As the government shutdown persists, environmental projects around the country have been slowed down. The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project (FWPP), which began in 2012 by the city of Flagstaff, is one of these projects. The project utilizes complex forest treatment methods that protect Flagstaff from future wildfires.

Though the FWPP continues to aid Flagstaff by means of wildfire monitoring and fire education, the government shutdown has hindered the project greatly. FWPP Field Operations Specialist Matt Millar mentioned other practices of the project.

“The government shutdown has had an impact on the project in several ways, including the lack of needed USFS personnel to help facilitate and implement the on-the-ground aspects of the project, as well as the logistical and planning aspects,” Millar said.

According to Millar, the United States Forest Service (USFS) has provided $7.2 million to the FWPP as of Dec. 31, 2018.

USFS personnel play a vital role in nearly every mechanical aspect of the FWPP, both in the forest and in the office. Wildland firefighters, strategists and online educators alike may be furloughed and unable to properly operate within the FWPP.

“The current phase of the FWPP project we are in is incredibly complex,” Millar said. “Without the needed support from the USFS, implementing FWPP is made more complicated.”

Jerolyn Byrne, the firewise specialist for the Coconino National Forest, says that the city of Flagstaff is a high target of wildfires due to its history of human settlement.

“Ponderosa pine forest is the predominant vegetation type within the greater Flagstaff area,” Byrne said. “Human settlement to the area included logging, cattle grazing and wildfire suppression. These activities greatly reduced the ability for fire to play its natural role.”

She continued, explaining the unique effects of human settlement of the forest and modern wildfire dangers Flagstaff citizens face today.

“Taking natural fire out of the equation, small trees were allowed to grow, which resulted in a much more closed canopy and the higher density forest that we see today,” Byrne said. “Our forests we see today are now much more prone to higher intensity wildfires where more trees and vegetation will spread across the landscape with severe effects.”

Byrne made a point to explain the importance of prescribed burns in the Flagstaff community including the Hardy Fire (2010) and the Slide Fire (2014). Both wildfires spread through previously thinned forest ground that USFS rangers and Flagstaff firefighters were able to safely contain. As stated by Byrne, prescribed burns help control unruly canopy coverage that, if left without maintenance, can actually increase wildfire danger.

“In lots of ways, canopy coverage is positively affected by prescribed fire,” Byrne said. “Low to moderate intensity prescribed fire helps raise the base of the canopy of trees. This reduces higher-intensity crown fires from occuring.”

Because the FWPP is such a large contributor to Flagstaff’s history and future of prescribed fires, the government shutdown may prove detrimental to future fires.

“The FWPP is utilizing every fire prevention technique out there to some degree; hand thinning, mechanical thinning, prescribed fire, pile burning, among others,” Byrne said.

Hand thinning, according to the FWPP official website, is a technique that removes the bottom brush of pine trees to reduce the “ladder fuels” that spread the fire from ground to canopy. Mechanical thinning, however, is the complete removal of trees in order to prevent the spread of rapid fire.

“Flagstaff citizens participate in thinning their properties,” Byrne said. “Wildfire prevention programs across all fire and land management agencies, including the FWPP, work together here locally to ensure that our citizens and visitors are informed of fire danger.”

The longest government shutdown in United States history undoubtedly lapses federal funding to city projects, postponing their effectiveness. With the FWPP, it’s ability to prevent future dangers has been slowed down.

“The longer the shutdown persists, the more the challenges compound and the challenges become more severe,” Millar said.

Progress will continue to be weighed down by the government shutdown, making it a serious public safety and environmental issue.