The number of employees in federal land management agencies is declining

Number of employees land management agencies

The number of employees in the five major federal land management agencies has decreased by 6 to 33 percent over the last 11 years. According to data compiled by the Best Places to Work website, the decline in the size of the work force at the agencies is stunning — especially at the Bureau of Indian Affairs which has seen their workforce slashed by 33.5 percent. Frequently we hear from critics that government is growing, but it certainly isn’t at the outfits that employ the most wildland firefighters.

The actual number of firefighters in these five agencies is difficult to ascertain, but we have figures that were submitted in testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 2011 and 2013. In the two hearings, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the number of firefighters in the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior was 16,000 in 2011 and 13,000 in 2013. That is a 19 percent reduction in a two year period.

An example of this is at Everglades National Park, which is currently experiencing a “workforce realignment”. That’s National Park Service-speak for a major budget reduction. They are still figuring out the details, but it appears that their fire management staff will be “realigned” from about 35 to around 25 employees.

While the number of acres burned in the United States homeland is increasing, the number of wildland firefighters available to suppress them is doing the opposite. Firefighters are being laid off while we spend trillions of dollars on ill advised adventures on the other side of the world.

Acres burned, number of firefighters

We have more wildland fire statistics in an earlier article.

Job satisfaction at the land management agencies

The Best Places to Work website also has other interesting data. Every year the U.S. Office of Personnel Management conducts a Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey asking employees dozens of questions about their perceptions of what it is like to work at their agency. Below are some examples of the questions from the 2014 survey:

Examples of questions FEVS survey

A Best Places to Work index score is calculated based on responses to three questions in the OPM survey:

  • I recommend my organization as a good place to work.
  • Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?
  • Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization?

The 2014 survey index score for all of the major federal land management agencies declined except for the Forest Service, which showed a significant increase.

Best-places to work

To see the details of the survey results, visit these pages on the Best Places to Work website:

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Paula.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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13 thoughts on “The number of employees in federal land management agencies is declining”

  1. This probably make sense if you are an employer in the private sector drooling over the 6 trillion dollars in public sector jobs that could become private sector jobs. I am a strong supporter of protecting public sector jobs. These jobs are especially important in land management and public safety.

  2. UHHHHH

    Does the glacial speed of alll these so called FireHire, the overuse of 1039, NTE,WAE, Term, Intermmittent have go people wondering why would I want to invest the time in getting into this career..

    ALOT of get smart, stay a few years, and then move on. Maybe they saw the writing on the wall or just chose the career as it was and moved on

    Waiting for a career conditional and career position with age 37 cutoff, weellllllgues what?

    Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that 16,000 to 13,000 in TWO years and then presenting it to hearings on the WHY this is happening.

    1) Waiting for the wonderful HR delays
    2) WAITING for the age 37 to catch up with everyone
    3) the issues of fire aviation do not necessarily reflect that every position needs a 100 per cent fire background to progress
    4) Taskbook initiation and signoffs with nfolks retiring all the time and the so called 3 deep really isn’t followed everywhere at every agency
    5) Need I go on

    Nice article, Bill……..the answers are already around us and the leadership has yet to pick up on these simple little facts

  3. Seems to me, we spend alot of money on surveys and realignment ideas, but in the end the worker bee’s are going away and more staff is hired. The USFS has changed alot since I started. We used to be family…. now that only applies to the feeling we get on assignment. Nobody seems to get promoted within their own unit. I’ve seen alot of unexplained actions. If folks mess up and have an appointment usually they get promoted and moved. Look at the survey above….. kinda looks like something is wrong. Hope to see you all this summer… BE SAFE

  4. Lets not forget that declining workforce is due in part to declining budgets as well… not to diminish the issues pointed out above, but the bottom line is that in addition to the lack of worker bees, more overhead, questionable spending at the upper levels (sometimes), and general HR and worker satisfaction problems, the land management agencies are all seeing declining budgets at the field level. I don’t want to start any arguments, but you can’t deny that the political budget environment post-9/11 has been one where domestic spending has been constantly debated and slashed. Small government proponents are getting what they want after a fashion… let’s not place all of the blame for declining fire work forces on the agencies here. As budgets keep going down there’s only so much we can cut before we have to start leaving positions vacant, reorganize to reduce personnel costs, etc. We work with the funds that Congress gives us – we don’t have the deep pockets of non-appropriated funding that Defense and DHS seem to have. Just my two cents.

