Forest Magazine Article: Simply a Job?
Since it appears that fire management is scheduled to be one of the next areas studied for outsourcing, I have been getting a lot of questions from U.S. Forest Service firefighters about my thoughts on the topic. I have been reading and studying as much as I can, and I recently attended a day-and-a-half training session on the topic. After reflecting on what I have learned, I would like to share my thoughts.
Over the past thirty years of service, I have been asked many times by new acquaintances what I do for a living. My standard answer has been, I work with the Forest Service. Then, because I have held a variety of positions with the Forest Service, I qualify my answer by adding, I am a timber forester or I am responsible for recreation or I handle the special-use permits and mining operating plans or I am a district ranger or I am responsible for wildland fire suppression and prescribed fire. But always first and foremost is the answer I work with the Forest Service. When I hear some of my fellow employees answer the same question, their replies are consistent with mine. They might say, I work for the Forest Service, and what I do is road maintenance [or engineering work or range analysis], or they might qualify their opening statement with I am a wildlife biologist [or a fisheries biologist or a computer programmer or a wildland firefighter]. But first they state that they work with or for the Forest Service. When I listen to retired employees speak of their years of service, they usually start with the words When I joined the Forest Service. For them, joining the agency was a lifelong commitment, similar to marriage. The replies are consistent with a way of life. They do not reflect that any of us feel we simply have a job.
Working with the Forest Service is how we define ourselves. It is our being, it is our purpose, it is our life. No one can describe what we do with the Forest Service as simply being our job. Working with the Forest Service is the fabric we dress ourselves in each morning before we leave our homes. It is what sustains us throughout the day, week, months and years. It is how we introduce ourselves, it is how we visualize ourselves, it is how we relate to the people we meet. Equally important is that this is how others introduce us, it is how they identify us, and it is how they relate to us and the critical conservation work we do. This is an indication of how strongly they feel about their national forests.
Now I am being told that the definition of myself is simply a job that can be contracted out to someone with the lowest bid. I hear that the care and concern my fellow employees and I have for the soil, water, air, vegetation, wildlife, fish and recreation opportunities on the national forest system are simply items that can be managed by the cheapest worker. I am being asked to accept that the values found on our national forests are like an inexhaustible supply of hamburgers at a fast-food joint that can be doled out by anyone who wants a job for the moment. The vision I have is someone working a job until something better comes along. Nothing similar to a lifelong marriage, maybe more similar to a flirt or a fling or a short-term relationship lasting only until something more interesting comes along. It is as though we no longer need career professionals being responsible for the natural resources on our national forests.
Well, I dont buy it. I cant be convinced. No one can tell me that my fellow employees commitment to the values on our national forests are like so many cans of beans on a grocery shelf, that they are something to be bought or sold by the latest political whim. I am being told to be patient, to wait until studies are done to see what shakes out at the end. To this I must say no. Time is overdue for me, and for those who feel the way I do, to say, No one takes my heart without my permission, and I refuse to give that permission. These are my national forests, too, and I dont want them managed by the cheapest bidder. I dont believe the U.S. public wants its drinking water supply protected by someone who feels they simply have a job. I dont believe the public wants its forests and wildland-urban interfaces protected from wildland fire by someone who believes fighting fire might be an interesting job until something more interesting comes along. I dont believe people want the last of the topsoil on their forest and rangelands protected only to make a profit for a contractor. Beyond that point, just let it blow away or run off down a creek. I dont believe the hunters and wildlife enthusiasts want our ecosystems fragmented into even smaller unmanageable chunks by dividing them up for management by contractors. Healthy wildlife populations cant tolerate having their summer and winter ranges separated into smaller areas for contract management purposes. Does the recreating public really want to pay separate contract prices for outdoor experiences in what used to be national forests?
Forest Service employees have provided economic stability and community leadership to small western communities for decades. These communities will face even tougher times when the career Forest Service employees who live in those communities and serve on school boards, volunteer fire departments, search and rescue teams and as unpaid sports coaches are replaced by contractors who travel there from their urban homes to work only on a for-profit basis.
I wonder if what truly might be at risk by outsourcing is the concept of the national forest system? We are the only nation in the world with enough foresight and intelligence to set aside 192 million acres to be managed by career employees who dedicate their careers to the single-minded task of conserving these natural resources not only for those of us alive today but also for future generations. Its management carried out by professionals for our kids and grandkids and great grandkids and not just for the sake of a one-time profit margin for contractors.
I am not sure where the leadership will come from to steer the agency through outsourcing. I dont hear much, except This is the job and we have to do it by a certain time or it will be done to us. At the training session I attended, it seemed that the only advice was to get your paperwork in order and make sure your employees know what their service computation date is so they will know how soon they will be replaced. I guess this is a variation of our longstanding can-do attitude. I am wondering who is going to speak up and say that outsourcing is something that can be done, but what about the nations drinking water supply? What about the topsoil, the wildlife habitat, the recreation opportunities on national forests and the economic stability of the rural western United States? When did all that go up for bid to the lowest bidder? We consult the public over every work project carried out on the national forests, why not ask citizens how they feel about the existence of their national forests as we have known them?
Perhaps implementing outsourcing is not a job worth doing until members of the public have a chance to express their concerns over what is rightfully theirs. It is their national forests that might be dismantled and bid out to the lowest bidder. When do they get their say? When do the employees get their say? After it is too late to put the puzzle pieces back together? This country and our agency were founded on the principles of being able to make concerns known. Remember, as Smokey Bear says, Only you can … So speak up.
Guy Pence is director of fire and aviation for the Intermountain Region.