Washington is primed for a bad wildfire season. The state has already responded to more than 275 small fires, a pace that is weeks ahead of average for this time of year. The last thing anyone wanted to hear, then, was news that the Trump administration wants to gut a federal program that trains the next generation of firefighters.
Joint Corps Civilian Conservation Centers (CCC) provide a triple-whammy for the nation. First, they train young people in firefighting, forestry management, construction and other hands-on skills that are in high demand in states like Washington with abundant forest lands. Second, when a large wildfire or other natural disaster occurs, students provide critical support services to responders such as cooking and camp maintenance. And third, CCC benefits at-risk youth, engaging with them before they become problem youth and teaching them skills that they can turn into careers.
The U.S. Forest Service last week announced it will shutter nine CCC facilities, including Fort Simcoe CCC near Yakima and the Timber Lake Job CCC near Estacada, Oregon.
The remaining 16 centers around the country will be outsourced to private contractors. Two of them are in Washington — Columbia Basin CCC in Moses Lake and Curlew CCC in Curlew. That’s something, at least, but the loss of the center in Yakima will be especially tough.
“The job corps trainees are integrated into our wildfire response,” explained Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. “Fort Simcoe in Yakima is important because Yakima is front and center for so many wildfires.”
Even some conservative lawmakers are aghast at the proposal. “This misguided decision is a betrayal of the administration’s commitment to bring prosperity to rural America and the rural communities of Washington state,” said U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, both Washington Republicans, in a joint statement.
If members of their own party cannot persuade President Donald Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to reverse course, Washington should consider intervening. Perhaps the state could become the “partner” that the Trump administration wants to operate the CCC facilities. Washington might even preserve Fort Simcoe as part of an agreement.
The trick would be funding. These sorts of programs are designed to serve the public good, not turn a profit. Doing it right likely would require investing state dollars, and this announcement comes right after the Legislature approved a budget with few discretionary dollars.
The first step is figuring out whether the feds would even consider partnering with the state and what the cost actually would be. Those conversations need to start immediately. The Trump administration wants to lay off CCC staff, close centers and transition to private partners by fall.