The Trump administration, under heavy pressure from Congress, will withdraw plans to end a U.S. Forest Service program that trains underprivileged youth, spokespersons for the Agriculture and Labor departments told POLITICO.
The Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers, a program within the Job Corps, trains low-income young people to to become first responders to natural disasters, to work on rural infrastructure projects, and to maintain national forests. The administration’s reversal on its shuttering the centers comes after significant pushback from lawmakers of both parties — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — and also from the union that represents USDA Forest Service employees.
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“For the time being, USDA does not intend to transfer these centers to DOL to allow management to determine a pathway that will maximize opportunity and results for students, minimize disruptions, and improve overall performance and integrity,” the USDA and DOL spokespersons said in an e-mailed statement. “DOL and USDA will conduct a robust organizational review to determine the appropriate course of action keeping in mind the [Forest Service] mission, the students we serve, and the American taxpayers.”
DOL announced in May that it accepted Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s decision to pull out of the Job Corps program. Perdue stated in a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta that the Forest Service had to step away from activities that were not essential to its core mission to improve “the condition and resilience” of America’s forests.
The decision was sudden; Forest Service Vicki Christansen told employees she had learned of the plan only four days prior. And members of Congress said they weren’t consulted or notified.
Nine of the 25 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers across the country were slated to be closed starting in September — in states such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin — and the other 16 were to be transferred to private contractors. About 1,100 federal employees faced layoffs.
Opponents argued that closing the Civilian Conservation Centers would undermine disaster response efforts at a time when wildfires and hurricanes are increasing in number and intensity.
Perhaps more to the point, lawmakers balked at the administration‘s planned elimination of jobs in their rural districts.
“I know Mitch has been trying to talk some sense into the administration,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told POLITICO in a brief interview Wednesday.
Lawmakers — including Tester, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.), and Reps. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) — led efforts to block the USDA and DOL from carrying out the plan by inserting provisions into fiscal 2020 spending legislation. Tester on Monday sought to add language to the National Defense Authorization Act preventing closures of the Montana centers.
In a letter to Perdue and Acosta earlier this month, lawmakers questioned the Trump administration’s assertion that many of the Forest Service Job Corps centers are costly, low-performing, and inefficient.
The administration, in its formal public notice of the plan, said that some of the centers have a number of problems, including “operating under-capacity, not achieving long-term student outcomes, and operating in an inefficient manner.” Closing nine centers would allow the Job Corps program to focus resources on other higher performing centers and improve students’ access to them, while also reducing the costs of transportation and facilities maintenance, the notice said.