Monday, December 17, 2012

Federal retirements shaking up Alaska's public landscape

Kirk Johnson reports in today's New York Times on the forced retirements of federal agency employees responsible for public lands in the West.  Johnson's focus is Alaska, where "hundreds of millions of acres" of public land--an area the size of Texas and Wyoming combined--are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.  Here is the lede to Johnson's story:
A quietly profound generational change is about to sweep through federal agencies here in the nation’s biggest and wildest state — but also by many measures, its most government-dependent.  
New rules in the federal retirement system are driving the departures, along with new opportunities for early retirement in the Fish and Wildlife Service.  The retirements mean that each of the three agencies will lose between 7 and 9 percent of its senior managers come Dec. 31.  For the Fish and Wildlife Service, that is some 55 "mostly senior managers, scientists and wildlife experts" out of a 600 strong work force.  Thirty-six of 500 employees of the National Park Service have said they will leave. 

But, explains Johnson, the impact is not just in the numbers; it is also in expertise and relationships. The Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, is losing more than 1000 years of cumulative experience, but its enforcement arm (dealing with illegal animal harvests and protection of endangered species) will see relatively few departures.  Still, protection is likely to be affected because it "comes down to education and personal relationships in villages in remote areas—and those conversations, because of new leadership at the refuges, will change."

Johnson's story also touches on issues like Alaska's history and new opportunities to use technology to manage the land and its flora and fauna.  He writes:
And many of these people were shaped by a perspective formed in a very different time in Alaska and the nation — mostly the 1970s, when the environmental movement was young and bursting with muscular and sometimes hippie-tinged enthusiasm. 
Alaska, back then, was a magnet for wildlife biologists and seekers of a life at the frontier. The bush was “back to the land” at its most extreme — a force fueled by what one retiring refuge supervisor, Mike Boylan, called “the John Denver effect." 
“Everybody coming out of college wanted to go to the woods, into the wild,” Mr. Boylan said. “Alaska was the big one, if you could get up here.” 
* * * 
Environmental groups and agency officials also say the retirement wave is momentous in what happens next: new blood coming in at a time when some elements of the old Alaska — doughty homesteaders, trappers and subsistence hunters — are fading.

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