Montana Sen. Steve Daines, right, said he successfully lobbied President Trump to keep open a Forest Service Job Corps center slated for closure.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines, right, said he successfully lobbied President Trump to keep open a Forest Service Job Corps center slated for closure. Susan Walsh/AP

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Labor Department Asks USDA to Reconsider Job Corps Center Decision

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had planned to eliminate the centers—and 1,100 federal jobs—from USDA’s portfolio, but lawmakers, and apparently President Trump, have other ideas.

Eleven days after the Agriculture Department announced it would cut 1,100 Forest Service jobs by transferring two dozen Job Corps centers that train young people for work in conservation and wildland firefighting to the Labor Department, the plan appears to have stalled.

After Labor announced it would close nine of the Civilian Conservation Centers and contract out the work at the others, a number of lawmakers spoke out against the move. On Monday, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said that he had successfully lobbied President Trump to overrule Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta to keep open one of the Montana centers slated for closure.

A press release from the senator’s office said, “The decision follows Daines’ call with Trump on Saturday, where he stressed that the Anaconda center was one of the top ranked in the country, and must remain open. After speaking with Daines, Trump told him the site would remain open.”

When asked by Government Executive if Labor had reversed its decision on the Montana center, a spokesperson released this statement:  

“As part of the normal 30-day comment period for [Labor’s] Federal Register notice, we have heard from members of Congress, retirees, and other stakeholders about concerns with closing [Forest Service] Job Corps centers. We’ve asked the [Forest Service] to evaluate those concerns while reviewing its role in Job Corps management and operation. [Labor] and USDA are committed to maximizing opportunity and results for students, minimizing disruptions, and improving overall performance and integrity.”

Labor and USDA will “conduct a robust organizational review to determine the appropriate course of action,” the statement said.   

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., late Tuesday introduced legislation that would prohibit the transfer or closure of the centers through the end of September 2020. The bipartisan bill, which has several cosponsors, would prevent an attempt by the Agriculture and Labor departments “to change the interagency agreement that drives center operations, stopping them from bypassing regulations in order to close centers faster,” according to the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents Forest Service workers.

In the House, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., offered an amendment to the Rural Development Appropriations bill that would prohibit spending on any center closures or transfers or changes to the interagency agreement between Labor and USDA.    

“The Civilian Conservation Centers have been providing critical job training in rural areas to disadvantaged young people since 1964,” said Randy Erwin, NFFE national president. “The program prepares at-risk youth for employment and higher education while providing taxpayer-friendly critical resources to maintain our national forests and support fire and disaster response. The Trump administration’s decision to close these centers without warning equally baffles Democrats and Republicans, especially those from rural areas.”

Officials at the Forest Service, which is part of the Agriculture Department, notified employees of the job cuts in a conference call May 24. Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen was clearly distressed to share what she called “very difficult news” and pledged to do all she could to support those affected.  

Perdue had said the transfer was necessary to streamline operations at the department. In a letter to Labor Secretary Acosta, the Agriculture secretary wrote: “As USDA looks to the future, it is imperative that the Forest Service focus on and prioritize our core natural resource mission to improve the condition and resilience of our nation's forests, and step away from activities and programs that are not essential to that core mission.”