The Big Freeze: What Trump's Hiring Suspension Means for Public Lands

"The trailheads that we go to, the places where we mountain bike or hike or fish — the normal federal employee who manages these lands is already under a lot of stress. A freeze is not really addressing the central issues of how are we going to manage these lands." -Bobby McAnaney, senior deputy director, NRDC. Credit: Getty Images

Widespread hiring freezes hit most federal agencies on Monday (excepting the military). The stated goal of the order is to "reduce the size of the Federal Government's workforce through attrition." In other words? It may be here to stay.

For the Department of Interior, which oversees most public lands, this likely means there will be no new employees to aid in the $12.5 billion maintenance backlog that Ryan Zinke said he'd make a priority when he took control. And while National Parks have never been more popular (with some 300 million visitors in 2015), resources allocated for conservation and land management are at record lows — meaning the new hiring freeze could have the unintended consequences when it comes to camping and hiking, mountain-biking, and paddling on public lands. Even hunting and fishing may be affected.

"There's a sense that government is bloated and inefficient, and we can save money and reduce government interference on everyday Americans' lives," says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "Now, there may be bloated agencies out there, but if you look at conservation funding in this country, the exact opposite is true. In the late '70s, conservation funding was about 2.5 percent of the federal budget, and today it’s about 1 percent."

Will Rogers, president and CEO of the Trust for Public Lands agrees: "Congress has not stepped up with what I would say are the expectations of the public when it comes to maintaining and taking care of our public lands. So that’s where we’re starting. A hiring freeze is only going to make it worse."

Our 500 million-plus acres of public lands, about one-fifth of the landmass of the United States, are managed by federal employees and contractors who manage grazing permits, trail maintenance, recreational visitation, oil and gas permits, fire suppression, timber issues, road building, and wilderness management, among many, many other tasks. The Bureau of Land Management, a department inside the DOI, is itself in charge of roughly 300 million acres. It has about 30,000 employees. That's around 50 square miles to manage per employee.

"If we recreate on public lands, we depend on the effectiveness of our federal land managers to do a good job," says Bobby McEnaney, Senior Deputy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The trailheads that we go to, the places where we mountain bike or hike or fish — the normal federal employee who manages these lands is already under a lot of stress. A freeze is not really addressing the central issues of how are we going to manage these lands."

Typically, when budgets are cut, the government will rely on contractors to pick up the slack and supplement responsibilities. But the memo from the Trump administration announcing the freeze said, specifically, that agencies would not be allowed to contract out their responsibilities. In fact, the DOI often relies on contractors to deal with forest fires. It poses a dangerous question: What, when summer comes, are we going to do when forest fires inevitably happen?

Even if a hiring freeze isn't permanent, it is likely to have repercussions. The National Wildlife Refuge Association works closely with the DOI, and they've seen steady disinterest growing among their ranks of volunteers because they're being turned away. 

"In the past six years, the number of volunteers has declined by 14 percent, simply because many refuges have no staff to oversee their efforts," says Desirée Sorenson-Groves, VP of Government Affairs at the NWRA. "A hiring freeze means this will continue to be the case. Just when Americans want to step up and help, there’s no one there to accept it."

Then there are the economic consequences from a hiring freeze for the DOI. One of the fastest growing energy sectors in the United States is renewable energy: In 2009, there were no solar energy facilities operating on public lands. Now there are 36 permitted, 11 operating, and 7 under construction. "When you eliminate the ability to hire additional contractor staff," notes McEnaney, "you're eliminating the ability to encourage some of the economic growth occurring.

Oil and gas permits are also impacted by this move. According to a PEER survey, the BLM, part of the Department of Interior, cannot even keep pace with its current permit responsibilities. "This administration has talked about expanding energy across public lands, and you can't do that without additional staff," says McEnaney. "It requires permitting, it requires land surveys, it requires a whole slew of interactions of federal employees. There's a contradiction there that this administration hasn't addressed."

Public land advocates are further concerned by the media blackout memos that began circulating on Tuesday, signaling that the new administration has little interest in talking to the press or in public input.  

"Mere days after proclaiming he had returned the government to the people, Trump is muzzling federal employees, restricting freedom of the press, and censoring federal websites and social media feeds," says Bethany Cotton, JD, the Wildlife Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. "These are the actions of a coward who has no interest in engaging with the public, who is afraid of truth and his own government's employees, and is intent on undermining our most basic freedoms."

"It's the public's right to participate in how the federal government operates, and it's their right to help manage how federal lands are governed," adds McEnaney. "If there's a process that prevents federal land managers to communicate to the public, that's a real problem and a breakdown in the system."


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