Forest Service employees who expected to work on one of the biggest recent timber projects in Alaska have been told to pack for South Dakota instead, once travel restrictions tied to the coronavirus ease.
About a dozen employees in the Tongass National Forest — including foresters, engineers and wildlife biologists — have been told they’ll be transferred temporarily to a forest management project in the Black Hills National Forest, said Ken Dinsmore, president of Local 251 of the National Federation of Federal Employees, representing Tongass employees.
While employees understand they can be transferred to other areas at the discretion of the Forest Service — as with other federal agencies — the move is unusual, Dinsmore said. It came suddenly, and workers were told clearly that they don’t have the option to decline.
"Management has the right to assign work. That can include work from Fairbanks to Florida," Dinsmore said. "This is very unusual. It’s the first time I’ve seen employees told to go outside the region to do their daily work."
Employees were told to prepare to stay in South Dakota until August, he said.
The sudden announcement seems to coincide with the holdup of the Prince of Wales landscape level analysis project in the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, the biggest national forest in the nation. That project, which also includes stream restoration and improvements to recreation areas, involves up to 125,529 acres of potential timber harvest, according to the Forest Service.
The Prince of Wales project is on hold while a lawsuit filed by environmental groups moves through the courts. A federal court in Alaska recently said the Forest Service’s environmental analysis wasn’t specific enough about where timber would be harvested (Greenwire, March 12).
With the Prince of Wales project sidelined for now, Dinsmore said, and harvest targets in Alaska likely to be missed, the agency may be looking to give employees typically involved in timber projects something to do.
But the coronavirus pandemic has apparently put the transfer plans on hold.
The Forest Service, in a statement to E&E News, said, "We have postponed Alaska Region support following public safety guidance regarding COVID19 issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will continue to reevaluate our decision as conditions change."
A spokesperson said the Forest Service "remains focused on the safety and well-being of our employees and the public we serve across the U.S. and abroad. We are carefully considering our employee travel on a case-by-case basis with health and safety at the forefront of our decisions."
The planned staff move also comes amid the Trump administration’s executive orders meant to speed work at the Forest Service and other agencies, Dinsmore said. At the Forest Service, a Trump executive order aimed to increase the pace and scale of forest management projects to reduce wildfire risks.
"With some of the executive orders, we don’t communicate like we used to," Dinsmore said.
The Black Hills project, first proposed in 2015, is in part a response to an infestation of mountain pine beetles that has left many dead trees over a 200,000-acre area. The project calls for prescribed burns on up to 100,000 acres.
In addition, the Forest Service recently announced it’s taking bids on a related project, the Rat Timber sale, to harvest about 48,000 trees on 1,425 acres in the Black Hills forest.