The Forest Service’s growth rings 

The whittling away of Forest Service jobs continued in Missoula mid-February when 14 human resource department workers became the latest to be alerted that their jobs had been eliminated. In December, 21 people in Missoula’s finance and budget operations lost their jobs. And 110 total jobs have been scrapped since 2005 in the three-state region encompassing Montana, Idaho and North Dakota.

One glimmer in the local forecast is Forest Service spokesman Steve Kratville’s announcement that Missoula will host a new Administrative Center for Excellence at Fort Missoula that will support 20 jobs upon its June opening. Much of that work, though, results from the consolidation of positions that once existed in small towns around the region.

Kratville explains, for instance, that instead of a Libby worker handling purchasing duties part-time, workers at the new Missoula center would do that work for offices across the region.

“What we’re trying to do is realign in a more efficient way,” Kratville says.

The massive reorganization and reduction of Forest Service positions has been ongoing nationwide, Kratville says, and most restructuring has eliminated widely scattered positions in favor of fewer, centralized positions in Albuquerque, N.M.

Ron Thatcher, president of the Forest Service union’s Libby chapter and legislative chairman for the national employee union, says much is being lost amid the talk of efficiency and reorganization. Missoula’s lost its fair share of jobs, but smaller communities like Libby take the blow harder than larger cities.

“Where I live, we’ve already lost 10 to 15 positions, and we’ll probably lose 10 more. That’s a big blow, because Forest Service jobs are basically what’s left here since the mills are closed,” he says. “Nobody seems to be talking about what the impacts are to these small towns.”

Besides that, Thatcher says, the Forest Service mission of “caring for the land and serving people” suffers when there are fewer on-the-ground workers and when they and average citizens have to take their questions to distant New Mexican offices.

“They used to be able to talk to someone face-to-face, and now they’ll talk to someone who doesn’t even know where Libby, Montana, is,” Thatcher says.

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