Help is on the way for the nation’s forest workers

by Erin Halcomb



Working in the woods: It’s never been easy or steady. Ethical contractors say they can’t compete because the Forest Service awards contracts to the lowest bidder. And as the low bidders race to the bottom with offers below the true cost of the work, they’re leaving behind a trail of injured workers, labor violations, and poor quality results – and sparking Senate hearings.

The hearings on forest-worker abuse – inspired by the 2005 “Pineros” series in the Sacramento Bee, which exposed rampant mistreatment of immigrant forest workers – catalyzed conversations between advocates and agency personnel about systemic problems within the Forest Service.

In response, at a recent public forum in Eugene, Ore., on forest working conditions, Forest Service officials announced they are revamping the business model that guides how the agency funds and organizes restoration projects. Officials say the new model will measure the quality of results rather than just the quantity. It will also improve conditions for workers who perform arduous tasks, such as thinning and planting trees, by allowing them to work closer to home for longer periods of time.

For the nation’s forest workers, things couldn’t get much worse: In 2003, more than 85 percent of Oregon’s forestry workers earned less than the federal poverty level for a family of four. Cassandra Moseley, director of the Ecosystem Workforce Program at the University of Oregon, says, “We can look back... over the past three decades, and we can see abuses including cheating workers out of their wages, unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, poor training, and disrespectful and degrading treatment.”

The new business model addresses some of those problems by encouraging national forests to create projects tailored to the local workforce that extend for several years. Currently, many contracts last only three or four months, forcing workers to either find other jobs or follow the work from forest to forest.

Proponents hope the stability provided by longer contracts will motivate rural entrepreneurs to invest in businesses, and businesses to invest in their workers. “You want people who live and work in an area to be involved in stewardship. Local knowledge is real,” says Lynn Jungwirth, executive director of the Watershed Research and Training Center in Hayfork, Calif.

The new model will also improve workers’ skill levels, says Jungwirth. Instead of separate contracts for, say, fuels treatment and fish-habitat restoration, the new model would combine forestwide projects into one contract, allowing workers to hone a wider set of skills. Ron Hooper, the Forest Service’s director of acquisition, believes a better-trained workforce will save money by being more efficient, and that the changes to planning and packaging contracts will enable more of the agency’s dwindling dollars to reach the ground.

Three national forests will pioneer the new model: the Shasta Trinity in Northern California, the Colville in Washington, and the Allegheny in Pennsylvania. This summer, agency personnel and community stakeholders in these forests will begin drafting projects and assessing local capacity. Field work should commence in 2008.

These restructuring efforts reveal that the Forest Service has been listening to community-based forestry leaders like Moseley. “In a world where economic, ecological, and social well-being are connected,” Moseley says, “forest-worker issues are forest-health issues.” © High Country News