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Know the West

Up in smoke

Obama administration will inherit a beleaguered Forest Service


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."

Aside from morale, the incoming administration will face another major workforce challenge: Planning for the "gray wave" of retiring federal employees.

In 2006, the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility analyzed age trends within the "green agencies" –– the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, EPA and BLM. They found that between one-third and one-half of all specialist employees — some 30,000 scientists, rangers, inspectors and enforcement attorneys — will become eligible for retirement by 2011. According to the Forest Service, 6,410 employees have retired just since 2004.

That means a lot of institutional memory and expertise will be vanishing toward the end of Barack Obama's first term, says Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director.

Of course, there is hope among many federal employees that life might be different under a new administration, but the Bush years struck a serious blow to federal service in the United States. "Right now, if we were going to do those kind of wartime metaphors," says Ruch, "this is like Warsaw at the end of WWII, where there are hard-bitten survivors, but there are a lot fewer now than there were at the beginning."