Forest Service staffing now a bottleneck for forest thinning: Report from 4FRI Country

Logging small trees is just one part of forest restoration.
File photo by Peter Aleshire

Thanks to Jon for finding this story from the Payson Roundup by Peter Aleshire about difficulties in Forest Service hiring.  It’s also interesting to compare with the BLM as they state they are 40% down in some places.  The BLM and FS have different hiring centers.. it would be interesting to compare how they are doing and whether they suffer from the same roadblocks and problems. Anyway, here’s the story.

No one to mark the trees.

Fill out the paperwork.

Or count the owls.

So it’s going to be tough to stay on schedule when it comes to thinning the forest – and protecting communities like Payson, Show Low and Pinetop from the next megafire.

The Forest Service briefed the Natural Resources Working Group April 18 on the complicated effort to revive the timber industry in Northern Arizona for the critical task of thinning overgrown forests.

It wasn’t pretty.

But it’s still progress.

Turns out, the Apache Sitgreaves Forest has only about a third of its authorized staff – which means it’s scrambling to prepare timber sales.

Partly because a national labor shortage has made it hard to find people to do the job – especially in remote, forested areas.

But also because it takes the federal human resources department 12 to 18 months to actually approve a request to hire someone.

That has delayed preparation of timber sales across northern Arizona, although study after study has concluded that forested communities in places like Gila, Apache and Navajo counties remain among the most fire-threatened in the country.

It also explains why places like the Payson Ranger District headquarters are essentially closed to the public.

“We have a total of 183 non-fire positions. We’re missing 66 as of today,” said Acting Apache-Sitgreaves Forest Supervisor Rob Lever. “Times are tough, but I actually think we’re being a little bit more innovative. I feel like the clarity of what we’re supposed to be doing allows us to be a little more creative.”

The 4-Forests Restoration Project has been designated one of the top priorities for logging and forest restoration in the country. The assorted infrastructure bills and an overhaul of the Forest Service budgeting system for restoration has provided a lot of new money.

But the staffing shortage has made it all but impossible to quickly complete required environmental assessments and prepare the timber sales. The bottleneck may limit how much thinning gets done.

“So you’re running with 36% of your staff being essentially out?” asked Pasal Berlioux, executive director of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization. The group hosts monthly meetings for representatives of the logging industry, the Forest Service and local officials to try to keep the forest restoration efforts on track.

“You said 12 to 18 months? So if I apply – you don’t see my application for that long?”

“We prioritize which positions they deal with for us,” said Lever. “We can submit five positions at once. I think we need more candidates. And we need to make our operation more efficient – maybe we don’t need some of those positions.”

24 thoughts on “Forest Service staffing now a bottleneck for forest thinning: Report from 4FRI Country”

  1. This ties directly back to the “Federal Workforce Survey 2023” post on here last week. Several of the comments on that post pointed to the hiring situation as being a key driver of the low rating the FS got, which ties directly to LEADERSHIP in the FS (or lack thereof).

    The Albuquerque Service Center has been, is, and will continue to be a cause of problems for the agency until LEADERSHIP makes a decision to solve the problem. Also, transfer of station (TOS) went away in the FS last year, leaving employees to pay for their own moving expenses. Guess what? Nobody wants to take a job with the FS and pay for their own move. Yet another decision by LEADERSHIP that created results which were completely predictable.

    This is all happening at a time when the agency has more money than it knows what to do with. Plenty of dollars coming in, but nobody to implement anything on the ground. It’s a perfect storm that isn’t going to end well.

      • TOS was suspended by the chief in 2020 due to budget concerns. Last year the chief put the authority to authorize TOS back to the regions, but few, if any positions that are flown have TOS. So not an OPM thing, just a FS thing.

        Just take a look at currently open positions with the FS on USAJobs and you’ll see on the side where it says “Relocation expenses reimbursed” and nearly all will say No.

        Some positions offer a relocation incentive, but this is substantially less than what a full transfer of station offered. Offering a GS-7 a $5000 relocation incentive to move across the country to get a promotion isn’t very enticing. Easier to just jump to another federal or state agency.

        • That seems so.. counterintuitive.. an avalanche of bucks and not taking advantage of them to hire people? And the Chief says “go do it” and the Regions aren’t? puzzling. Anyone with more insights, please reach out.

