Critics hit forest merger
Two question motivations for consolidation as agency underscores potential savings.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
November 21, 2012
A county commissioner and a former Bridger-Teton National Forest supervisor leveled broadsides this week against Regional Forester Harv Forsgren’s order to study a merger with the Caribou-Targhee.
Former Supervisor Kniffy Hamilton and Commissioner Hank Phibbs said the study is hasty, lacks public input and is unwise and unworkable. The proposal would reduce the influence the active and involved residents of Teton County have on federal land management, Hamilton said.
Forsgren called for the study, saying a merger could save the U.S. Forest Service $1 million a year. He ordered the investigation six days before announcing his resignation.
“A viable option would also have to realize at least $1 million dollars in savings each year,” Forsgren wrote to Bridger-Teton Supervisor Jacque Buchanan and Caribou-Targhee Supervisor Brent Larson. “The goal is to find ways to reduce fixed costs, reduce duplication of administrative work and increase program delivery and work on the ground.”
A joint forest, at about 6.5 million acres, would be the largest national forest in the Lower 48. Today the two forests have a combined budget of $32.65 million.
Hamilton, Bridger-Teton supervisor from 1999 to 2010, said the location of the Bridger-Teton headquarters is a factor in the merger study. The issue of the Jackson office first came up five or six years ago when Forsgren began looking at necessary renovations and moving the headquarters out of town, she said.
“When it was presented to me by the regional office, I never understood the rationale,” Hamilton said of quitting Jackson for another town. “I think that I can safely say it goes beyond budget.
“People in the [Jackson] community are very influential,” she said of “other influences,” affecting a potential headquarters move.
“They’re highly educated and have a lot of capacity to influence things on a local level, regional level, national level.”
Phibbs has also questioned the impetus for the merger.
“The decision is profound in terms of the impact on both forests,” Phibbs said. “They’re holding this up as money savings, but it would appear it would affect management because they’re already stretched to the limits with the current staff.”
Phibbs criticized the Forest Service for keeping the merger study secret until last week.
Jackson District Ranger Dale Deiter confirmed that there’s no opportunity for public input or involvement in the merger study at this stage.
“It doesn’t necessarily need a [National Environmental Policy Act] process, because it’s an administrative action,” Deiter said. “It’s still so conceptual right now that I don’t think it would be that productive to get people engaged on something that’s still just an idea.”
In his letter, Forsgren gave Buchanan and Larson three months to devise a “conceptual plan” for the joint forest. That means that the decision to proceed with pursuing a merger is just over two months out.
Forsgren, who completed undergraduate studies at Utah State University in 1976, announced his retirement six days after giving the directive.
The retirement and merger study are unrelated, U.S. Forest Service regional spokeswoman Erin O’Connor said last week.
Either Forsgren’s replacement or Marlene Finley, the deputy regional forester, will review a Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee presentation and make a decision, O’Connor said. It’s scheduled, along with release of a report, for late January, Deiter said.
Two four-person merger study groups — one for each national forest — were appointed. They met for the first time in a teleconference Thursday.
Deiter, the Bridger-Teton’s lead on the study group, said Tuesday that the meeting produced “measurement criteria” for three areas that will be used to assess a potential merger: mission delivery and public service, employee safety and welfare, and financial costs and savings.
Budgets down from 2003
A look at the Bridger-Teton’s and Caribou-Targhee’s base budgets show that federal allocations have been mostly stagnant during the past decade.
Short term, it’s a different story, the numbers show.
The 2012 budgets for the Bridger-Teton, $14.74 million, and Caribou-Targhee, $17.91 million, are both 5 to 6 percent below the 10-year average for each national forest. The combined budget for the forests in fiscal year 2012 is just $32.65 million, down almost 14 percent from 2003, when it was $37.11 million.
Those numbers are not adjusted for inflation and do not include earmarked dollars that have added to the national forests’ bottom lines, Caribou-Targhee spokesman Lynn Ballard said.
There are nuances to the forests’ budget situations, Ballard said.
“The past three years, there have been no cost-of-living raises,” he said of workers’ wages. “You also have to look at fixed costs.
“We’re running about 70 percent fixed costs — salaries, rents, things we have no control over,” he said.
A recent Forest Service study, he said, concluded that a 60 percent fixed-cost rate would be healthier.
Savings from a joint forest would come primarily from consolidating staffs and eliminating leased spaces, Ballard said.
Eliminating the Caribou-Targhee supervisor’s headquarters, located in Idaho Falls, would save the Forest Service about $400,000 a year, he said
“The lease goes through 2020,” Ballard said. “You could buy your way out of it, but you’d have to talk with the owner.”
Deiter said the “biggest chunk” of savings would be on leases. If a joint supervisor’s office were built in Alpine, he said, that could eliminate the Greys River Ranger District office in Afton, which is leased for $162,000 a year.
Job cuts for Caribou-Targhee
Cutting Caribou-Targhee jobs would also make a difference, Ballard said.
“We’ve done a review of what positions — if we lost them — would affect us the least,” he said. “I think there would be 30 less permanent positions.”
Program managers and planning staffers who work out of the two supervisor offices would be most heavily downsized in a consolidation, Deiter said. In a merger, most employees at district offices would remain.
Hamilton said analyses during her tenure “pretty overwhelmingly” showed that the Bridger-Teton headquarters should remain in Jackson.
“Years and years were spent on trying to show otherwise, which just confuses me,” she said.
Five years ago, the Forest Service considered selling its Jackson property and moving the headquarters to Afton, Alpine or Pinedale. At the time, Intermountain Region officials said the cost of housing in Jackson was too high for Forest Service employees, the headquarters building needed to be replaced and the land sale could help pay for a new facility.
Forsgren then reversed course, saying the headquarters would stay in Jackson but the Forest Service would attempt to sell some or all of the land to pay for a new building.
“As has been quoted in the paper, Harv did make a promise that the regional office would stay in Jackson, and then he reneged on it,” Hamilton said. “If it was all about money, why was there such an emphasis on moving out of Jackson?”
The former forest supervisor said merging the 3.4-million-acre Bridger-Teton with the Shoshone National Forest to the east would make more sense. But the Shoshone is in a different Forest Service region than the other two forests under merger consideration.
“They’re both in Wyoming, there’s similar resources use, similar habitat,” Hamilton said of the Bridger-Teton and Shoshone. “The Caribou-Targhee is different. They’re are different congressional delegations, different governors. The Bridger-Teton’s programs are much more in line with the Shoshone’s.”
In his letter to Buchanan and Larson, Forsgren was explicit in that the merger would have no predetermined outcome.
“In the end, we may determine the best way to manage the two national forests is with two forest supervisors, although I believe that, given the proximity to each other, the similar programs and similar public interests, it is important that we at least explore the option,” he wrote.
Phibbs knocked Forsgren’s rationale.
“There are virtually no similarities” in the two forests, the commissioner said. “They are failing to look at the fundamental differences.
“Supposedly, economics are driving this train,” he said. “The fact is that the larger implications of this [merger] would drive the train off a cliff, and under a process that had no public scrutiny.”