USDA: Wildland Firefighters Exempt from Federal Hiring Freeze

Forest Service allowed to move forward with hiring seasonal wildland firefighting resources

By Dillon Tabish
Flathead Hotshots work the Bierney Creek Fire near Lakeside on Aug. 24, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The Trump administration is allowing the U.S. Forest Service to hire seasonal wildland firefighters by exempting the resources from the president’s federal hiring freeze.

Michael Young, the acting deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, informed several agencies of specific exemptions to President Donald Trump’s Jan. 23 executive order that implemented a broad hiring freeze prohibiting federal agencies from filling vacancies or hiring civilian employees for seasonal jobs.

Young signed the directive Feb. 2 and agencies received it Feb. 3.

According to a statement from an agency spokesperson, “USDA Acting Deputy Secretary, Michael Young, has exempted several critical public safety related positions from the Presidential Executive Order Hiring Freeze to ensure a safe food supply, fire-safe communities, safe and secure public lands, and rapid emergency response to natural and human-caused disasters. USDA and its sub-Agencies will implement these exemptions only as needed and consistent with the intent of the President’s direction.”

The exemption specifically allows the Forest Service to move forward with hiring wildland firefighting resources, such as individual firefighters and specialists. Other positions that were exempt in the USDA decision include law enforcement and disaster preparedness-related personnel in multiple agencies, food inspectors and medical officers in the Food Safety and Inspection Service and cyber security personnel in multiple agencies.

Click here to view the full list of exempt positions in the USDA.

Flathead National Forest, in 2015, had 49 seasonal firefighters, including 18 members of the Flathead Hotshots. There were an additional 104 non-firefighter positions at the various local ranger districts. These positions included trail crewmembers, recreation and timber assistants, and other field staff, and those positions are not currently exempt from the hiring freeze.

The president’s memorandum originally exempted “military personnel” and other positions necessary for public safety and national security. On Jan. 27, the Department of Veterans Affairs said it was also exempt from the freeze.

The hiring freeze has cast a noticeable cloud of uncertainty over Montana, a state with a large segment of federal employees, particularly in the busy summer seasons.

There were 13,024 federal employees on average in Montana in 2015, earning total wages worth $852 million, according to the most recent state labor data.

Flathead County has one of the largest segments of federal employees in the state, with personnel working in the Forest Service, National Park Service and other agencies. In 2015, there were 579 federal employees in the county in the first quarter and it jumped to 902 in the third quarter with the addition of seasonal staff coming onboard during the summer months.

In Lincoln County in the third quarter of 2015, when seasonal positions are filled, there were 526 federal employees.

It is unclear how long the hiring freeze could extend, though Trump in his original memo directed the Office of Management and Budget to craft a long-term plan within 90 days to reduce the size of the federal government’s workforce through attrition. The hiring freeze would expire upon implementation of the plan, the memo stated.

The National Park Service has been consulting with the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget seeking guidance for implementing the hiring freeze.

When the freeze took effect, the National Park Service had 1,731 vacant positions. In the coming months, the NPS would typically hire roughly 8,000 seasonal employees to support the peak summer visitation season.

Glacier National Park, which spans Flathead and Glacier counties, hired approximately 350 seasonal employees in fiscal year 2016, with the lion’s share hired between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Currently, the park is advertising for two temporary seasonal positions — a carpenter and an emergency dispatcher.

The Beacon contacted a Department of the Interior spokesperson seeking comment on the latest guidelines for the National Park Service and other agencies within the DOI during the hiring freeze. This story will be updated when more information becomes available.

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