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From the Schoolhouse to the Factory Floor, Girding for Cuts

Olympic National Park, Washington.
Image Source | Getty Images
Olympic National Park, Washington.

The owner of a Missouri smokehouse that makes beef jerky is worried about a slowdown in food safety inspections. A Montana school district is drawing up a list of teachers who could face layoffs. Officials at an Arizona border station fear that lines to cross the border could lengthen. And if Olympic National Park in Washington cannot hire enough workers to plow backcountry trails, they may stay closed until the snow melts in July.

With some $85 billion in spending cuts — known as sequestration — set to begin at the end of the week, officials in Washington were blaming one another. In the rest of the country, local officials, business owners and people who rely on government services were trying to fathom what it would mean for them.

By Michael Cooper

THE MILITARY

GROUNDED

At Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, the first casualty of the federal government's spending cuts might seem frivolous: its biennial air show.

But it is a vastly popular spectacle that doubles as an open house for the base, which is about 15 miles west of the center of Phoenix. Some 250,000 people watched it in 2011, gawking from inside and outside the base as fighter jets made impossible maneuvers in the sky. The show was scheduled for mid-March.

"I cannot in good conscience spend some of our limited resources to host an open house while the Defense Department considers potential civilian furloughs," Brig. Gen. Michael Rothstein, the commander of the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke, said in announcing the show's cancellation.

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The cuts have already led to the postponement of repairs to nonmission equipment and of flying that is not specific to pilot training.

The base employs approximately 1,200 civilian workers; 850 of them could be forced to take 22 days of unpaid leave over the next six months, reducing the payroll by up to 20 percent, officials said. Another option is to reduce the number of flying-training hours, at a base that is one of the nation's prime training grounds for F-16 Fighting Falcon jet pilots.

Luke is one of seven military bases in Arizona, which also has a robust private defense industry. (Raytheon, which builds mission systems in Tucson, and Honeywell, which makes military turbines, are among the state's largest employers.)

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At a constituents' meeting last week, Senator John McCain said the cuts could significantly undermine military programs.

"We're facing a situation where our national security is at risk," Mr. McCain said, adding that furloughs could affect as many as 49,000 military and defense jobs in Arizona.

Fernanda Santos

RESEARCH

BELT-TIGHTENING IN THE LABS

The University of Washington, one of the nation's research giants, gets about $1 billion a year in research money from the federal government, mostly from the National Institutes of Health. And although the spending cuts do not start until Friday, some of that money is already drying up.

"Starting in the fall, because of the budget situation and the uncertainty, N.I.H. has been giving out only 90 percent of each annual award," said Mary Lidstrom, the university's vice provost for research.

Dr. Lidstrom estimates that the cuts will cost the university $75 million to $100 million, taking a toll on researchers who will lose part of their multiyear grants and on those whose grant proposals will now remain unfinanced.

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"Since we don't know what's going to happen, everybody's been very conservative in hiring post-docs," she said. "And what's starting to happen is that people hired as technicians are being given notice."

She added: "It translates to lost jobs and lost opportunities. What I'm most worried about is that it will discourage a whole generation of young people from going into research."

Dr. Lidstrom, who holds an endowed chair and has financing for research on engineering bacteria for biofuels, said that by moving some endowment money into salaries, she had been able to protect the most vulnerable people in her laboratory, six undergraduates in a training program.

Although the university has an internal bridge program to help researchers through a temporary loss in financing, it is far too small to offset the cuts.

"We usually help about 20 people a year, but nearly 1,000 are going to be affected," Dr. Lidstrom said. "The next deadline to apply is May 1. We're bracing ourselves."

Tamar Lewin

CUSTOMS

LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE AT THE MEXICAN BORDER

Guadalupe Ramirez, the director for Customs and Border Protection of the bustling border station at Nogales, Ariz., keeps his operation humming. In the lanes for travelers coming from Mexico — including returning Americans and also many Mexicans who come to Arizona to shop — the waiting time in line is down to 30 minutes.

Inspectors under Mr. Ramirez's command are trained to spot a show of nerves, or an unusual lump under clothing that might be a drug package, or an identity document that does not quite match the appearance of the person presenting it.

Last month, through a combination of intuition and surveillance technology, Nogales inspectors caught the largest marijuana shipment ever detected coming in to Arizona — more than 14,000 pounds packed into a truck.

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With the federal spending cuts, waiting times at Nogales could grow to as long as five hours during the day, "functionally closing those ports during core hours," said Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary.

Thousands of inspectors who examine incoming tourists and commercial trucks will face furloughs, slowing trade and making it less likely that an inspector will have the 20 seconds Mr. Ramirez says it takes to spot trouble among the vast flow of people and traffic each day.

Julia Preston

AGRICULTURE DEPARTMENT

FEWER MEAT INSPECTORS, LESS BEEF JERKY

For more than three decades, Western's Smokehouse, a family-run meat processing operation in rural northeastern Missouri, has specialized in the art of jerky. Its varieties include smoked Mandarin teriyaki beef, smoked pepper beef and smoked original beef.

But now, there is concern at the plant.