  5. You are correct, Justin

    But those budgets are being looked at all the time.

    Superstorm Sandy and all the disasters and FMAG’s, I am sure are getting attention also.

    Those Defense budgets and DHS budgets will be adjusted accordingly….

    While we argue those two budgets……where and how do you suppose the USFS is getting the CWB (Center Wing Box) work done?

    Yep, you guessed it DoD budget put on to the USAF by the NDAA 2014…..not on any USFS budget that has been written about…

    So add those costs of an agency depending on the DoD for its own mission and we will see if the USFS even reimburses the $130 million strapped on to the Do\D ? USAF budget for its seven C130H project.

    Then let’s look at all the Title 10 and Title 32 work that the DoD and armed services contribute to the LMA mission and wildland fire and what may or may not get reimbursed to DoD after the mission

    The stuff just “ain’t” cheeep or free!!!

  6. Anyone in the LM agencies knows this. In NPS there were plenty of cuts in field operations and lower grades but higher up it seemed positions were being upgraded and retained.

    1. Actually, NPS regional and national level jobs were frozen, as the field jobs were, when they became vacant. Many will not be filled, or will be combined with other positions. No level in the NPS fire program escaped budget cuts, especially those funded by fuels funds; this is doubtless true of the other bureaus as well.

  7. Having seen the rise of contract resources firsthand, especially in R6, I would guess that the total number of firefighters is actually much higher than ever before – but that they are on-call “emergency” resources, and none if them are doing pre-treatment and preventative work on any meaningful scale (precisely because they don’t work full time for a proper land management agency). There are a lot if good crews out there, and contracting is critical to many local economies, but nothing can replace the value of preventative work and Initial Attack by full time firefighters.

    1. Well said Eric. I have been running into this more and more. This summer was the best case yet. Spent 14 days “covering” a station in CA this year, alongside two contract engines. Seems they are being brought on under “emergency” conditions all summer long to cover for the agency engines on perpetual assignment. They were individually pulling in $50,000-$90,000 a summer. Made me wonder why was still working for $40,000 a year, fifteen years in. Especially while we were up on the hill thinning while they sat in the station. (Not that I preferred to sit on my ass, just rubs the “brokeass” wound a little more raw.) If the trend continues it will be hard not to join them sitting on my ass to pay my bills.

    2. Well said. My concern is that when land management and public safety jobs are privatized (happening now) the rank and file jobs will be low pay and offer little if any benefits. We will also be losing some control over how these services are managed.

  8. $50,000 to $90,000 per summer?

    OK

    What was insurance and maintenance costs?
    Cost per individual on those contract engines? I am sure some are temp and 1099 employees….you know… something the US Guv LMA’s are famous for..

    PLI and med insurance rates might eat into that 50 to 90K……amongst other things..

  9. I would recommend everyone take a look at the Forest Service budget requests to count the number of employees. For example the FY 2003 requested reported they have 34,000 plus Full Time Equivalents which counts seasonal Temp employees. I am not sure where the OPM survey got its numbers but know that the FY 2015 budget request shows many more FTEs than the 24,794 that OPM reported. I suspect the OPM survey does not count the seasonal workers and just the permanent full time employees. The real question and number to look at is how many FTEs get assigned to fires each year and I suspect a call to the agencies might produce that information.

    I am sure the slope of your graph would be very different.

  10. Just checked FS budget over view for FY 2015 request it shows 11,200 plus FTEs for fire out of 32,700 plus total FTEs for actual 2014 numbers

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