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Forestry Commission layoffs may affect area firefighting efforts

Friday, February 3, 2012

North central district Arkansas Forestry Commission offices are having to do more with less, after 34 employees of the state agency were laid off in January.

The job reductions were necessary because the commission is dealing with a $4 million budget problem, which includes repayment of $1.2 million in federal funds it improperly spent.

"Did we lose any firefighters here?" a Fulton County resident recently asked The News, after hearing of the layoffs. She said Forestry Commission firefighters provide a valuable service, which they once demonstrated when they were called to her property, to assist a volunteer fire department with a fast spreading grass fire.

In most local communities, the commission provides Rangers, whose main job is fire prevention and firefighting in forested areas, and Foresters, who work with the public to better manage forested land to keep wooded areas healthy and reduce the risk of fire.

According to Troy Franks, a Ranger at the Salem Forestry Commission office, no firefighters were laid off during the recent job reductions. However, Brian Maddox, a Forester who served Fulton and Sharp Counties, was among those who lost their jobs in the cutback.

The Salem office now has just two employees, because a Ranger position in Fulton County was already vacant, and will not be filled.

Izard County has three forestry employees, and Sharp County has four, plus a secretary.

Randolph, Independence and Lawrence Counties are also in the area Forestry District.

Forester Kenny Smothers, who is based in Independence County, is now the only Forester for all of District Eight.

"That means, I will be traveling more, and people will have to wait a little longer when they request inspections or want information about forest management programs," Smothers told The News. "We're just all pitching in to try to get the job done (despite cutbacks)."

Private property owners also hire the Forestry Commission to conduct controlled burns in forested areas. Because of cutbacks, it may be difficult for the commission to take care of scheduled burns before fire season begins.

Forestry Commission workers say, besides working with landowners, Foresters are trained and ready to serve as firefighters, when necessary. So, the cutback in Foresters in the area could impact firefighting efforts during busy seasons.

Salem Volunteer Fire Department Chief Nick Blanton is happy his department bought a specially equipped Gator, four wheeler, to allow his firefighters to get to hard to reach areas, as they fight grass fires.

"I know that Forestry Commission crews have been cut back so much, they are probably not going to be as available as they have been in the past," Blanton said. "They have taken a bulldozer and truck from here, and I think there is now just one bulldozer and truck for five counties. We are going to have to try to contain some big fires until a commission crew can get here."

The legislature's Forestry Subcommittee, which held two meetings the week of Jan. 23 to discuss Forestry Commission problems, is concerned that 14 of the 34 employees laid off were firefighters.

At the Jan. 23 meeting of the Budget Committee's Forestry Subcommittee, Senator Missy Irvin, who serves the north central area, said, "In my opinion, the reduction in force really disabled our fire protection ability in the state of Arkansas. Can we handle what we might face with the force we have in place?"

State Forester John Shannon told legislators, "The priority is getting firefighters back on the ground."

Rep. Buddy Lovell of Marked Tree told Shannon he needed to develop a plan to restore firefighting jobs, as soon as possible.

On Jan. 26, Shannon went back before the committee and proposed restoring four firefighter jobs by reducing the amount budgeted for professional and administrative fees by $167,000.

Shannon added, however, he could add 21 additional positions if the forest protection tax, paid by landowners, was raised by five cents an acre.

The fiscal session of the legislature, which begins Feb. 13, will consider passing a new state budget. Because it would take a two-thirds vote to consider the tax increase, most lawmakers doubt the tax will be raised this year.

Governor Mike Beebe has indicated he will ask for a supplemental appropriation of $2.7 million dollars to be added to this year's Forestry Budget. The money would pay back $1.2 million in federal funds the commission improperly spent on salaries and operating expenses, and cover agency expenses through the rest of the fiscal year. Senator Irvin, who is co-chair of the subcommittee, wants a study into commission operations - how it got into financial trouble and what changes are needed to address funding problems - so new legislation can be considered at the 2013 session.

Irvin is among legislators who wonder why Shannon was not aware of his agency's financial problems, and failed to seek assistance before they got out of hand. Some also want to know how the agency could improperly spend federal funds - designated for specific uses - to cover operating expenses.

Shannon has claimed he was not made aware of commission budget issues until mid-November. Governor Beebe has continued to support Shannon, and some legislators on the subcommittee told critics their responsibility is to take action to help the forestry commission, not to "point fingers," or "blame someone."

Without a forest protection tax increase this year, it appears the commission will be short staffed until next year, at the earliest. In the meantime, forestry commission offices in north central Arkansas will have to make due with the staff and resources they have to work with.

The Fulton County resident concerned about commission cutbacks hopes Rangers and Foresters are not forgotten.

"They brought their bulldozer (to my house) and were very professional in curtailing the fire," she said. "They did not cause any damage to my property. They provide a vital service in this area."

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