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Shutdown closes BIA office in Bemidji, FBI office, post office unaffected

BEMIDJI — The shutdown drama in Washington took a local edge Tuesday as the Minnesota Agency of the Bureau of Indian affairs closed indefinitely.

The Bemidji office serves as the headquarters for BIA operations in the state. All non-essential staff at the office whose employment is funded by congressional appropriations have been furloughed, although the agency could not say how many workers were furloughed specifically.

The BIA as a whole was rocked by the shutdown as a national contingency plan called for 2,528 people to be furloughed; over half the agency’s staff. The BIA’s website was also down Tuesday afternoon.

Across Minnesota, the impact of the federal shutdown was spotty Tuesday, but most expected more problems if the situation is extended.

In Bemidji, as with the rest of the county, federal programs Americans use most often remain open. They get mail, weather forecasts will not change and food inspections continue.

Most federal payments to Americans will continue, those such as food stamps, veterans’ medical services, Medicare, Medical Assistance, Social Security and women, infants and children grants. On the other hand, many of the offices where people sign up for federal aid will be closed, so it will be hard or impossible to sign up for aid or get answers.

Just a few floors down from the BIA’s Minnesota Agency, the Bemidji Area Office of the Indian Health Service remained open Tuesday although some employees were furloughed. As with the BIA, officials there could not disclose specifically how many workers were told to stay home.

The local office operates three health care facilities that serve the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and the White Earth Band of Chippewa. These continued to run Tuesday with no furloughs of medical staff or suspension of services. However, IHS’ contingency plan said the agency would be unable to continue funding health programs. Normally, the Bemidji office provides funding for 34 federally recognized tribes and four Urban Indian health programs across five states.

Some Indian Health Service employees worked at half pay, said White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor. Even though they will receive back pay for their lost wages once the shutdown ends, it could take up to six weeks to process.

"Approximately 57 percent of our overall budget at White Earth is federal funds," Vizenor said. "So if this shutdown continues beyond a week, we are going to feel it.

"The impact is that we really have no one to call for any kind of information, technical assistance or to follow up on the various projects we have going," Vizenor added.

The FBI has a regional office or "residential agency" in Bemidji that serves the northwest part of the state. Kyle Loven, spokesperson for the Minneapolis FBI office, said the Bemidji office would operate as normal with no employees furloughed.

Bemidji Postmaster John Johnson said the post office’s operations would not be directly impacted by the shutdown as the USPS does not receive federal appropriations.

Scotty Allison, Beltrami County veteran’s service officer, said veterans’ benefit checks would continue to arrive for the month of October since the benefit system was funded one month past the normal fiscal year; but beyond that, it was uncertain if they would keep coming.

Outdoors impact

Only small changes are being seen at another big state agency, the Department of Natural Resources.

But DNR workers are getting plenty of questions about state parks, the department’s Chris Niskanen said. The reply? "Absolutely they are open."

Federal recreation facilities, such as national parks, are closed and reservations are not being accepted.

In Minnesota, the major recreation facilities closed are Pipestone National Monument, Voyageurs National Park, Grand Portage National Monument, Mississippi National Recreational River and St. Croix National Scenic River. National wildlife refuges and other federal government lands also are closed.

"If they are not sure if something is a state park or not, they can go to," Niskanen said.

An Oct. 19-20 youth deer hunt at Rydell National Wildlife Refuge near Erskine in northwest Minnesota may need to be canceled if the shutdown lasts long enough.

Don Davis of Forum Communictions Co. contributed to this report.

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