Earlier this year dozens of Tongass National Forest employees were called on for temporary assignments to South Dakota. But veterans of the Forest Service have called the move unusual, leading to speculation of a political motive — namely, President Trump’s announcement that he’s fast-tracked a controversial plan to hold Independence Day at Mount Rushmore.
The Forest Service says it had two dozen volunteers from Tongass National Forest to step forward to work at Black hills National Forest.
“The request is a voluntary detail option, with employees choosing to take a two-week or four-week assignment to support agency interests,” Tongass spokesman Paul Robbins Jr. wrote in a statement.
But veterans of the agency recall things differently.
“It started out as a volunteer thing,” Ken Dinsmore, a Sitka-based Forest Service employee of 40 years, told CoastAlaska. “And as it morphed and time went on, supervisors were being a little bit more persuasive, so to speak, than just volunteering.”
Dinsmore is also president of Local 251 of the National Federation of Federal Employees which represents about 350 agency workers. So he heard a lot about this from fellow union members.
“I would speculate that some folks volunteered, you know, get out of the rainforest for a little while,” he added. “I would encourage people to do that — if they wanted to.”
But he says there was some resentment among federal workers with families and other commitments to pack their bags for a month or longer.
“Management has the right to direct and assign work — it’s completely understood,” he said. “In this case, we found it to be a bit irregular.”
He said Tongass employees were not told specifically why a national forest in South Dakota needed dozens of scientists, technicians and other support staff from Southeast Alaska.
But at least one watchdog group suspects a political motive. President Donald Trump told reporters in January he’s overturning a decade-old fireworks ban at Mount Rushmore for a state-sponsored Independence Day display.
“I said, ‘What can burn? It’s stone! You know? It’s stone!’ So nobody knew why,” Trump told reporters on January 15. “They just said ‘environmental reasons.’ So I called up our people and within about 15 minutes we got it approved and you’re going to have your first big fireworks display at Mount Rushmore. And I’ll try and get out there if I can.”
But public outcry in South Dakota suggests there actually is a lot that can burn on the adjacent Black Hills National Forest. An insect infestation that the forest service says has killed more trees than logging, weather, disease, fire, and other pressures combined has left a lot of fuel lying around — and the Forest Service would need to do a lot of site work to try and prevent a conflagration sparked on the Fourth of July.
“I mean, everybody knows that it’s the stupidest thing in the world to set off fireworks in the middle of the summer in the middle of a mountain pine beetle epidemic,” said Andy Stahl, an ex-Forest Service employee and now executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics in Eugene, Oregon.
Stahl admits he doesn’t have proof that the reassignment of Tongass staffers to South Dakota is related to Trump’s public sentiments.
“But it is an interesting coincidence that at the same time the President wants a fireworks party, the Forest Service is sending crews to where the party is going to happen,” Stahl said, “to make sure that all hell doesn’t break loose when the fireworks go off.”
A Freedom of Information Act request filed by CoastAlaska seeking answers is pending with the agency.
The official Mount Rushmore fireworks show is being reviewed by the National Park Service. And it continues to generate a lot of heat over fears of fire danger.
In an email to CoastAlaska, Black Hills National Forest spokesman Scott Jacobson wrote that the region had requested assistance from various parts of the country.
“The assistance is not in relation to the State of South Dakota / National Park Service proposal to host a fireworks display,” Jacobson wrote.
But then there’s the question of the urgency of outsourcing Southeast Alaska’s Forest Service expertise for a summer. Tongass staffers had been working on the largest Tongass timber sale proposed in decades.
But that project on Prince of Wales Island is on hold — indefinitely — after a federal court sided with conservationists wh’d sued over flaws in the review process.
Stahl says there’s a lot of other work the Southeast Alaska-based biologists, surveyors and other ground crews could be doing locally such as improving watersheds rehabilitate salmon fisheries.
“The Tongass still has a legacy of fish blocking culverts on its logging roads that need to be fixed, they need to be removed,” he said. “And these employees could be working on that and some of them are.”
The transfers to South Dakota are on hold. That’s because all non-essential travel has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s been no word yet whether state officials are canceling with fireworks at Mount Rushmore — or if President Trump will attend.