Five fires were burning Friday in Oklahoma and the National Interagency Agency Fire Center in Boise was preparing for a fire season that already has begun.
But even though you can go to the website of NIFC (pronounced NIF-see) and apply for one of the thousands of seasonal firefighting jobs the agencies need to fill before spring, nobody is hiring.
That because President Trump signed an executive order a week ago that said “no vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances.”
The freeze order does have national security and public safety exceptions that appear to cover firefighters. Trump’s order also gave the Office of Personnel Management power to grant exemptions from the freeze where necessary.
But it’s been a week, and federal agencies are still looking for details.
“We are awaiting guidance,” said Randy Eardley a Bureau of Land Management public information office at NIFC. The interagency fire center in Boise includes the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Weather Service and the U.S. Fire Administration, which together coordinate national firefighting planning and operations.
Under the order, the Office of Management and Budget must develop within 90 days a long-term plan to reduce the number of federal workers.
TEMPORARY WORKERS WAIT
The Forest Service hires between 10,000 and 15,000 seasonal employees annually, and 70 percent are either firefighters or work fire-related jobs. The National Park Service has about 11,000 seasonal employees, including rangers and naturalists.
In 2015 Congressional hearings, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the number of firefighters in the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior combined was 16,000 in 2011 and 13,000 in 2013. That includes permanent and seasonal employment.
Agencies are compiling lists of what positions meet the national security and public safety exemptions, and most expect firefighting to easily fall into that category, said sources in the Department of Agriculture and Interior. But hiring on many other jobs like marking trees for harvest, stopping erosion or monitoring fish and wildlife would have to wait until the 90-day plan is released.
All federal agencies have seen their staffs drop over the last six years. The BLM has gone from more than 10,000 to just under 9,000; the National Park Service’s 16,037 permanent employees dropped to 14,899 in 2016.
The Forest Service has been transforming itself during the same period, to what critics call the “fire service.” In part because of the growing demands of fighting fires in longer, drier fire seasons, the agency has been forced to cut back on staff for timber, recreation and other programs.
When it runs out of firefighting money in summers, the Forest Service must “borrow” from other programs, a tradeoff Congress has been unable to remedy. Non-fire Forest Service personnel dropped by 39 percent between 1998 and 2015, from 18,000 workers to less than 11,000, the Missoulian newspaper in Montana reported.
The new administration is asking agency heads to make “reallocations to meet the highest priority needs and to ensure that essential services are not interrupted and national security is not affected.”
CAREFUL WHAT YOU SAY
Many of the same agency officials have been told to limit what they say about “national policy.” The uncertainty about what to say and how to proceed with hiring is making this presidential transition more disruptive for federal employees than any time since 1980, observers say. Most of the day-to-day operations continue unaffected, however, including in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
John Freemuth, who teaches public administration at Boise State University and is a former National Park Service ranger, said the uncertainty for agency scientists and other employees have workers jumpy.
“I think people are worried there is going to be a centralization of policy and a disrespect of professionals in the agencies,” Freemuth said.
Former National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said Monday that employees have been told not to talk about “national policy,” but permission is granted to use social media to provide information on visitor center hours and safety.
He described the directive as “ridiculousness,” pointing to the parks’ core mission of interpretation at parks like Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, Stonewall National Monument in New York City where the LGBT movement began, and the Washington, D.C. home of Alice Paul and Alva Belmont, who fought to secure women’s rights.
“And as we scientifically monitor the rapid decline of glaciers in Glacier National Park, a clear and troubling indicator of a warming planet, shall we refrain from telling this story to the public because the administration views climate change as ‘national policy’?” Jarvis asked. “These are not “policy” issues, they are facts about our nation, it is how we learn and strive to achieve the ideals of our founding documents.”