Note: A sidebar article accompanied this story under the headline Outside the agency, it's a cold, cruel world.

MISSOULA, Mont. - Rose Leach grows wary when she reads that the Forest Service is considering turning over more than 3,000 jobs to private contractors next year. Leach once worked as a wildlife biologist for the state of Montana. In 2001, she refused to sign off on a proposal to log dead timber on a burned hillside. She thought state foresters were too stingy when it came to leaving snags, standing dead trees that are essential to black-backed woodpeckers and other wildlife.

"They took me off that assignment and hired a contract biologist for $50 an hour, who rubber-stamped their plans," says Leach, who eventually left the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to work for western Montana's Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. "I know many ethical contractors, but you can shop around for one to tell you what you want to hear."

The Forest Service study is part of President Bush's push to identify as many as 425,000 federal jobs - nearly one-quarter of the government's civilian work force - that he believes could be performed by the private sector. Bush has ordered agencies to open at least 15 percent of those jobs to competition by October 2003.

The focus now is on "commercial" positions, those in which a worker produces a product or provides a service. Workers who set policies and budgets, or perform other duties that are "inherently governmental," are immune from the process - for the time being.

50,000 + jobs on the line

The Forest Service, which employs close to 40,000 people, has classified 20,229 jobs as "commercial inventory" and eligible for what agency officials call "competitive sourcing." The jobs up for study include approximately 1,700 positions in building, ground, road and vehicle maintenance; 500 jobs in information technology infrastructure; 150 computer support positions; and the entire 65-member Content Analysis Team, which compiles and analyzes public comments on agency projects and environmental impact statements.

That's only the start. An internal agency memo notes that "competitive sourcing is a process that will be used to study virtually all activities (over time) in the Forest Service." Other land-management agencies are also identifying positions to privatize. The Bureau of Land Management, which employs about 10,000 workers, has identified 2,500 full-time positions and is currently studying half of them - including all jobs dealing with building maintenance - according to spokeswoman Celia Boddington.

The National Park Service is looking at about 10 percent of its 20,000 slots. The agency is focusing on maintenance, human resources, archaeology and engineering positions based at the Denver Service Center, which oversees the agency's environmental impact studies. Park rangers are not on the chopping block.

Also under review is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' civil works program, which oversees hundreds of flood-control and river navigation projects across the country. Privatization programs could affect up to 32,500 military and civilian Corps employees.

An inroad for industry

Biologist Leach isn't the only one worried that the health and management of public lands may be taken out of the hands of career specialists.

"We could see situations where certain environmental laws won't be enforced, or just ignored by contractors," says Bill Kilroy, an official with the National Federation of Federal Employees, who works at the Forest Service's Missoula Technology and Development Center. "The administration doesn't want anyone overseeing the timber industry or environmental policies. They view current Forest Service employees as a hindrance to what they want to do."

Others call such concerns much ado about nothing. The land-management agencies already dish out a load of money to private entrepreneurs. The BLM contracts out $1 billion of work each year. The Park Service employs about 40,000 private contractors who work for park concessionaires, manning cash registers, cleaning rooms, and leading float and pack trips. The Forest Service also contracts out for many jobs, such as thinning forests and clearing brush from roadsides.

Profit-motivated contractors are likely to be more savvy about costs and savings, says Terry Anderson, executive director of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Mont. "It's a way to save money and make government more efficient," he says.

But many within the agencies remain skeptical. "You spend 50 percent of a contract educating the contractor," says one official, who asked not to be named, "then he does an unsatisfactory job and vanishes like a puff of smoke."

 

The author writes from Missoula, Montana.

You can contact ...

  • The National Federation of Federal Employees, 1016 16th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, 202/862-4400;
  • The Political Economy Research Center, 502 S. 19th Ave., Suite 211, Bozeman, MT 59718, 406/587-9591.