Forests study a grand merger
Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee combo seen as possible way to reduce costs.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
November 14, 2012
The U.S. Forest Service’s regional office has told officials with the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee national forests to study a merger.
Regional Forester Harv Forsgren sent a letter about a month ago requesting that Bridger-Teton Supervisor Jacque Buchanan and Caribou-Targhee Supervisor Brent Larson begin investigating a merger, Buchanan said Tuesday. Members of the two forests’ staffs will come up with a recommendation before February.
At that time, a preliminary decision could be reached. If the recommendation is to merge and that occurs, the result would be the largest national forest in the Lower 48.
“We’re trying to see if this thing’s even doable,” Buchanan. “It’s going to be a very interesting situation, but the team is going to work through it.
“I had the conversation,” she said, “and if it comes through that this is not the right thing to do, I got the impression that they would honor that decision.”
Forsgren’s direction surprised county and national officials. News of the potential merger did not reach Teton County until Monday, Commissioner Hank Phibbs said.
“We don’t know who the decision-makers are going to be,” Phibbs said. “There are way too many unknowns for this thing to be flying at the speed it’s flying at.”
Spokesmen for U.S. Sens. John Barrasso and Michael Enzi said Tuesday that Wyoming’s representatives were unaware of a possible merger between the two forests.
A combined Caribou-Targhee-Bridger-Teton National Forest would be almost 6.5 million acres. Only Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, at 17 million acres, would be larger.
The investigation into merging forests is being driven by budget shortfalls, Buchanan and Forest Service regional spokeswoman Erin O’Connor said.
“In February 2011, when the regional leadership team was together, we had a very good conversation about the federal budget,” O’Connor said. “It’s not getting bigger, and we need to be wise in the decisions that we make so that we can continue to do good land management.”
The fate of the Forest Service property on North Cache Street is dependent on the outcome of the merger assessment, Buchanan said.
If no progress is made on combining the two, a decision on whether the Bridger-Teton headquarters is relocated would come after 10 acres of the property is sold, which is slated to happen next summer, she said.
A joint supervisor’s office
One of the biggest cost-saving measures for the Forest Service would be to combine supervisors offices, O’Connor said. The two forests’ “working group” will investigate potential locations for a joint office.
“We have for years now looked at ways that we might reduce overhead costs in the form of getting out of buildings that we lease,” O’Connor said.
The Caribou-Targhee supervisor’s headquarters is located in Idaho Falls in leased office space that costs the Forest Service about $500,000 a year, O’Connor said.
Forsgren announced his retirement Nov. 5, just weeks after sending Buchanan and Larson the letter about looking into a merger. The events are unrelated, O’Connor said.
“There’s no tie to Harv’s decision to retire,” she said.
Either a new regional forester or Marlene Finley, the deputy regional forester, will review the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee’s presentation and make a decision, O’Connor said.
The presentation’s day is not set, but it’s slated for “late January” at the Forest Service’s Region 4 office in Ogden, Utah, O’Connor said. Working groups will consist of four staffers from each national forest.
Phibbs said the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee are very different forests that don’t lend themselves to joint management. The Bridger-Teton stands apart in its focus on recreation and resource protection, he said.
“Relocating the Bridger-Teton National Forest office out of Jackson Hole either to Alpine or to somewhere in Idaho will fundamentally change the operational, cultural and political landscape in which the operation takes place,” he said.
The Bridger-Teton functions as neighbor to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and has a close relationship with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Phibbs said.
“That will be lost if the office is moved to a remote location from Jackson Hole,” the commissioner said. “For all of those reasons, it is a truly bad idea trying to be piggybacked on saving dollars.”
Commissioners are in the process of drafting a letter to the Forest Service, Phibbs said.
Conservationists cool to idea
Upon hearing news of a possible merger Tuesday, regional conservation groups were mostly opposed to the idea.
“The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance feels that both the Bridger-Teton National Forest and Caribou-Targhee National Forest and the communities around them would be better served by having the forests remain separate,” said Cory Hatch, the alliance’s wildlands director.
“We’re concerned that if the forests do combine and the supervisor’s office moves out of Jackson Hole, that’ll be a double blow to Teton County,” Hatch said. “It’ll pull jobs out of town, and the forests surrounding Jackson Hole will get less attention.”
Marv Hoyt, Idaho director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, expressed concern about resource management in a joint forest.
“You’d potentially being tugged and pulled by different congressional delegations that have many have different interests,” Hoyt said.
“Phosphate mining is a huge issue on the Caribou-Targhee. Gas is a large issue on the Bridger-Teton.
“If they’re going to continue to reduce staff, how are they going to effectively manage these issues?” he asked.
Jackson District Ranger Dale Deiter, the Bridger-Teton’s lead on the working group, said that the major metrics the Forest Service will be analyzing in its assessment are “cost savings” and “mission delivery.”
The working groups will meet for the first time in a teleconference Thursday, Deiter said.
“We haven’t gotten that far into it really,” Deiter said. “It’s just a study. There are no predefined outcomes.”
Buchanan summarized the Forest Service’s predicament.
“It’s about doing the right thing for the taxpayer, but there’s a balancing act of how do we still provide the services,” the forest supervisor said. “How do we still meet the needs of the communities we serve? Hopefully we end up at the right spot and make the right decision.”
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