Forest Service ‘optimistic’ Trump hiring freeze won’t affect White River summer operations
The Aspen Times
Officials in the White River National Forest are confident they will be able to hire seasonal workers for duties such as patrolling wilderness areas and clearing deadfall off trails despite a temporary hiring freeze of civilian employees by the federal government.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the U.S. Forest Service has asked the Office of Management and Budget for exemptions to the freeze.
The Office of Management and Budget and Office of Personnel Management released a memorandum Tuesday that provided further guidance on the hiring freeze. One exemption the memo spelled out is for, “Appointment of seasonal employees and short-term temporary employees necessary to meet traditionally recurring seasonal workloads, provided that the agency informs its OMB Resource Management Office in writing in advance of its hiring plans.” That appears to apply to the Forest Service.
Stakes high in White River
The stakes are high for the White River National Forest. Fitzwilliams has left some permanent positions unfilled in recent years to ensure his staff could hire more seasonal workers during summers. The White River racks up more recreation visits than any other national forest, with about 13 million visits annually. While a large number of those visits are skiers visiting resorts operating within national forest lands, roughly half the visits occur during summers, when the uses are much more diverse.
Fitzwilliams said about 100 total seasonal workers are needed in the Aspen-Sopris, Rio Blanco, Rifle, Dillon and Holy Cross Ranger Districts.
The White River also aims to make 19 “fire hires” or seasonal workers dedicated to firefighting efforts, Fitzwilliams said. Those positions are filled in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management, which aims to hire another 15 seasonal firefighters.
Wilderness patrols, trail clearing
In the Aspen area, the Forest Service’s biggest need for seasonal workers is to help staff the immensely popular Maroon Bells Scenic Area. For all intents and purposes, it operates like a National Park. Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon also depends on summer seasonal workers to deal with the hordes.
In the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, there is a high need for recreation technicians or “rec techs.” Duties include wilderness rangers who patrol the Four Pass Loop, Conundrum Hot Springs and other heavily used areas to make sure visitors are complying with regulations ranging from use of bear-proof food canisters to camping far enough away from streams and lakes.
Other rec techs use handsaws to clear downed trees from trails within designated wilderness and chainsaws on trails outside of wilderness. Those trails are the lifeblood of the forest, attracting hikers, mountain bikers and dirt bikers.
Fitzwilliams said the White River started accepting applications for firefighting positions shortly before President Trump announced the temporary hiring freeze Jan. 23. Applications for non-fire seasonals weren’t going to be requested until later in the winter.
The freeze really hasn’t forced major shifts in the hiring process yet, he said. The forest staff hasn’t worked on a contingency plan yet because the seasonal posts appear to qualify as an exemption.
“We’re optimistic this will be worked out,” Fitzwilliams said.
In addition to seasonal workers, the forest has a staff of 129 permanent workers, including 20 in fire-related posts, according to Fitzwilliams.
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Marti Barbour was selected almost 20 years ago as the first recipient of a Habitat For Humanity house in the Roaring Fork Valley. She paid off her mortgage in June and recalled the dire times her family faced and the help that Habitat provided.