Changes at Pine Ridge Job Corps threaten Panhandle’s ability to fight fires

The water tower at the Pine Ridge Job Corps is seen south of Chadron on Friday, June 7.

CHADRON — In Late July 2006, a lightning strike in the hills 12 miles south of Chadron started what would come to be known as the Spotted Tail Fire. Before it was extinguished, the flames had worked their way north and came to within less than 500 meters of the Chadron State College campus.

For many Chadron residents, it was too close for comfort. As a precaution, a number of blocks bordering the campus were ordered to evacuate. At the same time in neighboring Sioux County, crews struggled to contain another fire as it burned through the Hat Creek Valley. All combined, the two fires that summer consumed more than 68,000 acres of forests and rangeland in Sioux and Dawes Counties. At least four homes and several other structures, along with about 500 miles of fences, were destroyed.

A fire like that is only supposed to happen once in 100 years.

But then it happened again.

In late August 2012, the West Ash Creek fire broke out, adding to what had already been a bad fire season for the Pine Ridge. While it did not come nearly as close to the city of Chadron as the Spotted Tail Fire, when combined with two other fires that burned at the same time, more than 165,000 acres were scorched in Sioux, Dawes and Sheridan Counties.

While the loses over both years were devastating in their own right, far more acres would have burned were it not for the Soldier Creek Fire Crew and camp crews supplied by the Pine Ridge Job Corps near Chadron. For decades, local volunteer fire crews beleaguered by blazes have come to rely on Job Corps students who reinforce volunteer departments by helping to establish and hold fire lines.

“Just 2006 and 2012 alone proved what Job Corps means to us,” Chadron Mayor Miles Bannan said Wednesday.

Clayton Riesen, who chairs the Pine Ridge Job Corps Community Relations Committee, echoed that sentiment. He said that his property on the east side of Chadron was where a fire had stopped.

“Two hundred thirty of the 240 acres burned, but they were able to save our house,” he said. “It was sad, but I couldn’t think of what we would have done without them.”

The efforts of those Job Corps crews over the years have saved hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and rangeland, protecting the lives of not only Chadron’s residents, but also the lives and livelihoods of farmers and ranchers in the tri-state region and beyond.

But that critical support Pine Ridge Job Corps fire crews provide for the Panhandle may now be in Jeopardy.

REORGANIZATION

The Trump administration announced on May 24 that it intends to end the Forest Service’s involvement in Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers by transferring it to the Department of Labor. Beyond training disadvantaged young people in wildland firefighting, Job Corps also trains around 3,000 students a year for trades and skills that are most needed in both rural and metropolitan areas.

The structural reorganization of Job Corps, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of September, means 1,100 federal employees across the nation’s 25 job corps centers will get pink slips — one of the largest federal job layoffs in a decade. Nine of those centers will be shuttered permanently and operations at the remaining 16 centers will be handed over to private for-profit contractors.

The Pine Ridge Job Corps, which was established 55 years ago in the Nebraska National Forest south of Chadron, employs around 56 people and is one of 16 centers operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the U.S. Forest Service. In addition to the forestry and firefighting training offered at Job Corps, the center also provides training in welding and fabrication, painting, carpentry, and other trades.

Because trade skills fall under the umbrella of the labor department, Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta reached an agreement to shift the responsibility for the program.

Riesen expressed concerns about the departure of a major employer in the area.

“This kills our little town,” Riesen said. “I don’t like government waste when it comes to spending, but I think this is a very good program and has done a lot of good for the community and the kids and the forest.

“Between the (Crow Butte) Uranium Mine and this, we can’t lose any more good employers in the region,” he said.

Salaries for Pine Ridge Job Corps employees alone amount to $4.1 million annually, and assuming that half of that is invested into the local economy, the spin-off revenue generates roughly $12.5 million for the local economy in Chadron and the surrounding communities.

In addition, the soon-to-be laid off employees — some of whom are military veterans — would be forced to relocate if they wished to continue federal service, meaning that their spouses who are employed in value-added positions in the community, as well as their children who are enrolled in local school districts, would leave town with them.

If former employees leave our community, they will likely take entire families. There is not a business in this community that will not feel the loss of 50 families leaving the community, Bannan said.

“This is a tremendous loss for our community,” Bannan said Wednesday. “It’s a program that has been in our community for a long time and has done a lot of good work.”

Bannan said that in his time on the city council, a number of projects would have been possible without the help of Job Corps students.

“They’ve done a lot of work for the city that has allowed us to stretch our dollars,” he said.

Bannan said that Job Corps students have also been active volunteers in the community, from coaching youth soccer to helping with the community’s annual Fur Trade Days celebration. In 2019 so far, Job Corps has accomplished more than 30 projects in the region, accumulating 14,779 hours.

“I think this whole move is just misguided,” he said. “While the actual career and trade training has a home under the Labor Department would make sense, farming (Job Corps) out to a for-profit contractor means we lose all of those jobs.

“We’ll get a lowest bidder contractor who is going to hire at the lowest rate they can and charge the government the most they can and pocket the rest, and all of the community service, the volunteerism and the good jobs are going to dry up.

POLITICAL RESPONSE

So far, only one Job Corps center has been spared from the chopping block. The Anaconda, Montana, Job Corps Training Center will remain open and maintain its 63 staffers after Montana Republican Sen. Steven Daines personally lobbied President Donald Trump to keep the center from closing. Some had asked if Daines could stop the closure of one Jobs Corps in Montana, why could Nebraska’s Senate delegation not do the same?

Montana’s entire congressional delegation, including Conservative Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte, have voiced opposition to the closures, and the state’s other Senator, Democrat Jon Tester, has introduced legislation to halt the transfer of Job Crops from the Forest Service.

Nebraska’s delegation’s response, however, has been muted.

In statements provided to media earlier in the week, Third District Congressman Adrian Smith and Sen. Deb Fischer, both said that they would “be monitoring” the transition as it unfolds, but offered little in regard to specifics.

Given the lion share of students at Pine Ridge Job Corps who come from the Lincoln and Omaha area, Riesen was asked if he’d attempted to contact Reps. Jeff Fortenberry and Don Bacon.

“We’ve tried,” Riesen said. “But they won’t even let you email them unless you live in their district.”

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