Forest Service warns of budget cuts ahead of a risky wildfire season

From The Conversation: “Forest Service warns of budget cuts ahead of a risky wildfire season – what that means for safety.” By a pair of professors from Colorado State University. Excerpt:

Staffing is still a concern

Doing this work requires staff, and the Forest Service’s challenges in recruiting and retaining qualified firefighters may hinder its ability to accomplish all of its objectives.

In 2023, over 18,000 people were employed as federal wildland firefighters. While the Forest Service and Department of the Interior have not specified precise staffing targets, Moore has mentioned that “some crews have roughly half the staff they need.”

A recent Government Accountability Office report found that low wages and poor work-life balance, among other challenges, were barriers commonly cited by federal firefighting employees. The government boosted firefighters’ pay in 2021, but that increase is set to expire unless Congress votes to make it permanent. So far, firefighters have kept the same level of pay each time Congress pushed back acting on the 2024 budget, but it’s a precarious position.

The agency has started many initiatives to recruit and retain permanent employees, but it is too early to assess the results. A recent study involving one of us, Jude Bayham, found that highly qualified firefighters were more likely to remain with the agency after active seasons, during which they earn more money.

17 thoughts on “Forest Service warns of budget cuts ahead of a risky wildfire season”

  1. As stated in the article, there is now a separate fire suppression fund that will not impact the Agency’s budget. There are some other issues as I understand it, though. In the recent past, the Forest Service changed its budget procedures and that included funding all positions off the top. No longer did Staff Officers have to figure out how to fund their people. They were all funded. I am not sure what genius dreamed this up. There went the incentive to keep your organization at a level that you could afford. Whoo-hoo! Hire as many as you want, they are all funded!

    Now the chickens are coming home to roost. The Forest Service can’t afford its organization even without budget cuts. Also, a lot of the dollars from the infrastructure bill and other windfalls went to NGO’s such as The Wild Turkey Federation and the National Forest Foundation to fund work that could have been done by FS employees.

    The Forest Service has known about the problems with retaining firefighters for many years but has done little in the way of solving the issue. Certainly nothing innovative.

    In summary, the Forest Service has a leadership crisis and no one has a hold of the reins.

    • Dave, FWIW we’re going to look at the Keystone Agreements in greater detail, including how much $ has gone to them and what each subagreement looks like. Supposedly they are all posted somewhere and I’m trying to track that down. I am sympathetic to the FS: 1. That was a lot of money and as we are finding, hiring more perms with this flush would be a problem down the road.
      2. Hiring people is hard for reasons that are not the FS’s fault -USA jobs, cost of housing, etc.
      3. Contracting.. remember our heyday, somehow we ended up with undocumented crews left without food and shelter? Obviously FARs is not the easiest way to get things done. And other agencies regularly find ways around this.
      So, what else could the FS do?
      Which is a separate question from “how well are the NGOs doing, and are they doing useful things?” which I hope to explore.

      • I agree with most of your points. The FS did get dumped with a lot of money and they do have capacity issues, even with the new employees they have hired. The Keystone Agreements were essentially a way to park that money and hopefully get needed work done. The devil is in the details, however, as to how the NGO’s are actually spending that money.

        I am so glad you are going to look into the Keystone Agreements! I would be glad to help you with that if I can. It is difficult to really find out what is going on but here is one place to look: It is not easy to work with but once you get the hang of it, you can find out quite a bit. Do you know that the National Forest Foundation has been awarded something like $275 million? The details of all this are in the Stewardship Agreements and the Supplemental Project Agreements and those are difficult to get your hands on. If you can find out a way to get to those without a FOIA, I would like to know.

  2. Who knew (tongue in cheek)? What a surprise this announcement was; let’s see, AVUE has been gone from the hiring scene about 20 years now, and hiring has only gotten much worse! But on one hand, we are more diverse, or are we? I don’t think the metrics are screaming success on that note either.

    Well, just go hire Sale Administrators, go hire a Type 2 IC, go hire a Grants and Agreements Specialist. What? These folks are not “onboarding” (one of the dumbest phrases ever invented) in droves?

    I feel for Chief Moore, he was handed this cluster, from years, as my good friend Dave Mertz says, “failed leadership”! It’s time to begin to rebuild the Agency to actually do the conservation work so desperately needed.

