The U.S. Forest Service is on the verge of approving a massive restructuring that will remove land management planning from individual forests, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The resulting reorganization will affect one in four agency jobs, shrink its on-the-ground firefighting militia and rigidify resource planning.
The plan, called a “Business Process Reengineering,” would consolidate virtually all work performed under the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA, the basic planning law that shapes significant agency resource management actions. Altogether, nearly 8,000 employees out of the agency’s 30,000 person workforce now perform NEPA-related work. Almost all of this work is done at the forest level.
Under the Business Process Reengineering, all of these functions would be moved into six “eco-based Service Centers” where forest planning would be standardized. This agency-wide displacement would –
* Remove thousands of employees with fire-fighting responsibilities from national forests and relocate them in far-away service centers. Nearly half (3,564) of all Forest Service employees doing NEPA work have collateral all-hazard duties; and
* Result in likely job cuts, as a main objective of the Reengineering is to combine work now done on 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. The agency’s Feasibility Study, dated August 1, 2007, projects a nearly 20% reduction in environmental positions.
In her September 21, 2007 transmittal letter to her top management, Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell wrote, “I support all the study findings and request your comments on the proposed implementation method.” The full original plan, however, called for restructuring NEPA functions followed by inviting private consulting firms to bid for the newly consolidated work. But Congress cut off any more funding for outsourcing of Forest Service jobs in the FY 2008 omnibus appropriations law. Nonetheless, the agency appears set to proceed with the recommended centralization and downsizing.
“It is awfully late in the Bush administration to begin a gigantic game of bureaucratic musical chairs with thousands of people’s jobs that may be reversed by the next Forest Service Chief,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the Forest Service contracted out its feasibility study to a consultant, Management Analysis, Inc. “Rather than relying on consultants, the Forest Service should first consult Congress, the public and its own employees.”
In recent years, the Forests Service has lost a long string of environmental lawsuits brought under NEPA, among other statutes. Plaintiffs win NEPA suits by showing that the agency did not consider major potential impacts of its plans. While the NEPA Feasibility Study notes that “The vast majority of Forest Service projects require familiarity with conditions on the ground where the activities take place,” the plan it recommends would remove virtually all of the agency experts from the places they know.
“The Forest Service should first find out why they are losing so many NEPA lawsuits before charging off in an expensive and possibly wrong direction,” added Ruch, pointing out that the consultants admit the Forest Service has no “quality standards” for NEPA work. “It is amazing that the Forest Service would want to ‘reengineer’ something when it has no idea what a good final product looks like.”
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