Now that the fires have temporarily relented to the efforts of the various fire services, we breathe a little easier. Literally so. And, we go about our lives thinking little about the next fire season or the one after that. Whether we were born here or moved here, we stay here because of the beautiful vistas our mountains and forests provide. We rely on our forests and our forests rely on the U.S. Forest Service. While we may not all agree on how many trees need to be harvested, we should all be able to agree the forest needs to be properly and professionally managed.
We have all heard on the news lately about our national infrastructure being in poor shape. Our Forest Service is a part of that infrastructure. For the last two decades the Forest Service has steadily had its budget and personnel cut. In the last 10 years alone the resources for the Forest Service have been cut by 30 percent, with the greatest of these cuts being in the last two years.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has for the last three years been trying to outsource many of the Forest Service positions. This policy referred to as A-76, named after an OMB circular, requires all agencies to put a high proportion of their positions out to bid against private contractors.
In 2005 the Forest Service centralized its Information Technology (IT) infrastructure, reducing the staff handling computer and communications work. The idea, of course, was to save money. In reality the costs to the Forest Service went from $32.2 million to $327 million. The higher costs were due to delays in getting computer breakdowns resolved and to personnel having to spend more time dealing with computer issues.
So where am I going with this? People who have served time in the military know the importance of the chain of command. The Forest Service also has a defined chain of command. This is especially important during fire season when crews are directed all over the nation to be part of an integrated response. The Forest Service, nationwide, operates on one set of policies and one operational manual. Coordination and continuity are built into the system. If we fracture that system only chaos can result. I’m reminded of FEMA after it was stripped of its budget and organizational structure. The result was the aftereffects of Katrina on New Orleans.
To see the effects of national policy on the local level, we can look at the Tally Lake Ranger District. In the last 10 years it has gone from 35 permanent positions and 80-100 seasonal employees to 23 permanent and 40-60 seasonal employees. That equates to a 33 percent cut. In the last seven years it has lost a recreation tech, a range tech, a silviculture tech (growing and tending to trees), a snow ranger (patrol and administration of ski areas), two foresters (degrees in forestry), and two administrative positions. It still has one timber crew, one planting crew, and one weed crew that covers the forest-wide program of work. Three personnel are members of national Incident Management teams and are often out of the district. So thinning projects and other work take much longer due to budget and personnel constraints and overall the forests are managed less. It’s possible to correlate the decline in forest maintenance to the increase in wildfire loss. We have money to spend on wildfire mitigation, but none to bring the Forest Service up to an operational level necessary to provide adequate management. When asked what the Forest Service needs besides a larger budget and more personnel, Tally Lake District Ranger Lisa Krueger said she would like to see a greater awareness of the Forest Service as it relates to our communities and the economy of the region.
In closing, I would like to thank the many dedicated individuals who endeavor to protect our forest heritage and our communities from wildfire. In my opinion they are overworked, underpaid, and short staffed. They work tirelessly to do a job despite the hardships imposed by a penny wise and pound foolish bureaucracy.
George Elam lives in Whitefish
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