Smokey gets downsized 

Skip Hegman says that he and the other U.S. Forest Service employees at the Lolo National Forest have known for some time that, after years of declining timber revenues and shrinking Congressional appropriations, money just wasn’t flowing the way it once had.

They knew in the back of their minds that cuts were coming, but Hegman, a union representative, says that many didn’t pay much attention to the situation. Not, that is, until some of their names and jobs showed up on a list of candidates for elimination.

"When people saw they’d been listed as surplus, I think it started to hit home," Hegman says.

Twenty jobs, out of about 70 in the Lolo office, made the list as possible casualties of a downsizing wave. According to Hegman and other Forest Service employees, those 20 are just the tip of a very painful iceberg. The lay-offs could sweep as many as 400 jobs out from under the approximately 3,000 workers employed in the four-state Region 1.

Last week, the regional office in Missoula released a proposal to slash its roster of employees by more than 10 percent. This matches a projected 10 percent budget decline of between $20 and $23 million by 1999 from the region’s current $188 million allocation. The proposal’s language is laced with soft-touch governmentese; one section, basically informing employees that one in 10 will be eighty-sixed, is politely titled "Communicating Reinvention."

No amount of bureaucratic tact, however, can make the Forest Service’s budget stop shrinking.

It’s decreasing mostly because the service isn’t making as much money off timber sales as it used to. Since the beginning of the decade, the Forest Service’s oft-criticized sell-off of public timber has dropped from about a billion board feet per year to around 300 million, according to spokesperson Kathy Solberg.

"You don’t have that kind of reduction in harvest without a major change in the money situation," she says.

Regional timber director Dave Spores says that decline amounts to a drying up of the service’s bread and butter, and it won’t be reversed in the foreseeable future.

"The [Clinton] administration’s direction has been for a reduced program," he says. He does admit that the Columbia River Basin draft environmental impact statement, which will guide management decisions for lands ranging from the Continental Divide, across Montana and northern Idaho and into eastern Washington, calls for "more active management of the vegetation."

But, Spores adds, even increasing the amount of wood felled won’t pump money into the coffers. "We’re going to see a program pretty much the same as it is now, maybe slightly increased, but nothing dramatic," he says. "If we do cut more, we’ll be harvesting low-grade, less-expensive timber, so it won’t make much difference."

The downsizing, according to Chuck Keegan, a University of Montana economist, will have far-reaching effects in the region.

"The kind of cuts they’re talking about making, if they all came out of the Missoula area, would take away about five percent of the county’s economic base," Keegan says. He adds that, with impacts spread throughout the region, the local economy is more likely to suffer something like 1.5 percent base-loss in the next few years.

"People might say that 1.5 percent isn’t a big number, but if the national economy declined by 1.5 percent, we’d have a new president," he says.

Spores says that changes in the way the Forest Service handles timber sales--brought about, at least in part, by legal and political challenges from environmentalists--caused revenues to fall.

"Challenges to the process have slowed things down and increased costs tremendously," Spores acknowledges.

Kathy Solberg agrees that environmental challenges caused the service to re-evaluate the way it handles sales.

"We’re trying harder to be responsive to concerns about the environment," she says. "At times that means not offering as much as we might have on certain sales. I think as well that there’s been a shift in the way people want timber resources managed."

As a union representative, Hegman sat on the panel that drafted the reorganization proposal. He says the panel, which included Regional Forester Hal Salwasser, his deputies, and three union members, made preserving field services a priority when deciding who should stay.

It’s unclear exactly how that emphasis will be realized. Some seem to think that higher-ranking employees, with their larger salaries and limited contact with the public, will bear the brunt of the downsizing. Others, including Hegman, worry that a procedural preference for those with seniority will cut away a lot of the agency’s diversity.

"Most of our gains in diversity have come recently," he says. "So those are the employees that can get hit on the basis of seniority. We’re hoping that a buy-out of senior positions can help us maintain that diversity while at the same time moving people out of the system."

Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Steve Kelly, on the other hand, believes those of higher rank are a more likely target for budget trimmers.

"You can take someone who’s got seniority and have a significant saving in salary, more so than you can with someone who’s out making sure toilets are clean at trailheads," he says.

Kelly’s position is among those that might disappear; the proposal gives prominent mention to the possibility of merging the Bitterroot and Lolo forests into one superforest headquartered in Hamilton. Duplicate positions would be consolidated, starting at the top.

Kelly says the service has been downsizing for a while; his office has lost 20 employees in the last few years, leaving so much empty office space that the agency has considered taking in outside renters to help make ends meet.

But previous cuts, he says, haven’t gone far enough, fast enough.

"Whenever you talk about consolidating forests, that’s a traumatic experience for Forest Service people," he says. "But we are in desperate financial straits, and something has got to be done."

After a period of consultation with employees, elected officials and the public, the panel on which Hegman sits will come up with a final plan by July 10. That plan will start to take effect October 1, with cuts spread out over the next two years.

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