The automatic federal spending cuts have raised the possibility that the United States Department of Agriculture will have to furlough some of its meat inspectors. Many plants like Western's are not allowed to operate without inspectors present.

"I'm nervous about it," said Kevin Western, the owner of the company, which is based in Greentop, Mo., and was started by his father, Sam, in 1978. "The livelihood of our business depends on meat inspection."

Mr. Western said he recently spoke with one of his plant's inspectors about the possibility that some of them would be furloughed or would have to take on more responsibility. There are about a half-dozen meat processing plants in his area, Mr. Western said, and inspectors may be forced to oversee multiple facilities.

Western's has a day shift and a night shift, Mr. Western said, and one federal inspector present during each shift. Without inspectors, the plant would have to halt operations, he said, and he would probably have to send home about 85 percent of his 30-person work force.

"Really, what can you do?" Mr. Western asked. "I've heard this for the last six, eight months. Now they're saying it's really serious. I don't really know what to do to brace for it."

John Eligon

NATIONAL PARKS

'WE'LL CUT WHATEVER WE CAN'

Olympic National Park, a wild patch of mile-high mountains that dominates peninsular Washington west of Seattle, accommodates three million visitors each year on a $12.8 million shoestring. Up to 90 percent of expenses are largely fixed — permanent employees, insurance, utilities and such — that cannot be cut without affecting basic operations.

"There isn't a lot of wiggle room here," Sarah Creachbaum, the park superintendent since November, said in an interview.

So any federal spending cuts that affect Olympic will, as at other parks, fall on what can be curtailed: services to the public.

Precise cuts are still under discussion, Ms. Creachbaum said. But they will probably include not filling 14 full-time vacancies and 14 of 125 seasonal jobs, like the park's safety and maintenance officers. "They clean restrooms, mow lawns," Ms. Creachbaum said. "They pick up trash, they give interpretive programs, hand out maps."

Just the loss of four interpretive rangers who work at visitor centers would reduce park programs for about 35,000 visitors, she said.

Parts of the park will probably open late, like Deer Park Road, an 18-mile asphalt-then-gravel ribbon that is a popular route to the backcountry. Usually plowed clear in late May, the road probably will be closed until snowmelt opens it in mid-July.

Olympic is the sixth most visited of the National Park Service's 398 parks. Cuts can be made, Ms. Creachbaum said, but no more easily than most households with flat incomes can tighten belts by 5 percent. "We'll do what we can do, like all families," she said. "For the rest of the year, we'll cut whatever we can."

Michael Wines

THE DEFENSE INDUSTRY

TRICKLE-DOWN PROGRAM CUTS

BAE Systems, a global defense and aerospace company, employs 40,000 people in the United States, about 4,600 of them in New Hampshire; BAE is the biggest manufacturer in the state.

The company estimates that spending cuts demanded by Washington could result in the loss of more than 10 percent of its work force, or more than 4,000 employees. It could mean drastic reductions in contracts and in research and development programs. Any cuts would probably trickle down to the 400 contractors in New Hampshire who supply the company with components and parts.

At this point, there is no way to know who might be furloughed or what contracts might be curtailed, said Kristin Gossel, a spokeswoman for BAE. But, she said, the indiscriminate nature of the cuts would be "devastating" to the defense industry.

The company's scheduled ship maintenance contracts with the Navy could be delayed or canceled; its vehicle and depot maintenance programs for the Army could be stalled; and many major weapons programs could be delayed.

Another possible cut: a $20 million Aircrew Protection Center in Merrimack, N.H., where it tests and evaluates Infrared Countermeasure systems. These small black boxes, about the size of a toaster, are topped with lasers and placed on helicopters and other aircraft. When a heat-seeking enemy missile is fired at the aircraft, the laser is used to divert it, protecting those onboard. The center allows rigorous testing under demanding conditions that simulate the warlike environment.

Katherine Q. Seelye

SCHOOLS

TEACHER LAYOFFS

Dale Lambert, the director of student services for the Great Falls Public Schools in Montana, is trying to solve a complex math problem these days: how to limit the number of teachers he would have to lay off under the automatic federal spending cuts.

The district of just over 10,000 students is vulnerable to impending reductions in a number of federal programs that help support public schools. It is eligible for money for low-income students and those in special-education classes, as well as for money that supports students on Native American reservations and the children of active-duty personnel and civilian workers at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Mr. Lambert and Cheryl K. Crawley, the superintendent, are braced to present a list of planned layoffs to the school board next month. Twenty teachers could be at risk.

Mr. Lambert said he feared that he would have to raise student-teacher ratios in classes for students with cognitive delays or autism. "The budget is that narrow and that tight," he said.

The challenges reflect others across the country as schools prepare for what could be $2 billion in federal cuts. The Department of Education estimates that more than 10,000 jobs could be affected. That would come on top of the approximately 290,000 local education jobs lost during the recession and its aftermath.

The Great Falls district could take a disproportionately severe hit because of the number of students whose parents work at the Air Force base. Mr. Lambert calculates that job losses at the base would affect about 1,260 students in the district. If half of those families moved out to find jobs elsewhere, the district could be forced to cut about 60 more teaching jobs.

Motoko Rich