Forest Service Hatchets Law Enforcement
Rangers Told to “Prioritize” in Face of One-Sixth Reduction in Personnel
Washington, DC — While proposing a larger agency budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the U.S. Forest Service plans to decommission 133 law enforcement positions, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Forest Service law enforcement officers say that this overall one-sixth (16%) force reduction coming on top of an earlier 15% funding cut will mean major cutbacks in security coverage for visitors, staff and the forests themselves.
The Forest Service Budget Justification for the 2016 Fiscal Year proposes shrinking its Law Enforcement & Investigations (LEI) program from 813 to 680 full-time positions. The document concedes that much of the LEI work involves “critical emergency incidents involving threats to the safety of the public, our employees, or property and resources” occurring “in many remote areas or areas with diminished local law enforcement, [where] LEI often provides the only law enforcement personnel available.” To cope with these cuts, the documents posits (but does not explain) a predicted drop in the current “6.4 documented law enforcement incidents per 10,000 forest visits” “to a target (desired outcome) of 6 or fewer.”
“The Forest Service plan is premised not on less crime actually occurring on our national forests but on having fewer cops who can respond,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that visitation in national forests remains on the upswing. “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.”
Indeed in a December 22, 2014 memo, LEI Director David Ferrell 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.” In a February 20, 2015, LEI all-hands electronic town hall with Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell, officers indicated that this new round of cuts will mean –
- Far fewer proactive patrols into forests to check on the safety of campers and hikers;
- Even less training, equipment and long-term investigations of forest crime; and
- Widening inability to fill vacancies, no matter how critical.
These cuts come after the 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey found that fewer than one in 10 LEI respondents said they “have sufficient resources to get my job done” and nearly half felt that LE&I was unable to be “successful in accomplishing its mission.”
For the past year, LEI has been roiled by plummeting morale and loud calls for leadership change. Chief Tidwell has waded into the mess, promising only procedural actions, such as a new climate assessment and a top-to-bottom “program review.” Without waiting for the outcome of that review, he appears to be taking steps to foreclose improvements in the law enforcement program. Some officers charge that Chief Tidwell is retaliating against LEI for having elevated management concerns in the media.
“There is little doubt that these cuts will hollow out an already very thin green line protecting our national forests,” added Ruch, contrasting these cuts with the $10 million rebranding contract Tidwell reluctantly abandoned last month. “The Forest Service desperately needs new leaders who refrain from shooting the messenger.”