Sunset in Olympic National Forest in Washington state.

Sunset in Olympic National Forest in Washington state. U.S. Forest Service

Environmentalists Protest Forest Service Job Cuts

Fiscal 2016 budget proposes eliminating 133 jobs in law enforcement.

A Forest Service plan to eliminate 133 jobs in law enforcement on federal property prompted an outcry from the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an alliance of federal, local and state scientists, law enforcement officers and land managers.

The 16 percent force reduction, the group warned on Tuesday, coming after a previous cut of 15 percent, “will mean major cutbacks in security coverage for visitors, staff and the forests themselves.”

In documents accompanying President Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget released Feb. 2, the Forest Service offered a cut of $623,000 in the $120 million budget of the Law Enforcement and Investigations program, while assigning highest priority to “emergency and life-threatening situations.” The program combats illegal drug trafficking on National Forest lands primarily in the West near borders, and works with sheriffs in pursuing crime such as arson, theft and assault.

In December, the plan for a one-sixth reduction in personnel was discussed in a memo describing a reorganization from LEI Director David Ferrell. The memo urged officers to “work with your supervisor and forest staff to prioritize your work and accept that some things that you would like to do just won’t get done,” according to a copy the nonprofit released.

“The decision to increase the span of control for two of our [special agents in charge] by having them take on additional responsibilities was not an easy decision,” the memo said. “We all recognize the impacts that our reduced budget is having on the field. We see this as an opportunity for LEI leadership to share some of the impacts of our budget reduction.”

PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who has tangled with Forest Service management over priorities, said, “The Forest Service plan is premised not on less crime actually occurring on our national forests but on having fewer cops who can respond” at a time of rising visitation to the forests. “In today’s Forest Service, protecting visitors and forest assets is officially a dispensable value – a diminishing priority in the face of a growing need,” he said.

At a Feb. 20 town hall with Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell, the nonprofit reported, officers said the job cuts will result in:

  • Fewer proactive patrols into forests to check on the safety of campers and hikers;
  • Less training and equipment, and fewer long-term investigations of forest crime; and  
  • Widening inability to fill vacancies, no matter how critical.

The cuts also come at a time of low morale and when the 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey found that fewer than one in 10 of LEI respondents said they “have sufficient resources to get my job done,” according to PEER.