ESSAY: The Changing Politics of Woods Work, Part Four

Read Part One

By Hal Herring, High Country News

Chelsea McIver, who grew up as a “Forest Service brat” and planned a career with the agency, echoes the point that the Forest Service, starved by budget cuts and firefighting costs, typically awards multi-year contracts to bigger, out-of-state, low-bid contractors that use the H-2B workers because it has little choice. The agency does not give preference to local crews.

That may be more efficient, she said. “But efficiency was only one factor in the equation — what do you tell the people in Mineral County, Montana, about jobs and schools, where it is 93 percent public land, and what work is getting done on those lands isn’t available to anybody who lives there?”

McIver and I toured the Marshall Woods Project, over half of which is on Lolo National Forest land north of Missoula, including the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, one of the city’s most popular playgrounds. It’s a 13,000-acre project, with 4,000 acres of thinning, planting, weed control, brush-piling and controlled burning. There are years of work here. The project originally was designed with options to award contracts to local workers. There was also a commercial logging component on about 225 acres, where the timber needed thinning, but the trees were too large for workers to cut up, pile and burn. The sale of that timber would have brought in some money to help pay for the project, and allow for flexibility in awarding the bids to locals.

But some local environmentalists vigorously objected to commercial logging on the project. “There had already been so many delays,” McIver said. “The Forest Service just had to take the easiest path.” By the time work began in 2016, the commercial logging aspect of the project had been dropped. So had any attempts to award contracts to local workers. Imperial Forestry of Medford, Oregon, got the main $1.75 million contract. This year, the company received 114 H-2B visas for forestry work with a $10.23 per hour base pay rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At least one local contractor, using locally sourced crews, would have liked a piece of the project: Mark Alber, of Miller Creek Reforestation, an old-school thinning and firefighting contractor with a dedicated crew based out of the Bitterroot Valley.

I called Alber this summer, and he told me to come out and meet him: “You can’t miss us: a bunch of Stihls, gas jugs, bunch of crazy-looking people — you know, a thinning crew!” I found them at 5 a.m. at a truckstop near Missoula, and followed the line of trucks east an hour or so, then up into the Flint Creek Range to where they were “brushing” a road on the Beaverhead/Deer Lodge National Forest. The Forest Service had made a small timber sale, and the mill that was going to log it was paying Alber’s crew to clear the sides of the road. “The Forest Service doesn’t have any money for this,” he said. “I was just reading where fire was taking 58 percent of all their funding. No thinning, no planting, no fuels reduction. So then it burns.”

Alber, a hyper-fit 51-year-old, is still sawing long days, “although I have to break away from the crew, tell them I have phone calls to make, business to take care of, so I can rest without looking bad.” He has a degree from the University of Montana in recreation management, but started thinning timber and planting trees when he was in his 20s. “Once I learned the job, I was making $35 an hour in the ’80s, or working on a logging job, bumping knots for $130 a day,” he said. “This was when you could buy a house in Missoula for $45,000. Now that house has gone up 700 percent and the wages for that job are, what? $14 an hour?”

Alber’s crew raced forward, six or seven saws going full out, a small team following them and throwing the brush off the road. Every once in a while, someone broke off, water bottle in hand, and bumped up the pickup trucks to keep up with the crew. Alber clearly itched to keep up with them, holding his saw blade down, tip in the dirt, like a walking cane or a broadsword, and rocking it back and forth as he talked. “I think about what it would be like to be a kid in Darby (a town in the Bitterroot). He’s living there, all that land around it, he can’t buy a job. There’s something like $3 million in thinning contracts on the Darby Ranger District these past years, he can’t even bid on it, and nobody will hire him to work on it. … None of that money stays in Darby — these guys won’t even buy a set of tires there.”

Now Alber has given up on public-land contracts. “I pay my guys $17 an hour, and I pay workman’s comp, insurance, all of it. I believe that if you are working, you should be able to buy tires for your truck, have a beer or two, go to a dentist and get your teeth fixed if you need it. So, we can’t compete. Not on the bids. On the work, we’ll compete with any crew, anywhere. That’s just the truth.”

When I asked him if he thought that most U.S. citizens didn’t really want these jobs anymore, he responded with disgust. “Nothing pisses me off more than hearing that BS. It is insulting, and it is not true. Look at these guys. … This is what they want to do. We feel sorry for people who have to work in town in some office.”

Alber said that, a few years ago, long before the Marshall Woods project, he’d decided to make a fight of it. “I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was going to change it.” He contacted Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the Forest Service and all of his local legislators. “We’re in Ravalli County, right? Very conservative, build that wall, all of that,” he says. He told them about the millions of dollars spent on the forests nearby, and about how all of it just went right back out. “Our own tax money. They didn’t care anything about it.”

There is a reason for that lack of caring, and like the complex ecology of labor markets and their effect upon human lives, it is not immediately obvious. For the last 20 years, I’ve been a reporter and writer focused on our public lands, particularly efforts to transfer Forest Service and BLM lands to states or into private hands. The Republican Party’s platform includes a long-term goal of privatizing public lands. The short-term goal is for the system of public lands not to work; to strangle the budgets and diminish the role of once-proud agencies like the Forest Service, make sure that Western communities do not profit from or engage with the public lands that surround them, ensure a constant level of conflict and uncertainty, and import laborers in areas of high local unemployment. These goals may not be part of a vast right-wing conspiracy, but they serve the goal of eventual privatization just as surely as if they were.

Strangely enough, we Americans have made the decision to embrace a libertarian, devil-take-the-hindmost capitalist approach to labor and contracting on our public lands, the same lands that are perhaps our best remaining example of a shared national vision, a vision that defies the raw and bloody arithmetic of markets and bald statements of profit and loss. It’s a profound contradiction, one that has resulted in fewer and fewer American citizens working on our own public lands.

We can argue about whether a poor man from Honduras or Mexico, lured here to work on our public lands, is being exploited or being given opportunity, or both, but we cannot escape the fact that the model we have embraced has resulted in lower wages and far fewer opportunities for all the people — of whatever origin or ethnicity — who actually live in the West. We can shrug it off as the global free market at work, but there is little doubt that it is hollowing out communities like Pierce, Idaho, and Darby, Montana, and no doubt at all that it is fueling the booming anti-public-lands movement. Lost are generations of young people who take pride in their own strength and abilities, drawing decent wages from the use of muscle and common sense to solve problems and improve their own public lands. Swept into this vortex is the economic connection that small communities once had to the federally managed public lands that surround them, and that, increasingly, are seen as hampering, rather than encouraging, economic prosperity and quality of life in the West.

Hal Herring, a contributing editor at Field and Stream, wrote his first story for HCN in 1998. He covers environment, guns, conservation and public-lands issues for a variety of publications.

This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on October 30, 2017. The story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit, investigative news organization, and with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

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