          • I looked at USA Jobs and the only ones with relocation were Deputy Regional Foresters, and up. I moved cross-country several times but would not do it without relocation!

            Talk about counter intuitive; no wonder Forests are flush with $ and deficient on folk….. about the only way I’m seeing work done is through contracting….

            • A 2017 change to federal tax law made the dollar value of TOS taxable income. We moved from DC to AZ in 2019 and I had $50K added to my W2 as taxable income and I had a large unanticipated tax bill. This is part of what drove the decision to drastically reduce the number of job with TOS. Moving incentives don’t cover enough expenses.

          • Housing is actually our biggest Problem; we have a lot of positions we are flying and trying to fill but due to the cost of living and nowhere to live in all of these locations…this is why we can’t hire anyone. When the average cost of a house is $500,000.00 or more no one can afford to take the job. Most of these towns are half empty because all the houses are air b&b’s or they are mansions owned by movie stars. Also no one can afford $3,000 property taxes each year…these used to be around $1,000 a year and now they have tripled. Where I work all the apartments are low income only so I don’t qualify because my income alone is too high, but I can’t afford $2,000 a month in rent before utilities and then daycares don’t really exist anymore either.

        • BLM still offers TOS – and Anon is right – folks don’t want to pay for their own move in the FS – so it’s very hard to get folks to apply for jobs in the FS right now that would require them to move.

  2. It’s been the case for a while that staffing issues have prevented more timber harvest than environmental lawsuits. I don’t think I have seen a single project in NW CA move forward at the speed estimated in the schedule of proposed actions.

  3. This is great news! We always thought automation was in the driver’s seat and a shortage of workers would never be an issue… But not the case anymore!

    It was also just mentioned this weekend in an article in the NYtimes that even the Menominee logging operations, which are the lowest impact of all the types of most logging operations, are running out of workers too.

    For 382 million years our planet thrived under a dense shaggy forest and not a single human existed to destroy the forest in the name of saving it. So sweet that we’re finally heading back in that direction!

    A New England study found more jobs being filled when forests are protected rather than cut down: “The gains in employment following increases in conservation may be driven by overall amenity-related growth, or new jobs in tourism and recreation, Sims and her colleagues speculate.”

    Looks like humans with a conscience are greater in number than we thought and there’s far fewer people who want to spend all day every work day risking their lives turning once shady moist beautiful forest into barren hot dry ground where weeds grow as fast as the wildfires they fuel.

    Young people simply don’t enjoy the thrill of a life-risking occupation anymore: “Oftentimes, we lose three or four timber fallers a year in Oregon, and the same in Washington.” …At 132.7 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers, workers in logging are the most likely to die at work, and almost two and a half times more at risk than those in the next most dangerous profession, fishing.”

    Makes me so happy that every day that there’s fewer people available to help with the process of cutting down trees because it means our planet will better be able to recover from more than a century of relentless destruction our vital forests.

    • Well Deane, I think you missed a very important point; automation has already arrived in the logging industry! Nowadays, young “gamers” make some of the best operators for whole tree harvesting. And, with the lack of FS personnel to do the “designation”, the exponential need for treating WUI and non-WUI stands, more and more selection of “cut” trees is being done by the logger!

      My pappy is rolling over in his grave at the mere thought of such….🤣🤣🤣

    • Deane take a look at the Menominee reservation from google maps. With satellite imagery on you can see the reservation from 100,000 feet. Why?…. because it is the only forested area for miles. They have successfully made money and increased the average size and age class of their forests every year by actively managing their timber. Active forest management keeps forests as forests and not subdivided into 10-acre ranchettes.

      Timber jobs while not without risk are good-paying jobs. A hook tender can make 50$+ an hour and the average salary for a logger is 67k in Montana. Not bad for a region where the average household income is 35k.

  4. Anon is pretty much spot on; the issue of ASC seems to stem from a deal made between the FS and the late Senator Pete Domenici, of New Mexico. I don’t know what the Senator had on the FS but it must have been a doozy for the Agency to shoot itself in both feet! Nothing will change until personnel returns to the Forests, to properly service ALL the needs.

    As for hiring, leadership is scared to death of crossing sabers with political executive staffs within the Department on diversity. Sure, we need to diversify; we also need to be able to “local hire” those “home grown” men and women who do not need to utilize temporary housing or transfer of station. Way too many of these folks are of the highest caliber candidates out there, but have trouble negotiating the USA Jobs minefield and making it through the “coarse screens” on diversity.

