Letters from the West

It’s easier for the Forest Service to use immigrant labor than to hire rural Idahoans

Trees burned in the Pioneer Fire stand out against white snow near the Whoop-em-up Campground east of Idaho City in April 2017.
Trees burned in the Pioneer Fire stand out against white snow near the Whoop-em-up Campground east of Idaho City in April 2017. Idaho Statesman file

Deep snow in the mountains north of Fairfield has chased two forestry crews thinning whitebark pine and other trees this fall hoping to reduce the threat of wildfire and improve the health of the Sawtooth National Forest.

The crews work for GE Forestry out of Central Point, Ore. and come from the area around Medford and from Mexico. The company pays from $15 to $17.50 an hour, plus reimbursement for expenses for the back-breaking work of cutting two-inch trees and larger.

Victor Gomez, the company’s office manager, said it tried to hire Idahoans for the about $6.2 million in contracts it had here in 2017 for thinning and tree-planting projects. But the last time an Idahoan was on a GE Forestry crew was two years ago, a man from Payette, he said.

“It would be difficult for us to set up crews locally,” Gomez said.

That’s the problem, said Jim Caswell, chairman of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees.

Small-town Idahoans can’t get good paying jobs to work in the forests because “the deck is stacked against using the resources you have available in the local community,” Caswell said. Rural Idahoans have become so divorced from public land management, he said, many were lured by the idea to transfer the land to the states.

Caswell personified public service in his long career in the Forest Service, later as director of the Idaho Office of Species Conservation and finally as the director of the Bureau of Land Management under President George W. Bush. His ability to listen and find common ground between disparate groups as deputy supervisor of the Boise National Forest, and as supervisor of the Targhee and Clearwater national forests, gained him wide respect.

When he started after serving in Vietnam, the Forest Service was cutting billions of board feet of timber in the West. In many rural communities, it was one of the major employers with dozens of foresters, engineers, hydrologists and biologists putting up timber sales. To allow young trees to grow, the agency hired lots of seasonal employees to plant them and thin and clear brush.

Over time, political forces from both parties pushed for reducing Forest Service employment. Republicans wanted less government and argued private contractors could do more for less. The reinvention of government carried out under President Bill Clinton forced the agency to centralize payroll, human resources and contracting in far-away offices.

Supervisor offices closed in little towns like St. Anthony and Challis, pulling out dozens of high-paying jobs for people who had been Little League coaches, fire department volunteers and community leaders. At the same time, the number of seasonal jobs dropped. Locally organized cooperatives and small companies that had filled in the gaps for tree planting and thinning began to vanish.

GE Forestry has had more than 400 contracts worth $39 million since 2007. It and other large companies use temporary migrant labor brought to the U.S. using the H-2B visa program.

The program requires the company to advertise the forest jobs and prove they can’t be filled with local applicants. An investigation by the Oregon Department of Labor in 2011 found companies were legally getting around the requirements by advertising in small newspapers and hiring employees four months before they started work, which threatened their unemployment.

Projects like the one GE is doing on the Fairfield Ranger District are managed by contract officers out of a regional office and a national Forest Service center in New Mexico. The local supervisor and the district ranger have no authority to ensure local people in rural forest communities get a shot at these relatively good paying jobs, Caswell said.

“The normal run-of-the-mill-line officer is frustrated,” Caswell said. “The contracting officer has to take the lowest bid.”

Caswell had hope that the new Trump administration might reverse the long trend away from local control when officials began talking about moving more federal land agency power back to the West. In April, Trump signed an executive order promoting rural prosperity and establishing an interagency task force.

Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue asked for ideas. Caswell, through the Retirees group, offered several — including changing the contracting — but says so far he has been ignored.

So what should be done?

Caswell would restore contracting authority to the forest supervisors and district rangers. The ranger in Fairfield knows better than someone in Albuquerque how to serve both the local and national interest.

But there are other ways. Simply requiring contractors to hire more local workers, ensuring people in the surrounding communities have the best shot at the jobs, is one.

It is hard to believe that people who come from generations of forest workers in rural Idaho can’t be found for these jobs. But if they can’t, then going to the wider net may be necessary.

The local ranger will know.

In 1933, Forest Service Chief Ferdinand Silcox expanded the Forest Service’s mission to include providing community stability to the communities surrounded by national forests. His was the idea that the national forest resources should benefit the people who live in them, and that those people can benefit the forests as well.

Restoring his vision would make the Forest Service great again and fulfill the promise of rural prosperity the Trump Administration has made.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

Hear the story of the salmon

Rocky Barker will talk about the Idaho Statesman’s six-month #SavingSalmon project at an Idaho River Talk Thursday at the Boise Public Library.

The talk begins at 6:30 p.m.

It is sponsored by Idaho Rivers United.