Public servants may go the way of the dodo

  President Bush wants to privatize 425,000 federal jobs, one-quarter of the nation's positions that are product or service-oriented in nature. Workers who exercise discretion, set policies and budgets, or perform other duties that are "inherently governmental" are immune from the process, for the time being.


Does this sound good for private enterprise? Sure, for some aggressive entrepreneurs. Will it save taxpayers money? I doubt it. Could it undermine morale in government, undercut unions and add to the roll call of American workers without medical insurance? You bet it will.


Will it make our country more susceptible to terrorist attacks by allowing masses of contract and temporary workers access to government offices, computers and files? Quite possibly.


But for land-management agencies, especially the U.S. Forest Service, an even darker apparition looms on the horizon.


"The administration doesn't want anyone overseeing the timber industry or environmental policies," Bill Kilroy, a vice president with Local 60 of the National Federation of Federal Employees, explained to me. "They view current Forest Service employees as a hindrance to what they want to do."


This winter, the Forest Service is studying 3,035 jobs -- roughly 7 percent of its 40,000-strong workforce -- that could be taken over by private contractors. The agency has classified 20,229 jobs as "commercial inventory" and eligible for what agency officials refer to as "competitive sourcing."


The jobs now up for study include approximately 1,700 positions in building, ground, road and fleet maintenance; 500 jobs in information technology infrastructure, including IBM system operation, telecommunications and related software; 150 computer support positions; the entire 65-member Content Analysis Team; plus 620 temporary positions.


That's only the start. An internal agency memo designed to educate managers about the process noted 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 conducting the same competitive sourcing drill. The Bureau of Land Management, which employs about 10,000 workers, is studying about 1,250 positions, with another 1,250 positions to be studied later. The National Park Service is studying 10 percent of its 20,000 positions, including employees at the Denver Service Center -- which develops the service's environmental impact statements.


Another affected agency that has an impact on public and private lands is the Army Corps of Engineers. That outfit oversees hundreds of flood-control and river navigation projects across the country. Privatization programs could affect up to 32,500 military and civilian employees of the Corps of Engineers.


Some officials at the Forest Service say the future of the agency could be at stake. Liz Gupton, an engineering technician and president of Local 60 of the National Federation of Federal Employees, calls past privatization of public service jobs "disasters" -- particularly where the jobs provided oversight of health and environmental laws and resource extraction.


"You could see good logging practices going down the road pretty fast," she said.


Wildlife biologist Rose Leach knows firsthand how a government entity can manipulate the rules by contracting out work. In 2001, while a staff member of the Montana Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation, she refused to sign off on an environmental assessment to log dead timber on a burned hillside. She thought the foresters were too stingy when it came to leaving snags -- dead standing trees -- 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," said Leach. She eventually left her job with the state to work for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes on the Flathead Reservation. "I know many ethical contractors, but you can shop around for one to tell you what you want to hear," she said.


Is President Bush's plan to save money an ingenious scheme to circumvent environmental safeguards and turn the nation's public lands into industrial zones? It may not be the major thrust of the privatization movement, but it would be surprising if someone in the administration hadn't pointed out the extra benefits to the president.


Mark Matthews is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a freelance writer in Missoula, Montana.