The once mighty U.S. Forest Service has fallen on hard times in recent decades, ever since the downturn in the timber industry, from which much of its budget and clout derived, and it has been hit by accusations of shoddy science under the Bush administration. The latest chastening arrived this week: According to an agency memo released by the whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Forest Service is quietly shelving an ambitious plan to restructure its operations, conceived as part of Bush administration efforts to outsource government functions to the private sector.
The restructuring, which would have affected one in four FS jobs, including a large number in the Pacific Northwest, would have shifted the staff who work on National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance — including scientists — from the local forests to one of six "eco-based Service Centers." Many of those employees also have firefighting responsibilities, so PEER argued that the plan would have shrunk firefighting capacity in the agency. The study for the plan predicted major job cuts, and centralization would have helped large private corporations bid to take over agency functions.
The Forest Service has in recent years lost a number of lawsuits that claimed its scientific work in compliance with NEPA was inadequate. The feasibility study for the shelved plan to restructure NEPA staffing noted that "the vast majority of Forest Service projects require familiarity with conditions on the ground where the activities take place." PEER warned that shifting employees away from forests could weaken on-the-ground scientific capacities and make the agency more vulnerable to lawsuits.
Since there was little public knowledge of the plan, it's likely its shelving came as a result of legislator opposition. Under the current federal budget, Congress banned further outsourcing by the Forest Service, and the Government Accountability Office last week issued a scathing report on outsourcing by the Forest Service. The most recent Forest Service budget proposal from the Bush administration, which would slash the agency's budget and cut more than 2,700 jobs, was panned by Democratic lawmakers. Washington's U.S. Representative Norm Dicks, chairman of the House Appropriations Interior subcommittee, quoted in the Missoulian, called the proposal "an unmitigated disaster" that "would cause real harm to our 193-million-acre national forest system." Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell called the budget "challenging." Although the budget would exempt firefighting from the cuts, fire prevention efforts would face major cuts. Stay tuned for how the budget process turns out and whether Congress maintains the ban on Forest Service outsourcing.