Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, shown here speaking at a press conference with President Trump in December, had wanted to move job corps centers out of USDA to streamline operations.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, shown here speaking at a press conference with President Trump in December, had wanted to move job corps centers out of USDA to streamline operations. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Trump Administration Backs Off Plan to Close Forest Service Job Corps Centers

USDA and Labor sparked bipartisan furor in a move that would have eliminated 1,100 federal jobs.

Less than a month after announcing plans to outsource or close two dozen Forest Service job corps centers that train young people for conservation and firefighting work, the Trump administration is reversing course under pressure from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

The plan would have transferred the Civilian Conservation Centers from the Forest Service, which is part of the Agriculture Department, to the Labor Department before closing nine of them this summer and outsourcing the rest to contractors over the coming months. In all, 1,100 federal Forest Service positions would have been eliminated under the plan, which officials promoted as part of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s broader effort to streamline USDA operations.

While a Labor Department spokesperson declined to comment on the reversal and referred all questions to the Agriculture Department, the USDA press office emailed Government Executive a statement it attributed to “a USDA and DOL spokesperson.” The full statement reads:

“Following robust engagement with stakeholders and members of Congress regarding the future of the USFS Job Corps centers, USDA has notified DOL that the USFS will evaluate the feedback while reviewing its role in Job Corps management and operation. For the time being, USDA does not intend to transfer these centers to DOL to allow management to determine a pathway that will maximize opportunity and results for students, minimize disruptions, and improve overall performance and integrity. DOL and USDA will conduct a robust organizational review to determine the appropriate course of action keeping in mind the USFS mission, the students we serve, and the American taxpayers. As USDA looks to the future, it is imperative the USFS focuses on and prioritizes its core natural resource mission to improve the condition and resilience of our Nation's forests.”

What Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen characterized in late May as a “high-level policy decision” sparked immediate pushback from the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union representing Forest Service personnel, and members of Congress, who say the centers provide valuable career pathways for underserved youth as well as critical employment in many rural areas.

“The idea of suddenly closing 25 successful job training centers that prepare thousands of young people for the workforce while providing taxpayer-friendly forest maintenance and firefighting operations manpower, is ridiculous,” stated NFFE Executive Director Steve Lenkart. “How Secretary Perdue was coaxed into serving as the political canary in the coalmine for [Labor] Secretary Acosta is baffling.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said, “After broad bipartisan objection, the Administration made the right decision to maintain the Forest Service Job Corps program.”

Stabenow was part of a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers that pressed the administration to preserve the centers they say provide critical job training to a vulnerable population as well as “essential capacity for the U.S. Forest Service to fulfill its mission and provide economic opportunities in rural areas.”