USFS cutting back workforce
LITCHFIELD - Outdoors enthusiasts might see some changes in the quality of federally-managed lands over the next few years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the Midwest Region will have to cut 20 percent of its workforce in the n...
LITCHFIELD - Outdoors enthusiasts might see some changes in the quality of federally-managed lands over the next few years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the Midwest Region will have to cut 20 percent of its workforce in the next three years.
According to a recent news release, Minnesota will be the hardest hit in the region, losing 27 positions throughout a system of 13 national wildlife refuges, eight wetland management districts and a regional office in Minneapolis.
A number of these cuts have all ready or will be made through retirement and unfilled vacancies.
What it means for west central Minnesota is tougher to gauge, for now.
"A lot of these stations reported specific items that will not be done," said Scott Glup, project manager at the USFS' Litchfield Wetland Management District. "We are one of the very few stations that are still fully staffed. Others have had vacancies that haven't been filled. They know exactly how this has hurt them."
Glup's report to the regional office said, "Projected staff losses will result in the station's inability to restore and maintain quality wetland and grassland habitats on approximately 1,100 acres."
But that doesn't fully measure the brunt of what could happen over the next three years. The Litchfield office, which covers seven counties including Kandiyohi and Meeker, will find its employees stretched to the limit trying to fill needs.
For instance, many districts in the state have cut the workforce down. But there are still projects that need to be completed and not enough people to do it. Since Glup's office still has a full complement of 14 full-time and one part-time employees, he gets a lot of requests for assistance.
"Our law enforcement officer is going to other stations to help them, and then he's not here to help with things," Glup said. "We also get requests to use our equipment, which then is not there for us."
The biggest factor, of course, will be money. The annual budget for the Midwest region has remained static for the last three years, which means more and more money has gone to salaries and overhead. It leaves less available for projects.
Wetlands restoration, tree removal and noxious weed control are three major projects that have been affected all ready.
"We've had to resort to doing it as cheaply as we can. Instead of seeding to 25 grasses and forbs, we're backing it off to just a few species of basic grass," Glup said. "We get the cover on the ground, but it's not as nice. We might have to back off of even that and let it be farmed after we buy it."
Some of Glup's projects can be covered by "soft money" or grant money. The tree removal program is one that survives because of that. But as the cuts continue, the manpower needed will become more difficult to pay for.
That's really true of the USFS fire program. The USFS utilizes controlled burns to regenerate grasslands and manage the health of habitat. While the employees that are responsible for planning these burns won't be affected, the support needed for the actual burns may be hard to come by.
"When they actually go and do the burn, we pull people from our staff," said Glup. "A lot of our fires require more staff than we have, so we share staff. That's getting harder and harder to do."
Landowners could start to see a change as money for the control of thistles dwindles. Glup said noxious weed control is one of the more expensive programs he has, not only in the cost of labor and materials, but also in fuel costs. Unlike National Wildlife Refuges, whose offices are on the land they manage, Wetlands Management Districts cover a lot of ground and have high travel costs.
The cuts also trickle down to those who use the national lands for hunting, hiking, bird watching, etc. There's one WMA in the area with only one access; a trail that the USFS bought an easement right to. Over the years, the trail has deteriorated from the traffic and is difficult for vehicles to use. But getting a road grader and getting gravel to even out the trail is too expensive to do.
"We don't even have a budget this year. Congress has not yet determined the overall budget is. I've been told to plan on a budget similar to last year," Glup said. "I'm hesitant to start new projects that will be expensive. We've been really trying to write more grants, build partnerships with local organizations. The bad thing is, it doesn't cover the other required costs. It's easy to find partners for tree removal projects for habitats because they're more flashy and people are interested."
Other districts in the area have all ready see effects of the cuts. The Morris Wetland Management District had to leave 31 water control structures unmanaged, affecting more than 1,400 acres of wetlands. At the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge near Ortonville, the reduction in staff has meant the maintenance of public-use facilities has been cut in half.