Chop chop at the Forest Service 

Bush's privatization plans cut close to home

Last week U.S. Forest Service officials skipped Christmas and went straight to work on one of President George Bush’s New Year’s resolutions.

As part of a plan to privatize more of the federal government, the Bush administration wants all agencies to take a hard look at the work they do and designate seven percent of their jobs for outside contractors before the end of the next fiscal year in September 2003.

In Missoula, that means a five-person team from the Forest Service’s Region 1 scheduled a week of meetings to identify which jobs in the northern Rocky Mountains are “inherently governmental” and need to be kept in-house. The remainder, according to the Office of Management and Budget, which functions as financial advisor to the president, are “presumed to be commercial in nature.”

No one is sure yet how many jobs will be put out for bidding, says Sharon Sweeney, a spokeswoman for Region 1. But local policy makers already have a good idea which sorts of positions will be targeted first. Vehicle and building maintenance, for instance, are clearly not “inherently governmental,” says Sweeney.

Not surprisingly, the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union which represents Forest Service employees, isn’t excited about the plan. Doug Law, a Forest Service employee in Kalispell, is the regional delegate to the federation and he also happens to be a member of the Region 1 team that met last week. Law says union leaders have stepped up their opposition to Bush’s philosophy of smaller government since deadlines and quotas were imposed.

“We would like more time,” Law says. “Right now it’s being rammed through and what we really need to do is re-engineer the whole thing. [Bush’s] numbers don’t match what’s on the ground and the clock is ticking.”

In the long run, Law says a privatization plan won’t be good for the Forest Service because it will drain institu- tional knowledge from the agency and erode the familiarity local rangers have with the forests they manage. Law himself, for instance, is a 30-year veteran of the Forest Service, and he says mentoring plays an important role in the development of public servants. In addition, when entry level positions such as trail maintenance are eliminated, the agency will lose a valuable pool of potential career employees.

Nor will privatization be good for the environment. Law says chipping away at the integrity of the Forest Service workforce job by job contradicts the interdisciplinary nature of the agency, and ignores the fact that rangers and foresters, for example, work in tandem with computer scientists and road engineers. In addition, Law says the people he works with joined the Forest Service for non-commercial reasons and that makes them good stewards of the public resource.

“There’s not a lot of money to this, but there is a lot of ethics,” Law says. “If you hire someone privately to do a trail, they are going to make business decisions, not decisions for the land.”

Union leaders concerned about workers and the environment are not the only people with doubts about Bush’s plan. Janet Singer, who works for the Bureau of Land Management in Helena, understands that Bush’s privatization plan is intended to give the American public a better return on its money, but she’s concerned that putting some jobs out for bid just won’t work for her agency in Montana.

Singer is part of a team working to meet privatization goals for the BLM in Montana. Like the Forest Service, the BLM plans to target maintenance positions first, she says, and her office already has 27 jobs in mind. But in the BLM those jobs include range duties, which means keeping fences and stock-water ponds in good repair, in addition to vehicle and building maintenance.

“I think it’s going to be hard to find people because of the variety of skills that are required and because some of our sites are very remote,” Singer says. “I wonder if anyone will even bid on some of them because of the work and the distances that are involved.”

There are also some administrative doubts within the federal agencies. Sweeney says the Forest Service will have to move fast to describe work duties and categorize jobs before the September deadline. In addition, no one knows yet whether positions identified for privatization will be offered to the commercial workforce individually or in bundles across the whole region. But just because certain jobs haven’t been privatized before doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

“Who would have thought there were companies out there that would set up kitchens at fire camps,” Sweeney says. “An industry of private contractors may develop in the future.”

One round of privatization may work, but Bush’s plan calls for putting more and more public jobs out for commercial bidding over the next few years. Maintenance may clearly not be “inherently governmental,” says Sweeney, but as privatization climbs through the federal workforce, the distinctions will become less obvious. Ultimately, the plan could reach the threshold of employees who make policy decisions in the course of their normal work duties.

“We’re starting with stuff that we already contract out,” Sweeney says. “For [fiscal year] ’04 we have human resources—that would be more tricky—and also computer people and some fire management.”

And that’s the center of Law’s criticism of Bush’s plan. The public may tolerate privatization when it appears to affect only maintenance jobs, but the trend itself is dangerous because even maintenance jobs are “inherently governmental.”

“People think this doesn’t cut to the traditional part of the Forest Service, that it’s only employees who paint houses and mow the grass,” Law says. “But it’s trail crews and temporary employees. The reality is that 50 percent of the Forest Service will be looked at by 2006.”

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