Laura Lundquist – Missoula Current
On Friday, the Trump administration announced its intent to shut down one of Montana’s two Civilian Conservation Job Corps centers.
The Anaconda Civilian Conservation Center is one of nine CCCs nationwide that will close because of a U.S. Department of Agriculture decision to remove Civilian Conservation Centers from U.S. Forest Service responsibility. This follows on the heels of proposed Trump administration cuts to the Forest Service budget.
After the USDA sent a letter withdrawing its responsibility, the U.S. Department of Labor had to decide what to do next.
Because of the sudden shift, the Labor Department announced Friday it would shutter some centers. Students at those centers will be allowed to complete their training or transfer to another location. Meanwhile, center staff, including the 75 employees at Anaconda, will be laid off.
The Trapper Creek CCC outside Darby was spared, along with 15 other CCCs. However, the Department of Labor said independent contractors would probably take over management at the remaining centers. The operators will be allowed to implement new policies.
“The department will continue to ensure student access to the program through a commitment to maintain at least one Job Corps center in each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico,” according to a Department of Labor news release.
The change is expected to be completed by September.
In previous years’ budget proposals, Republican lawmakers and the White House have targeted the Forest Service’s work program, but never went this far.
According to the Huffington Post, Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen, told CCC directors it was a tough decision.
“Please know that this was a high-level policy discussion and decision, and in no way reflects on the excellent work and dedication that you all demonstrate on a daily basis,” Christiansen said.
The National Federation of Federal Employees said in a statement Friday that the move was made “without forethought or a solid plan.”
“The worst part is, it’s very clear that the Trump administration doesn’t care about the young people in need who rely on this program,” the union said. “This administration’s continued indifference to helping minority and disadvantaged communities is appalling.”
The mission of the Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers is to provide students ages 16 to 24 with educational, social and vocational skills while assisting in the conservation of public land resources. Often the students have struggled in regular schools and the CCCs give them a chance to get out of cities to find purpose and perspective and to earn a GED.
With a budget of about $1.5 billion, the CCCs enroll about 50,000 students a year.
“In many cases, these students have lived a hard life for their short years. We take them in and we give them self-worth,” said former Anaconda office supervisor Rosemarie Thomas in 2011. “We educate them, train them and get them on the right track. We’ve given them something that they can go out in the world to use and give something back, which in this day and age is important.”
Meanwhile, students at the centers have provided 613,000 hours of critical labor for a cash-strapped Forest Service and contributed to local economies. An undated flyer from the Anaconda CCC said the center contributed $8.17 million to the local economy.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester visited the Anaconda CCC in 2011 and said the job training was important to the U.S. economy.
“We need to look at the budget and we need to support the programs that work. And we need to make cuts, sometimes severe, to the programs that aren’t so good. This is one of those programs that’s a good program,” Tester said then.
Tester stood by that statement on Friday, slamming the Trump administration closures and vowing to sponsor legislation opposing the shutdown.
“Make no mistake, this decision will lead to an immediate loss of jobs in rural America and undermine economic development in communities like Anaconda moving forward,” Tester said in a release. “The magnitude of this decision on a community like Anaconda and the people of Montana is hard to overstate. I urge you to reconsider this irresponsible decision and instead work to create jobs and provide services to the rural West.”
So after training and graduating workers for more than 50 years, what does Friday’s announcement mean for the immediate future of approximately 200 students at the Anaconda CCC?
Calls to the Anaconda CCC were not returned, but the receptionist said the staff was huddled in meetings. Center director Ray Ryan was in Washington, D.C., this week, according to his voicemail, possibly for the purpose of Friday’s announcement.