    As for looking to answer where did all the money go, if you ask the rank and file employees who had to deal with that fiasco you will learn. Sure GAOA was a fine piece of money dumping; sort of like throwing money at a problem – we know how that story goes. And, it had great intentions; however, the field folks have continued to tell me the unit costs for work done is between two and three times what it would have been, if forest service employees actually done the work. The emphasis was to get those dollars obligated, to heck with showing something done. The Agency has made a fine example on how to magnificently crow about mediocre work – whether in fuels treatment, timber/stewardship or even trail maintenance.

    Wanna talk about “reinvent recreation”? A major emphasis on that dream is to defer much of the work to NGO’s and partners. Remember those overwhelmed G and A folks? They’ll throw it back at you, or worse, slide out that ever expanding vacuum of finding something else to do – like retire. But don’t worry, they’ll be easy to replace…..

      • Numero uno would be to correct the centralization of hiring to ASC! How many people have expressed concern over the loss of experienced employees, the loss of “home grown” new hires and the absolute train wreck of hiring. I was told in 2012 to keep my mouth shut, they would pour money into ASC until it worked. Still waiting, I see..

        I was Regional Forester Rep on fire hire a few years and let me tell you, it was an education in manipulating current and future employees. I doubt it was as efficient as folks let on, then “centralized hiring” became the rage for most disciplines. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for diversification, but if the “fit” is not right, it ain’t gon’na work!

        What we have now is the loss of “in the field”, or “boots on the ground” experience at all levels, where that job ethic is so vital! We lost great folks who could not even navigate the dysfunctional hiring systems (I saw at even Forest Sup positions), or had their competencies kiboshed from incompetent, or misinformed staffers.

        That’s where I’d start, fix the danged hiring!

        • Excellent points, Jim! When Bosworth came up with idea of ASC, I think most of us thought, well let’s give it a try. Maybe there are some efficiencies to be gained. However, I also think that most of us thought the current system of doing most personnel actions at the District and Forest level, was working pretty well. A case of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

          For a while there in the later 2000’s, it seemed like ASC could work. Then it just started to go downhill and it has never recovered. FS leadership is stuck with ASC and doesn’t know what to do about it. The stories get worse every year. To be fair, there are some successes, but mostly it has been a failure. A situation that continues to get worse. Sometimes, you just have to cut your losses and move on.

          I have been inside ASC, it is quite a place. Floors of cubicles. At that time, the people who actually had real FS experience usually decorated their cubicles with mementos of their time on a Forest or District. Most of the cubicles had nothing, though. We were told that for most of the ASC employees, this was their first FS job. A consequence of this is that people would go to ASC for their first job and then move on to some other agency. A revolving door because ASC was not exactly a great place to work.

          You compare that to when personnel folks were on the District and Forest. They knew how the FS worked. They were familiar with the work the FS does and they knew the people they were helping. You could go and talk with them in person. They got the satisfaction of helping people that they knew. Not having this was probably an unforeseen impact of ASC.

          It takes strong leadership to admit a mistake like ASC was made and to do what needs to be done to fix it.

    • Well, my 23 years of Sale Administration experience didn’t count for much, since 1) I was a Forestry Technician and 2) I wasn’t Certified. The rules regarding promotions also prevented me from applying for GS-9 positions. They just didn’t see a need for more of us who had the experience, but not the ‘status’. Talk about a lack of foresight.

    • It has become so difficult to get work done within the FS due to all of the “process” in hiring, contracting, purchasing that having partners do the work for us is the only way around the internal roadblocks. And all of those new folks in HR, contracting, purchasing have never worked on a Forest Service Ranger District – they have no idea what we do, what the timing needs are. It’s sad and many ground-level employees are very frustrated.

  3. Meanwhile, the FS posted this on their LinkedIn page three days ago:
    “We just announced $20 million in funding and technical support for federally recognized tribes and Alaska Native corporations and villages. Also in the announcement was $44 million for the new Community Navigators program that will support communities facing barriers preventing them from accessing Forest Service programs and services. Read the full announcement at

    What is dumbfounding with this announcement is the $44 million for the “Community Navigators” program. I quick web search did not turn up anything on this topic for the FS. This amount of money to help provide access to programs? Wow! One would think there would be more economical ways to connect people with programs, and maybe devote most of that $44M to the programs and communities themselves!


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