Up in smoke

Obama administration will inherit a beleaguered Forest Service

  • Mike Keefe
 

When Dave Iverson first came to the U.S. Forest Service's regional office in Ogden, Utah, in 1980, he was drawn by a love for the outdoors and a desire to work in the nation's forests. But after spending almost three decades on planning and policy, he quit last year, just shy of retirement. Overwhelmed by paperwork, red tape and a dysfunctional bureaucracy, he simply couldn't take it any longer.

A feeling of futility, made worse by interference from George W. Bush's political appointees, has driven many employees to either bide their time or leave altogether, Iverson says. The agency is "pretty much demoralized and cowering in the shadows. There are almost no people in the higher office of the Forest Service that will stand up to the powers that be."

Beginning in 1990, Gregory Brown, program director of environmental studies at Central Washington University, conducted three surveys of Forest Service employees and their attitudes about their work. Workforce morale is currently at its lowest, Brown says. The culprits include workforce reductions — which further stress remaining employees, who now have to do multiple jobs — ambiguous operating procedures and the shift of cash away from management programs to firefighting work.

Whether the issue is energy development or roadless lands, the Bush administration has pressured federal employees, including those within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, NOAA Fisheries and Environmental Protection Agency, to bow to the needs of industry and even subvert environmental regulations — much to the detriment of morale. For the Forest Service, which was already struggling when Bush took office, the last eight years have been particularly hard.

Throughout the 20th century, the Forest Service's mission was to provide wood for a growing nation. But economic changes and environmental issues — think spotted owl — caused timber harvests to drop from 12 billion board-feet in the late 1980s to 3 billion today. Nothing replaced that mission, says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. Instead, by default, the agency became the "Fire Service," with about half its budget relegated to firefighting. And while expectations from industry, the public and collaborative partners have continued to increase under Bush, funding for everything from wilderness and recreation programs to law enforcement and wildlife has not.

This year, Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest was forced to cut programs for wildlife management and road engineering, among other things, while staff reductions — largely due to not replacing lost staff — have become common in many districts. Many forests, including those in New Mexico, Montana, Nevada and California, have seen funding yanked from fire-prevention programs, such as fuel-reduction and wildfire research. In August, even after the Forest Service had received $332 million in emergency supplemental funding, forest chief Abigail Kimbell pulled $400 million from a variety of non-fire-related activities. Research projects were halted, forest-planning projects discontinued and employee travel and training denied. Meanwhile, total employment numbers within the agency have fluctuated in recent years — from 35,902 in 2004 to 32,674 in 2007 to 37,586 in 2008 — but one number stands out: In 2004, only 2.9 percent of the agency's workforce was classified as temporary full-time. By 2008, that percentage had jumped to 15.4 percent.    

Forest Service employees were also whacked by two Bush administration initiatives: The competitive outsourcing initiative, which would have privatized about two-thirds of the agency's workforce, and the consolidation of personnel offices to Albuquerque, N.M.

The outsourcing initiative was cut short, but beginning three years ago, personnel employees from regional and field offices were faced with the decision to either relocate or leave their jobs. Rather than alleviate administrative tangles, the consolidation has spawned new complications: All employees must now deal with their own paperwork — related to travel, for example, or new hires — or else run it through the Albuquerque office, which Stahl says has become a "black hole" thanks in part to a poorly designed computer system. And while an estimated 800 employees work there, no one could answer HCN's questions about current employment and attrition numbers. Instead, the requests ended up being routed through Washington, D.C., and an office in Arkansas.

"Those are the types of day-to-day incompetencies of the Bush administration that were driven by ideology," says Stahl. "Neither (initiative) proved to be better or cheaper, and both were incredibly devastating to the workforce."

"Up in Smoke:" Beleaguered Forest Service
Linda Blum
Linda Blum
Dec 19, 2008 04:59 PM
I'm amazed at people's willingness to attribute agency actions to administrations, even when those actions span diametrically opposed administrations. The Forest Service's downsizing started early in the Clinton years, with Government Reinvention. While the Bushies may have outsourced with a particular vengeance or crassness, the practice was already widespread in the Clinton years.

This article does touch upon a real dilemma for the Forest Service: whatever it thinks its mission is, it does not have a reliable revenue stream related to that mission. And firefighting is eating the agency's lunch where other program funding is concerned: whenever the fire bell rings anywhere in the country anymore, half the people and all the money go out the doors of local Forest Service offices.

In my neck of the national forests in the northern Sierra Nevada, we discuss the Forest Service's dilemma quite a bit. Particularly in the water-developed western states, we think the water users who benefit from national forest watersheds should help provide the agency's funding to maintain those lands in good conditions, "for favorable conditions of flow," as the Organic Act states. We're hopeful that the Forest Service can be paid for its ecosystem services that benefit specific water users, and that such a funding stream could help support forest and watershed management.
Interesting idea
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Dec 22, 2008 07:26 PM
Ms. Blum, that is one USFS user fee I'd actually support!

Otherwise, you're right that this (and much other) environmental rot started with Clinton and St. AlGore. Jeff St. Clair has written voluminously on the subject.
USFS Morale History
Ed Javorka
Ed Javorka
Dec 22, 2008 08:17 PM
Yes, the agency is a disgrace compared to the hay-days of the past. I left in disgust in 1983 as Reagan castrated and politized the agency...he was the first and the worst.
Forest Plans were well underway when I left, but the guts of this optimistic effort were cut out for purely political reasons, to placate the timber industry and livestock permittees.
It has been downhill ever since. I have watched it, and it is so sad. I was once proud to be a Forest Service professional, but all I can do now is shake my head in disbelief.