees. He tells me that the current numbers he’s seen estimate that for the 800,000 federal positions affected, there are around 1.2 million contract positions affected as well.

So, how is this affecting him?

“I am facing effective unemployment, as are approximately one million other federal contractors. The shutdown means I use my very limited amount of accrued leave or take leave without pay. My lab specifically has lost over two weeks (one to spin down in preparation, another week optimistically to spin back up) of what would have been productive time, in addition to the length of the furlough. If it lasts a day, we still lose over two weeks; this is the nature of research. This lost time specifically includes at least two publications and measurements of environmental pollution."

And what about his paycheck?

“One of the major bits of misinformation out there I'm seeing is that back pay is almost assured. For the approximately 800,000 full time federal staff affected, this is likely true. Contractors are a different matter since we have to work in order to bill and be paid."

His predicament is not unusual. While it’s true that not all contracts are affected equally, researchers all over the country are feeling the financial squeeze of lost work and lost wages.

And not only does the shutdown affect researchers who use government funding, it also affects those who who work on or with federally managed resources. Take, for example, marine ecologist Scott Morello’s predicament. He’s a PhD Candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and his research is in jeopardy of the worst kind of snag.

“My research involves sampling and monitoring coastal ecosystems in Acadia National Park at monthly intervals. This research is part of a larger project attempting to further our understanding of how large-scale environmental gradients alter species interactions and induce changes in the assembly, structure and function of natural communities. Under the National Parks Service contingency plan, all research activities are suspended in their parks, in turn putting a hold on my data collection. Maintaining that high level of sampling frequency is important to the ecological models I'm building, and thus the government shutdown impacts my ability to capture important changes in the ecosystems there."

The closer you look, the clearer the picture: the effects of the shutdown on science are pretty fucking grim. However, sometimes, it just gets weird. Like, absurdist-recursive-comedy weird.

Which brings me to Robert.

Robert is a physicist and professor. He’s currently unaffected by the shutdown because he’s not on a grant. Robert is, however teaching an honors course on “Federal Funding of the Sciences". This week’s topic is the way federal agencies use peer-review in the grant process, but much of the reading for the class is met with this charming banner:

“"Due to the lapse in government funding, National Science Foundation websites and business applications, including NSF.gov, FastLane, and Research.gov will be unavailable until further notice. We sincerely regret this inconvenience.""

What this means is that the information his students require for class this week is now unavailable because of the shutdown.

“The shutdown of federal science funding has potentially shut down my class on federal funding of the sciences."

* *

After all is done and said / Pretty soon we'll all be dead
By Leigh Cowart, in Asheville, NC

The current front page of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website is the stuff of horror movie opening sequences. It features photo of CDC epidemiologists in full protective regalia, next to the headline “CDC Detectives Respond to Disease Outbreaks.” Above it, An ominous red banner, alerting visitors to the shutdown.

Oh no. Is the CDC shutting down?

It is. A memo from the Department of Health and Human Services detailing their contingency plan for the shutdown has confirmed that the CDC is affected. We are so fucked.

The memo states that the “CDC will continue minimal support to protect the health and well-being of US citizens here and abroad through a significantly reduced capacity to respond to outbreak investigations, processing of laboratory samples, and maintaining the agency’s 24/7 emergency operations center.”

Shit.

Furthermore, there’s great news for people who like to spend quality time as an influenza incubator:

“CDC [will] be unable to support the annual seasonal influenza program, outbreak detection and linking across state boundaries using genetic and molecular analysis, continuous updating of disease treatment and prevention, recommendations (e.g., HIV, TB, STDs, hepatitis), and technical assistance, analysis, and support to state and local partners for infectious disease surveillance.”

Consider this a friendly warning to wash your hands, and get a flu shot.

* *

Dial KKK for Kancelled
By Olivia Nuzzi in New York, NY

"Greetings white brothers and sisters...Check out our website at www.KKKknights.com. Always remember, if it ain't white, it ain't white. White power." - KKK Hotline

A Maryland-based Ku Klux Klan group was scheduled to hold a rally at a Gettysburg military park on October 5th. Due to the government shutdown, the gathering has been cancelled.

Having failed to reach the Klan using their "24/7" hotline, I tried their Arkansas base of operations. Better luck that time" "If the parks are closed, they're closed," said a spokesperson. "If that's the way it is, there's nothing you can do about it." That's a good attitude to have, I thought, and asked the spokesperson why the KKK doesn't apply it to other issues, like race.

"I don't understand what you're saying. If the parks are close, they're closed!"

Click

* *

Hangry, hangry hippos at the National Zoo?
By Olivia Nuzzi in New York, NY

"Thank you for calling the Smithsonian National Zoo. Due to the federal government shutdown, National Zoo and all Smithsonian museums are closed until further notice. We apologize for any inconvenience and we will respond to your call when the Zoo reopens. Thank you."

While the Panda Cam and all lesser animal cams have been disconnected due to the government shutdown, the animals are continuing to be fed and cared for. National Zoo Spokesperson Devin Murphy tells NSFWCORP that "animal keepers, nutritionists and vets are exempted from the shutdown."

But will they be paid?

The Smithsonian's Chief Spokesperson, Linda St. Thomas, explains: "Federal employees who are “excepted” (at Smithsonian and at federal agencies) will be paid at some point. Federal employees who are not “excepted” (the vast majority) do not know whether they will be paid for the days they were furloughed. That is Congress’ decision."

* *

Can you hear me, Major Tom?
By the Mars Curiosity Rover, Mars

Beep-boop-beep-beeep.

Hey, I'm at the site. Ping me when you're here.

Still here, out in the open. I'm the one with the lasers.

You running late? What's your ETA?

Hello?

Are you even getting my texts?

C'mon this is bullshit.

NASA?!

Are you even going to bother to let me know what the fuck is going on?

Guys?

Hello???

Jesus fucking christ.

:(

... Um, did something happen?

Is everything okay?

Come on, please, tell me something.

Sorry I was mad earlier.

Hello?

Okay, now I'm worried.

Guys?

Hello?

It's lonely out here.

Do you want me just to stay put?

I'll just wait here.

Hope you're okay.

I miss you.

As of October 1st, NASA has furloughed 97% of its workforce. Today is NASA's 55th birthday.

Illustration by Ted Rall