Forest Service hit hard by chronic staff turnover
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The U.S. Forest Service is facing chronic turnover in the White River National Forest and needs to provide affordable housing to ease the problem, according to the new forest supervisor.
Scott Fitzwilliams, who’s been in the top post in the forest for a month, has been touring the five district offices to learn about the issues the agency is facing. Along with numerous forest management challenges, he said he’s learned that staffing is a major concern, particularly in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Five of the top positions in the White River are currently vacant, are about to become vacant, or were recently filled. Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Irene Davidson is transferring to a different Forest Service job in November, Fitzwilliams said. The Eagle-Holy Cross district ranger is also leaving this fall. The Meeker district ranger vacancy was recently filled. The rangers are the top officials in the five districts of the White River National Forest, headquartered in Glenwood Springs.
The supervisor’s position was vacant for 11 months during the hiring process. The assistant forest supervisor’s post is currently vacant.
Some of the turnover is because of opportunities and promotions, which is regular occurrence in the Forest Service. “People have to do what’s right for them, and I support that,” Fitzwilliams said. “But a lot of it centers around housing.”
The highest-paid people in the agency face challenges finding affordable housing. The problem is even greater for their staffs. Each district is dealing with staff vacancies, and that “burns out” the district rangers and their existing staff members, according to Fitzwilliams.
“I don’t want to paint a picture of poor government employee. We’re grateful to have jobs,” he said. “But I think I can be more efficient if we can make headway on some of these housing issues.”
Lack of affordable housing has been a problem for the Forest Service in Aspen for years. The agency has extremely limited housing available in the upper valley. Employees often commute from towns downvalley or places farther west, such as New Castle, Silt and Rifle. The recession has eased the housing shortage somewhat – rentals are more abundant, and real estate sales prices have generally tumbled 30 percent – but the Roaring Fork Valley’s history shows it is just a cycle. Scarce housing and high prices are likely to haunt businesses again.
The Forest Service turnover has broad implications on the White River National Forest. When positions are filled in Aspen, Rifle, Glenwood Springs, Meeker, Eagle and Dillon, the funds for moving expenses come from the forest’s budget. That means fewer funds are available for core mission duties, like trail maintenance or Wilderness patrol, according to Fitzwilliams.
And when workers are rotating through every two or three years, the moving expenses piled up.
Fitzwilliams said it is a high priority for him to provide some affordable housing for the district staffs.
“I can be more efficient with the taxpayers’ money and do more of the work the taxpayer expects of me as opposed to paying for United Van Lines,” he said.
His focus might reignite Forest Service efforts to assess the agency’s property in the Roaring Fork Valley and make better use of it.
“We have a lot of property worth a lot of money, little inlets all over the place that we might have to part with to get us some housing,” Fitzwilliams said.
He pointed to the Sopris headquarters near downtown Carbondale and the Aspen headquarters in the West End as possible opportunities. Both sites are larger with dilapidated facilities. He called the office and visitor’s center in Aspen a “pathetic, embarrassing” building.
He said he will explore working with private enterprise to get new buildings on those sites and possibly sell the extra property to raise funds needed to build housing on other Forest Service land. The idea has been raised before but hasn’t led to action. Fitzwilliams seems determined to get it back on track based on what he is hearing from his staff.
“I’ve done my rounds around the forest, and there’s no question what the number one issue is with employees,” Fitzwilliams said.
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The fire, now the fourth largest in Colorado history, has quickly spread into difficult terrain north of Granby and into Rocky Mountain National Park.