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National forests brace for deep cuts

The Colville National Forest expects to cut nearly a third of its 147 full-time employees by 2007 in response to growing national budget deficits and large scale changes within the U.S. Forest Service, according to internal documents from the agency.

The job cuts, which were confirmed Tuesday by Colville National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell, will result in an estimated $2 million loss of wages to northeast Washington’s already anemic economy.

Brazell broke the bad news to his staff last week. District rangers and staff officers have another month to develop proposals for specific cuts.

“This is just getting our employees braced for what’s coming,” Brazell said.

The Idaho Panhandle National Forests is also facing a continual decline in its budget, but the Coeur d’Alene-based national forest expects to see a net job loss of only about 10 employees from its current size of roughly 400, said Craig Bobzien, deputy forest supervisor. Most of the jobs are in accounting and information technology and are being shifted to a new centralized office in Albuquerque.

In the face of steadily declining budgets and a long-term reduction in timber sales, both the Idaho Panhandle and the Colville national forests are now scrambling to reduce overhead costs – ranging from salaries to the size of vehicle fleets to the number of campgrounds and outhouses. Declining budgets are expected through at least 2009.

“We try to stay ahead of that wave,” Bobzien said. “Right now we’re looking at a decline of 8 to 10 percent over the next couple of years in real dollars.”

The biggest cuts will be in areas such as road maintenance, facilities upkeep and recreation programs, Brazell said. Campgrounds in northeast Washington could even be closed unless groups or volunteers are willing to partner with the agency to maintain the facilities, he said.

“There’s some things that just may not be as good as they were in the past,” Brazell said.

The cuts are even hitting the agency’s firefighting programs. Both national forests expect to maintain a stable number of firefighters and equipment for at least the next two fire seasons, but the budget cuts will eventually reduce all the work performed by the agency, Brazell said.

Leaders of the Colville National Forest knew in 2003 that 19 positions would eventually need to be eliminated, Brazell said. The cuts were called for to help equalize funding between different regions of the Forest Service.

But with many Forest Service employees nearing retirement – about half of all agency employees in Washington and Oregon are within five years of retirement – officials had hoped for a gentle, voluntary reduction. The jump to 47 job cuts comes largely from the bleak national budget picture, where campgrounds and backwoods road maintenance must be given less priority than fighting wars and homeland security, Brazell said.

“You have all these things coming together at the same time,” he said.

The Forest Service is one of the larger employers in northeast Washington and the proposed cuts to the Colville National Forest will hit the region hard, said Colville Mayor Richard Nichols. About a third of all paychecks in Stevens County are signed by the government. In Ferry County, about 57 percent of all jobs are government.

The cuts “would have a significant impact,” Nichols said, adding that the loss of agency employees would be felt by more than just businesses. “The employees are involved in the community like anybody else.”

In many rural areas across the Inland Northwest, employees of the Forest Service offer an invaluable set of skills for civic projects, said Jim Burchfield, a professor at the University of Montana’s College of Forestry and Conservation. Few other jobs in these areas employ people who regularly have graduate degrees in science, management or engineering.

Burchfield conducted surveys in the mid-1990s of 276 communities across the West where Forest Service employees had been cut. Respondents often complained about how the agency managed national forests, “But they always seemed to really like the people who were on their ranger districts,” said Burchfield, who once worked for the agency.

A handful of the positions have already been cut in both the Panhandle and Colville national forests. The positions are part of the estimated 400 administrative jobs agency-wide being transferred to Albuquerque, said Rex Holloway, spokesman for the Forest Service’s regional office in Portland. Simply centralizing the agency’s human resources functions in Albuquerque is expected to save $20 million annually. By paring down administrative overhead, the Forest Service hopes to save more money for its core mission of providing recreational opportunities and restoring forests, Holloway said.

“The federal deficit is huge. We’re fighting wars,” Holloway said. “There’s not as much discretionary spending as what there was.”


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