Overflowing trash cans and vandalism in national parks managed by the Interior Department have become a symbol of the ongoing partial government shutdown. The agency has announced it is taking what it calls the "extraordinary step" of using money from entrance fees to pay for cleanup.
But, despite the shutdown, the Trump administration is continuing work on one of Interior's biggest, most controversial priorities: opening up more Arctic lands in Alaska to oil drilling.
The Bureau of Land Management, an agency under the Interior, has gone ahead with a series of public meetings on its effort to expand oil development in the 22-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
E-mails obtained by Alaska Public Media show that on January 3 — two weeks into the shutdown — a BLM employee was contacting Alaska community leaders to schedule meetings related to oil lease sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Congress legalized drilling in the refuge just over one year ago, after decades of opposition from conservation groups.
When contacted last week by Alaska Public Media, the employee's email account sent an automatic reply: "Due to the lapse in funding of the federal government budget, I am out of the office. I am not authorized to work during this time, but will respond to your email when I return to the office."
Following public outcry and a letter from a Democratic congressman after Alaska Public Media's report, the Bureau of Land Management this week announced it is postponing the Arctic Refuge-related meetings.
The letter came from the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, a Democrat who strongly opposes to oil development in the Refuge.
"The work for gas and oil continues, despite the shutdown, despite fact that people are not being paid, despite the fact that our parks are suffering," Grijalva said in an interview.
In his letter, Grijalva wrote that he thinks holding meetings to advance oil development with limited public communication during the shutdown raises transparency issues.
Moreover, Grijalva is demanding more details on how Interior is paying for the work. He thinks the agency may be violating a federal law that limits government spending before Congress appropriates funding.
Others are asking the same question.
"The administration seems to be in a grey area, legally," said Matt Lee-Ashley, who served as deputy chief of staff at Interior under the Obama administration and is now with the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "At least in the past administration, the lawyers in the Department of Interior were crystal-clear that civil servants weren't to be doing activities where there was no clear appropriation from Congress, and made clear there were criminal penalties associated with that."
Interior officials declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a letter responding to Grijalva sent Thursday, Brian Steed, Interior's deputy director for policy and programs, wrote that the agency consulted with its solicitor's office and determined the work was legal using money from a previous fiscal year, "as long as a limited number of staff were involved."
"The planning process for both of these efforts are critical to the state of Alaska and the nation," Steed wrote.
Grijalva's colleagues in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee say they support Interior's actions. That committee is chaired by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who championed the legislation that opened a part of the Arctic Refuge for oil development known as the 1002 Area.
"One of Interior's essential missions is producing energy for the good of the country," a spokeswoman for the committee said in a statement. "What they're doing to advance development in the NPR-A and 1002 Area is fully legal, a top priority, and we strongly support it."
But Interior's continuation with the public planning process to advance oil development in Alaska during the shutdown has led to confusion.
Suzanne Little, an officer with the Pew Charitable Trusts who serves on an advisory council for the Bureau of Land Management, had been planning to fly to two Arctic communities last week to attend the scheduled public meetings about the National Petroleum Reserve. But with the shutdown, she wasn't sure if the meetings were still happening. After repeatedly trying to reach her contact at the agency, she cancelled her plane tickets.
Hours later, Interior sent an email saying they were going forward, after all.
Little was able to reschedule her flight and made the meetings. But, she said, "it was very frustrating that there was nobody to answer phones in the office, yet the meetings were going to continue."