HELENA – Bill Avey, forest supervisor for the Helena and Lewis and Clark National forests, pointed to a jumbled mass of topographical lines in the heart of the Bob Marshal Wilderness, searching for the location of a past forest fire. Finally his finger rested on the confluence of drainages.
“The piece of the pie for fire keeps growing,” he said. “In ’93, nationally fire suppression was 13 percent. Today it’s 50 percent.”
When former Helena National Forest Supervisor Kevin Riordan announced his retirement last year, Avey became the acting and now permanent supervisor for both forests. The consolidation from two to one supervisor added nearly 1 million acres to Avey’s territory.
But the consolidation is nothing new for the two forests, with some personnel working across both for more than four years. With the recent announcement of a joint forest plan and continued funding restraints, the future of the Helena and Lewis and Clark forests may look more like one forest than two.
As a whole, the Forest Service’s workforce has dropped 35 percent in the last decade while maintaining a similar level of service. Seasonal employees have decreased by 25 percent; most personnel have seen their salaries frozen.
An increase in legal challenges to Forest Service decisions has also impacted the budget, as well as a massive shift in funding to fire suppression, Avey said.
“It’s forcing us to work differently,” he said. “I’m not as available to go work with some of our constituents balancing between the Helena and Lewis and Clark. It means we can’t move as quickly on things.”
The reduction in employees meant an increase in workload for personnel and a search for ways to prioritize projects. Four years ago, the forests made a decision to focus on getting funding to the ground, Avey said.
The forests decided to consolidate positions in leadership and to have some employees work across both forests. The consolidations save between $1.5 million and $2 million per year, Avey said.
Avey tries to allow district rangers as much leeway in decision making power as he can legally, he said.
“I lean a lot more on rangers at the district level,” he said. “Those rangers know their district the best.”
Avey praised the Forest Service employees, who have adapted in the face of consolidation and budget cuts.
“We’re managing the best we can, and it’s just that people are so passionate about what they do,” he said.
The fire programs for the two forests were among the first areas to combine, Brad McBratney, fire management officer, said.
After being asked four years ago to study how the fire programs would look under consolidation, fire mangers developed a plan that included some fire positions sharing responsibilities across both forests. The forests now use one prescribed fuels specialist and fire planner, but have retained the number of firefighters on the ground, he said.
“In my opinion, some are probably still reluctant to the change,” McBratney said. “We’ve reduced some staffing at the forest level with declining budgets, but we had to cut somewhere.”
Consolidation has benefited the forests in looking at ways to become more efficient. With forests covering parts of 20 Montana counties from Glacier National Park to Grass Range, technology has become a key asset to conducting forest business. Teleconferencing via video has replaced many of the face-to-face meetings that officials used in the past, McBratney said.
Consolidating also means officials can use resources such as fire trucks on controlled burns that used to be geographically closer but off limits because they were on another forest, he said.
“It can be a struggle from the standpoint of workload needs,” McBratney said. “We’re looking across both forests, and there’s a greater push for planning. I spend a lot of time on the road going back and forth.”
Geologist and program manager Beth Ihle began working on the Helena National Forest in 1990. Her job has changed over the years, with an emphasis on mining reclamation. In 2008, the Lewis and Clark National Forest asked if it could “buy” some of her days to work on projects in its forest. Initially she spent about a quarter of her time on the Lewis and Clark National Forest. By 2010, Ihle split her time equally between the two forests, and she became a program manger for minerals and recreation.
“It’s intimidating as much as anything,” she said. “To go from having a 1 million-acre landscape to more than double that amount, it takes a while to learn geography and the issues and the people.”
Ihle works out of the Townsend Ranger District Office. With three federal Superfund sites between the two forests and drives that now can take more than two hours to reach a work site, being deliberate about days spent in the field and prioritizing projects have meant some longer days, she said.
“I think that the Forest Service is a very good agency for having an understanding of balancing work life and home life,” Ihle said. “You have some 10-12 hour work days, but they understand that if you get 40 hours in by Thursday, you might not be in on Friday.”
With fewer personnel, Forest Service officials rely more on the public for information on what’s happening in the forest, she said.
“We appreciate the public, and 2.5 million acres is a big playground,” Ihle said. “We can’t get to everywhere, and the people are really our eyes and ears out there.”
Despite seeing her territory expand so dramatically, getting to work in areas like the Rocky Mountain Front, Crazy Mountains and the Smith River has been very rewarding, she said.
“It’s a beautiful and unique landscape,” Ihle said. “The Highwoods, Little and Big Belts, Big and Little Snowies – that screams mecca for the outdoors.”
Kathy Bushnell, public affairs officer with the Helena National Forest, emphasized the importance of partnerships for the present and future of the forests. The Forest Service has increasingly looked to grants and volunteers for weed control and trail work to compensate for a reduced workforce and more territory.
“We’re doing a job over a larger landscape and some things will fall off,” she said. “We have to prioritize, and that’s the world we live in now.”
The forest plans for both the Helena and Lewis and Clark were adopted in 1986. Calling the plans “outdated,” the forests recently announced their intent to form a new joint forest plan. The Helena National Forest will hold an open house in Helena on June 23 for people interested in learning about and participating in writing the new plan.
A forest plan provides a planning and policy framework to govern the forests on the managing of resources and services. Officials plan to incorporate an adaptive approach to meet current and future needs in both forests, said Dave Cunningham, public affairs officer for the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
A lot has changed in science and conditions in the forest in the last 30 years, including impacts from the mountain pine beetle and climate, he said.
With consolidation and sharing of employees that has occurred over the last few years, all the pieces seem to have aligned to make a forest plan that continues that relationship, he said.
“I think there’s a level of serendipity in the timing in that sense,” Cunningham said. “There’s still diversity across these two forests. They have lots in common but unique features, and it does make for a more interesting management scenario.”