Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

Reduced funding is forcing the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest to trim its staff in the coming months. Pacific Northwest Regional Forester Jim Pena said there have been no increases in the Forest Service budget, half of which goes to forest fire suppression.

“If we don’t fix fire funding, we will erode management positions,” Pena said. “A lot of those in Congress know it needs to be fixed.”

He said the agency would be in better shape financially if fire suppression costs were removed. A bill that would do just that has been stalled in the Senate for three years.

“Sen. Wyden is a strong supporter and built bipartisan support for the bill,” Pena said, but the bill has yet to be passed.

Adding insult to injury, the region expects to take some hits in its administration staff budget, according to Forest Supervisor Tom Montoya, who said, “We are expecting a 5 percent reduction in those funds.”

Frustrations of a flat budget are only compounded with the inability of Congress to pass a federal budget. Montoya said for the past few years, the Wallowa-Whitman Forest has been running under continuing resolutions based on the previous year’s budget, and the money comes with strings.

“The funds from Congress are doled out with some expectations of products and services due to the public,” Montoya said.

Funding can be tied to targets, such as so many board feet of timber harvested, habitat improvement for fish and wildlife or conducting range analyses on grazing allotments, Montoya said.

In recent years, the forest relied on supplemental funding to stitch programs together. Montoya said for the last three or four years the Malheur National Forest has received an increase in funding to boost forest restoration and give a steady supply of logs to one of Eastern Oregon’s few remaining sawmills.

The Wallowa-Whitman received funding through a short-term source called “Joint Chiefs,” a program of the Forest Service and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

“We compete nationally for special projects that may have money for one or two or three years, but they are not a constant source,” Trish Wallace, the forest’s external relations staff officer, said.

Rather than gamble on the expectation of special funding, Montoya said, he needs to align the forest’s budget based on its appropriated dollars from Congress.

“Things like Joint Chiefs are sporadic in nature. I’d rather have that money continually coming in with a long-term commitment,” Montoya said.

While the special funding may not serve as a reliable source of income for national forests, Wallace said those projects do provide short-term jobs.

Montoya said funding from Joint Chiefs put $1.2 million into the local economy, funding fuel reduction contracts.

Another source of income that Wallace said the forest could no longer expect was unspent funds allocated to the Forest Service. That leftover money has dwindled away, and now Congress is insisting that all budgeted money is spent within the fiscal year.

The decision to reduce the forest’s staffing didn’t come quickly, but rather over the course of three or four years of workforce analysis, Wallace said. The summation: the organization has gotten top heavy.

“We have no room in terms of being able to hire seasonals and buy supplies to do some of that work,
because our fixed costs are tied up in permanent salaries,” Montoya said.

When a federal agency such as the Forest Service tightens the belt, management can help full-time
employees relocate. Those staff members have the ability to identify areas they would like to work. Montoya said displaced employees will be given priority for those placements.

For the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, cuts will be most noticeable in range management and recreation. Montoya said input from the staff revealed there was a need for technicians rather than management, for “more boots on the ground,” as Montoya put it.

Range management has already been restrained at the upper staffing level. Montoya said the Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla national forests now share a staff officer, and the noxious weeds program will be managed by the same position.

Managing the forest in zones as well, as via ranger districts, also gives the forest flexibility to share staff and resources across district lines. This concept may very well save the few district offices left.

“One of the first decisions I made was that I was not going to close any districts,” Montoya said.

The other discipline facing reorganization is recreation. Montoya said the recreation budget has been declining over the last 10 years. That program manager is zoned between the supervisor’s office and the district on the forest’s north end, home to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and Hells Canyon Wilderness, the Wenaha Wilderness and the state’s largest wilderness area, Eagle Cap Wilderness.

Volunteers have been integral in clearing trails as recreation budgets have whittled away the ability of seasonal crews to clear more than a fraction of the trails. This past summer, the Eagle Cap Ranger District proposed a fee for Hells Canyon boaters that was met with a great deal of resistance. Montoya said that controversy turned into a benefit.

“Some of the users that love the canyon realized we can’t do all this work, and a collaborative is being put together,” Montoya said.

In Wallowa County where backcountry horsemen and trail riders have long helped clear trails, a charter ranger district is being organized by Forest Service staff and a group of forest users.

“They are a great example of folks saying, ‘We want to help you out.’ These positive partnerships help us be successful,” Montoya said. “Our volunteers do some really good work and contribute back to us.”