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Officials call off plan to combine 2 forests
Savings wouldn’t justify effort to consolidate Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: January 23, 2013
The U.S. Forest Service has abandoned a proposal to merge the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee national forests.
A report prepared for acting Regional Forester Marlene Finley found that a joint forest wouldn’t save enough money and would compromise management and the forest’s ability to serve nearby communities. The findings triggered the decision to cease studying a joint forest, Bridger-Teton Supervisor Jacque Buchanan said Tuesday.
“Marlene made that decision when I talked with her on Friday,” Buchanan said. “She said that ‘I think you made the case that this isn’t something that we should pursue.’”
When Harv Forsgren, the Forest Service’s now-retired region 4 forester, ordered the study in late October, he said a merger could make sense if the forests saved $1 million. The forests’ combined base budgets total $32.65 million.
The study failed to show the targeted cost savings were achievable, Buchanan said.
“We couldn’t get there — we were in the $800,000 range,” she said. “A total consolidation wasn’t going to achieve one of the very basic things that we were looking at.”
The study also concluded there would be poorer service to the communities in and around the forests, and harm to forest management, Buchanan said.
“Those were all pieces and parcels that just didn’t add up,” she said. “It wasn’t making any sense.”
Accounts differ on when and how federal land mangers and bureaucrats came to their conclusion. They range from an orderly process following regional recommendations to a spiking of the concept at the upper echelons of the federal agency.
The Forest Service made its official announcement Tuesday, following a 12-week study by eight Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee employees.
“After significant analysis, it was determined there wouldn’t be sufficient cost savings to combine forests and that the services the forests provide to the public and the resource would be negatively impacted,” a press release said.
Bridger-Teton and regional officials say the decision was made by Finley after learning of the merger study’s findings Friday.
Days before, a staffer for Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told Gray Reynolds, a retired Forest Service deputy chief, that Tidwell had dumped the consolidation idea, Reynolds said in a telephone interview from Maryland. Reynolds, who has Jackson roots, contacted the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C., office Jan. 14 or 15 and got a response Jan. 16, he said.
“As soon as I saw [the merger] was under consideration, I called the chief’s office and I told him I was not for it one bit,” Reynolds said.
Hours later, Reynolds amended his statement, saying that he rechecked his records and that he first contacted the Washington, D.C., office last Thursday and received a response Friday.
An email obtained by the News&Guide said Reynolds was spreading word before then that the merger wouldn’t happen.
“I just received a call from retiree Gray Reynolds, and he informed me that yesterday he made a subtle inquiry of the office of the chief concerning the practical and political feasibility of consolidating the Idaho/WY Caribou-Targhee and Bridger-Teton national forests,” Chuck Hendricks, another Forest Service retiree, said in an email date-stamped at 7:23 p.m. Jan. 16. “He was informed this afternoon by telephone that the chief has abandoned the idea of consolidating these NF’s.”
The Forest Service’s national press office did not answer phone calls for this story.
Region 4 spokeswoman Erin O’Connor said the decision was made at the regional level.
“I have no insights into any conversation that a former deputy chief had with the current chief of the Forest Service,” O’Connor said. “I do know that there was a lengthy conversation on Friday between the two forests and the regional office. At the conclusion of that conversation, they concurred that it just does not look like consolidation of the Bridger-Teton and the Caribou-Targhee would make sense.”
Buchanan said she received no indication that Tidwell’s office influenced the decision.
“I’ve not had any discussions with the Washington office,” she said. “I’m sure there are discussions that go on that I’m not a part of.”
The Bridger-Teton supervisor praised the community for getting involved in the merger discussion.
“I want to give due credit to all the people that stepped in and voiced their opinion,” she said, listing the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Gov. Matt Mead’s office and others. “It is a good day, and we made a good decision.”
Jackson Hole activists who lobbied against the merger proposal praised the news when it broke Tuesday.
“This is a big victory for the alliance,” Cory Hatch, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance’s wildlands director said. “It’s great to see that the Forest Service is letting logic prevail.”
Teton County commissioners also opposed the proposal and met the news with cheer.
“We are extremely pleased with the decision that was made by the regional forester,” Commissioner Hank Phibbs said. “We think it was the right decision, and we think it’s in the best interest of not just the forests but the people who live and recreate in them.”
The merger would have compromised the relationship between the Bridger-Teton and Grand Teton National Park and been bad for Jackson Hole, Reynolds said.
“Having been raised there and worked there, and having been regional forester, I can tell you I would do everything I could have done to stop it,” he said.