We share ownership of 192 million acres of spectacular national forests. Our public land is distinguished from private land on two grounds—legal title and governance (that is, how land management decisions are made).
Twenty years ago, Interior Secretary James Watt and his conservative cronies argued that the public would be better off without legal title to its communal land. That notion, along with indelicate remarks regarding the makeup of an advisory council, was enough to show Watt the door.
Today, the Bush administration’s neoconservatives seek new ways to realize Watt’s vision of privatizing the public domain. Cutting the public out of governance by eliminating public review of decisions is one tactic.
But there is another, less publicized privatization scheme sweeping through government. Three-fourths of U.S. Forest Service jobs are on the block for outsourcing to the private sector. If Bush can’t privatize the land, perhaps he can realize the same objective by privatizing the land’s managers.
A little-known 1998 law with the delightful acronym FAIR (the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act) opens the door to wholesale outsourcing of Forest Service personnel. Under FAIR, each federal agency must classify its employee positions as either “inherently governmental” or “commercial” in nature.
In the arcane prose of the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees FAIR implementation, “Inherently governmental activities normally fall into two categories: the exercise of sovereign government authority or the establishment of procedures and processes related to the oversight of monetary transactions or entitlements.” In essence, inherently governmental positions make decisions (for example, to sell timber, graze cattle, arrest a tree-sitting protester or spend government money). Everyone else fulfills a commercial activity.
The Forest Service’s current FAIR inventory lists 30,408 of the agency’s 39,000 employees as commercial—75 percent of its workforce. This year, the Forest Service committed to subject 15 percent of its commercial workers to the FAIR process. These jobs will either be opened to competition with the private sector (essentially the low bidder wins) or be replaced by private companies without competition.
Prominent on this year’s hit list are the Forest Service’s information and technology personnel (the folks who run the agency’s computers and databases) and the content analysis team (the people who analyze public comments on Forest Service decisions). By year’s end, your comments on a new forest plan, rule change or wilderness inventory will be reviewed by a private contractor, perhaps working for a temp agency or even for Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, which could bid on this contract.
Forest Magazine On Outsourcing
Simply a Job by Guy Pence
Skeleton Crew to Manage Forests by Andy Stahl
Other Outsourcing Resources
Office of Management and Budget Revised Circular No. A-76 (the how-to outsourcing directive)
Collaborative Forest Health Act (S. 1314) (would end Forest Service outsourcing)
FAIR Inventory of Forest Service jobs eligible for outsourcing
Explanation of FAIR Inventory Codes
Directory of U.S. Senate Office Phone Numbers