A leaner, more environmentally conscious Forest Service is about to be born, says Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas. In an 11-page memo sent to agency employees Dec. 6, Thomas unveiled a plan for "reinventing" the agency over the next two years.


Regional offices would shrink from nine to seven and the agency's 32,000-person workforce would drop by some 4,000.


Gone would be the Northern Region office in Missoula, Mont., which covers Montana and northern Idaho. Montana would be merged with the Rocky Mountain Regional office into a new, Northern Plains Region, based in Denver. Idaho would fall under the aegis of the Intermountain Region, which would also include eastern Oregon and eastern Washington.


Covering everything from flexible work hours to budget reform, the plan has elicited a variety of responses. Montana's congressional delegation said the Forest Service has failed to justify closing the Missoula regional office, while the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies described the consolidation as an attempt to shift lawsuits by environmentalists to the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver, away from the more liberal 9th Circuit in San Francisco.


But both environmentalists and industry found some aspects to applaud. "Quite frankly, any change within the Forest Service's bureacratic structure is welcome," Ken Kohli, spokesman for the Intermountain Forest Industry Association, told AP. The Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics applauded the plan's call for new performance standards based on sustainable ecosystems rather than commodity production goals, but noted that the proposal lacks details.


For a copy of the Reinvention plan, which will be submitted to Congress for approval in January, call the U.S. Forest Service at 202/205-1781 or contact a local Forest Service office.


* Paul Larmer