Federal employees head back to work
Arctic air is expected to drive more bald eagles down to the metro-east from the Great Lakes this week, and now an eagle-watching hotspot is back in business.
The visitors center at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge in Brussels opened Monday after being closed for more than a month due to the partial federal government shutdown. It’s staffed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose employees were furloughed.
“People could still come up here,” said Administrative Support Assistant Dave Crigger. “It’s property owned by the taxpayers of this country. But there was nobody here to staff anything.”
Visitors couldn’t see interpretive displays, use restrooms or go inside to warm up, and they couldn’t contact refuge personnel in case of emergency.
“We advise people to come at their own risk (when the visitors center is closed),” Crigger said. “It’s a remote area, and there’s limited cellphone service at best.”
Visitation at Twin Rivers increases in January and February because of its location between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, which eagles follow while migrating to the south, where they can fish in unfrozen water.
The 9,225-acre refuge employs six people, including a biologist and maintenance worker.
“It’s nice to be able to come back to work,” Crigger said. But the fact that another shutdown could happen on Feb. 15 is never far from his mind.
The bill President Donald Trump signed to provide government funding covers only three weeks. He has warned that another shutdown could occur if Congress doesn’t pass an appropriations bill that provides $5.7 billion for part of a border wall between the United States and Mexico.
Arch concessionaires lost business, too
National Park Service employees were furloughed during the shutdown, so that closed Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis. It reopened Sunday.
During the shutdown, visitors could walk the grounds, but they couldn’t go into the Museum at the Gateway Arch or the Old Courthouse, and they couldn’t take tram rides to the top. Field trips and other educational programs were canceled.
“It did impact quite a few visitors,” said Director of Education Erin Hilligoss-Volkmann.
Records show about 55,000 people visited the Gateway Arch last year during the same period, Dec. 22 to Jan. 26. That was up from about 30,000 the year before, when the new museum was under construction.
The shutdown eliminated a month of revenue for the Arch’s concessionaires. Bi-State Development operates the tram, and Jefferson National Parks Association runs the gift shop.
National Park Service employees will get back pay for the days they missed, but not those who work for concessionaires.
“The main point is, we are so happy to be back at work, serving the American people and welcoming visitors from near and far,” Hilligoss-Volkmann said.
Earlier this month, the National Park Service decided not to host a St. Louis event affiliated with the national Great Backyard Bird Count on Feb. 16-17.
“We didn’t know how long the shutdown would last,” Hilligoss-Volkmann said. “There were just too many uncertainties.”
Museum, courthouse, airport stayed open
The National Great Rivers Museum in Alton, another eagle-watching hotspot, stayed open throughout the shutdown. It’s operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose funding already was approved as part of an Energy and Water Development appropriations bill.
But some of its programs were affected by the shutdown because of partnerships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, said Roxane Krutsinger, a natural resources specialist at the Corps district office in St. Louis.
“Eagle season is one of our busiest seasons, and we weren’t able to direct people to the easier places to view them because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was closed,” she said.
The museum’s popular Masters of the Sky eagle program will proceed as planned on Feb. 16-17 at Great Rivers.
The Melvin Price Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in East St. Louis didn’t close during the shutdown. They house the U.S. District Court, U.S. Bankruptcy Court and offices for the Social Security Administration, Marshalls Service, Probation and Public Defenders.
“We were operating business as usual,” said James Hill, who manages the buildings for the General Services Administration.
Departures and arrivals continued at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah as well during the shutdown. Its furloughed Transportation Security Administration officers worked without pay.
“My understanding is, we didn’t have any problem with callouts, and we didn’t have any staffing issues (at MidAmerica),” said spokesman Thomas Kelly, based at TSA headquarters in Virginia. “All the flights went out on time, and everything went smoothly.”
Internal Revenue Service employees returned to work Monday, but people who called the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center in Fairview Heights were still getting a voicemail message saying the office was closed due to the “current budget situation.”
“Taxpayer assistance centers operate by appointment,” said Cecilia Barreda, an IRS spokesman based in Washington, D.C. “So it is recommended that you set up an appointment in advance if you need to go into the office.”