    As for 4-FRI, one excuse is as good as another. We always laughed at the amount of times certain Forests remarked timber. The joke was they were killing trees due to paint buildup….. White Mountain Stewardship (WMS) treated over 72,000 acres mechanically, ending in 2014. Many of the acres claimed in the 4-FRI accomplishments were actually WMS. Those and the coined “bridge the gap” program I instituted as WMS was sunsetting. As a reminder, 4-FRI was awarded in 2012!

    Lord the stories I could tell…. As a new Forest Sup, Supervisor Lever has a consistent “managed” message that keeps hope alive. He is doing what he must! I always said a good news release professes “the last thing that is going to happen is the release of a bunch of information”….🤣

  5. Lol…. Young “gamers” have no interest in going outside… Let alone waking up in the middle of the night to take a long drive to be sure to climb into their feller buncher at first light…

    But I’ll have to admit you and your pappy and all the other delusionals who want to turn the whole planet into a desert in the name of the lie that is “sustainable” industrial forestry have hit a dead end.

    Clearly, your death machine empire has done nothing to captivate the interest of the next generation and every year that goes by the less support you realize and the less interest you offer to new workers who see no value in your miserable/planet killing job.

    There’s no words for how happy that makes me and all the forest-dependent species feel to know that you’re clearly failing to advance your planetary mass suicide suffocation agenda!

    • You are on some other planet, I reckon; I have several logging companies tell me with the new technology, operators are getting younger and younger. I know of particular successful logging families where this certainly plays out every day. Walk? Outside? Maybe from the truck to the machine, and the machine is parked next to the road – all air conditioned and the comforts of home.🤣🤣🤣🤣.

      The biggest impasse is getting sales up for bid, but with DxD, DxP and DxS, the field work is done while on the machine! It has taken time, and many destructive fires, but the logging business is beginning to boom again. Just look at Front-Range Colorado. Also 4-FRI; all they need is a successful business, and 500,000 acres is ready to log! The South is cutting timber with a passion and were already flush with $ before Biden.

      Things are really looking up!

      • I have heard the same from our local logging companies about how their best new employers are young folks who have honed their hand-eye coordination playing video games. The equipment they operate has a comfortable cab with climate control – and the better companies offer good wages and full benefits as well as good career ladders.

    • Deane,

      Put down the pipe/bottle when you are on the internet. I’ve said this time and time again. I’m not going to point out all the fallacies of this and your other post, and I know you just revert to “your anonymous, so I don’t care”, but you continue to embarrass yourself and your ilk.

      You have no footing. You have no scientific knowledge. You have never answered any hard questions posed on you in good faith. And you have never acknowledged when your own shortcomings or inabilities to answer important questions, or when you have been caught blatantly lying/promoting false statements.

      Please, grow up or go away.

      Or otherwise, please explain how we are to increase homes for the unhoused, while ceding *all* former tribal lands, while not doing anything to contribute to greenhouse gasses, while not exploiting more unrenewable mineral resources, while also fireproofing homes, *without* cutting a single tree down ever…just in the city of Olympia, WA.

  6. I predicted this situation more than a year ago. The USFS has alienated its low level workforce with the treatment of Temporary Employees, for decades. They always let us know, without a doubt, that they didn’t need timbermarkers on a permanent basis. They always felt that they could train any ‘warm body’ to select which trees live and die. The USFS has made their bed, and now that they have to sleep in it, they are not finding it comfy. Additionally, they have stated several times that they desire Forestry students and graduates for those bottom feeding positions. I would say that Forestry people don’t want to work for the USFS. Funny how that happens, eh?

  7. Larry, FS leadership (and ASC) has both arms in a sling and laryngitis! The “arm” issue is from excessive patting themselves on the back, and laryngitis from continual announcing self-worth…..🤣

    • I also think the ‘rank and file’ of the Forest Service has some blame to take. They should have spoken louder about the treatment of Temps, especially in Fire and Timber. Working us one hour short (and not one more) of work that would give status and benefits is cruel, especially when there is plenty of work to do. It’s a social justice thing when the Agency even admitted that Temps had been abused.

      It was also my idea to outsource the timbermarking. That might solve many of the current problems, with people willing to get paid what they are worth, with opportunities for advancement, outside of the government hiring debacle.


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