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On Competitive Sourcing
03/03/03

Since it appears that Fire Management is scheduled to be one of the next areas studied for competitive sourcing I have been getting a lot of questions from fire fighters about my thoughts on the topic. I have been reading and studying as much as I can, and I recently attended a day and a half training session on the topic. After reflecting on what I have learned to date, I would like to share the following thoughts.

Over the past 30 years of service I have been asked many times by new acquaintances, "what do you do for a living". My standard answer has been, "I work with the Forest Service". Then because I have held a variety of positions with the Forest Service I qualify my answer by adding, "I am a timber forester", or "I am responsible for recreation", or "or I handle the special use permits, and mining operating plans', or " I am a District Ranger", or " I am responsible for wildland fire suppression and prescribed fire". But always first and foremost is the answer "I work with the Forest Service". When I hear some of my fellow employees answer the same question their replies are consistent with mine, or they might say "I work for the Forest Service, and what I do is road maintenance, engineering work, range analysis work" or they might qualify their opening statement with "I am a wildlife biologist, or a fisheries biologist, or a computer programmer, or a wildland fire fighter." But always first and foremost they state that they work "with" or "for" the Forest Service. When I listen to retired employees speak of their years of service they usually start out by saying "when I joined the Forest Service". For them this decision was a life long commitment, similar to marriage. All of these replies are consistent with a way of life. These replies do not reflect that any of us feel we simply "have a job".

"Working with the Forest Service" is how we define ourselves. It is our being, it is our purpose, it is our life. No one can describe what we do with the Forest Service as simply being our job. "Working with the Forest Service" is the very fabric we dress ourselves in each morning before we leave our homes. It is what sustains us throughout the day, week, months, and years. It is how we introduce ourselves, it is how we visualize ourselves, it is how we relate to all the other people we meet in our lives. Equally important is that this is how others introduce us, it is how they identify us, it is how they relate to us and the critical conservation work we do. This is an indication of how strongly they feel about their National Forests.

Now I am being told that the very definition of myself is simply a job, which can be contracted out to someone else for the lowest bid price. I hear that the care and concern I and my fellow employees have for the soil, water, air, vegetation, wildlife, fish and recreational opportunities on the National Forest System are simply items which can be managed by the cheapest bidder. I am being asked to accept that all of the values found on our National Forests are just like an inexhaustible supply of hamburgers at a fast food joint which can be doled out by anyone who simply wants a job for the moment. The vision I have is someone working a job until something better comes along. Nothing similar to a life long marriage, maybe more similar to a flirt, or a fling, or a short term relationship lasting only until interest wanes, or something more interesting comes along. It is as though we no longer need career professionals being responsible for the natural resources on our National Forests.

Well, I don't buy it!! I can't be convinced. No one can tell me that the commitment I witness from my fellow employees to the values on our National Forests are like so many cans of beans on a grocery shelf. Something to be bought or sold by the latest political whim. I am being told to be patient, to wait until studies are done to see what shakes out at the end. To this I must say NO! Time is overdue for me, and those who feel the same way I do to stand up and say "no one takes my heart without my permission, and I refuse to give that permission". These are my National Forests too, and I don't want them managed by the cheapest bidder. I don't believe the American public wants their drinking water supply protected by someone who feels they simply have a job. I don't believe the public wants their forests and wildland/urban interfaces protected from wildland fire by someone who believes fighting fire might be an interesting job until something else more interesting comes along. I don't believe the public wants the last of the top soil on their forest and rangelands protected up to the point of only being able to make a profit off of a contract. Beyond that point, just let it blow away or run off down a creek. I don't believe the sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts want our ecosystems fragmented into even smaller unmanageable chunks by dividing them up for management by individual contractors. Healthy wildlife populations can't stand to have their summer and winter ranges separated into further smaller areas solely for contract management purposes. Does the American recreating public really want to pay separate contract prices for their outdoor experiences as they move through what used to be their National Forests? Forest Service employees have provided economic stability and community leadership to small western communities for decades. These communities will face even tougher times than they currently do when the career Forest Service employees who live in those communities and serve on school boards, volunteer fire departments, search and rescue teams and as unpaid sports coaches are replaced by contractors who travel out there from their urban homes to only work on a for-profit basis.

I wonder if what truly might be at risk by competitive sourcing is the basic concept of the National Forest System? We are the only nation in the world with enough foresight and intelligence to set aside 200 million acres into the National Forest System managed by career employees who dedicate their careers to the single minded task of conserving these natural resources not only for those of us alive today, but for those unborn generations yet to come. Management carried out by professionals for our kids, and grand kids, and great-grand kids and not just for the sake of a one-time profit margin for contractors.

I am not sure where the leadership will come from to steer the agency through competitive sourcing. I don't hear much, except "this is the job and we have to do it by a certain time or it will be done to us". At the training session I attended it seemed that the only advice given was to get your paper work in order and make sure your employees know what their service computation date is so they will know how soon they will be replaced. I guess this is a variation of our long standing "can do" attitude. I am wondering who is going to speak up and say that competitive sourcing is something that can be done, but what about the nation's drinking water supply? What about the top soil, the wildlife habitat, the unbridled recreation opportunities on National Forests and the economic stability of rural western America? When did all of this go up for bid to the lowest bidder? We consult the American public over every work project carried out on the National Forests, why not ask them how they feel about the very existence of their National Forests as we have known them?

Perhaps implementing competitive sourcing is not a job worth doing until the American public has a chance to express their concerns over what is rightfully theirs. It is their National Forests that might be dismantled and bid out to the cheapest bidder. When do they get their say? When do the employees get their say? After it is too late to put the puzzle pieces back together? This country and our agency were founded on the principles of being able to make your concerns known. Remember, as Smokey Bear says, "Only you can ..So speak up".

Guy W. Pence
Fire/Aviation Staff Officer
Boise National Forest

 

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