U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, said in a conference call with Oregon reporters Thursday he’s still not sure why the Trump administration called recently for all 25 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers to be shut down or privatized.
But he’s glad to see the change of heart from the administration, a fact he attributed to a bipartisan effort to convince the administration that the CCCs like Wolf Creek Job Corps CCCs in Glide are providing an important service and need to remain as they are — open and under the management of the U.S. Forest Service.
“I think the strong response from around the country really sent a message about how valuable these organizations are,” Merkley said.
Nine of the CCCs were slated for closure. Wolf Creek, along with 15 others, would have been shifted from the Forest Service to the Department of Labor, which would have contracted with a private organization to manage it. All the CCCs were designed to offer training to students for whom traditional schooling wasn’t a good option. They offer an array programs from welding to GED preparation.
The prospect of privatization caused concern at Wolf Creek because of the importance of its training program in forestry conservation and firefighting. It’s the center’s most popular program and supporters feared it would be jeopardized if it were separated from the Forest Service.
Merkley said nobody knows what the impact of privatization would have been. There was no plan, and the Department of Labor doesn’t really understand the forest world, he said.
“You sever the connection to the Forest Service, I think you do deep damage to these programs. It’s hard for me to envision a contractor coming in, hiring people who don’t understand these programs, don’t understand the Forest Service, and somehow operating them effectively,” he said.
Merkley said the administration provided him with no evidence to back its claim that the CCCs were expensive and had a poor track record of placements after graduation. He also said he had asked for the statutory authority for the administration to make the changes, but didn’t receive that either.
He said the administration is now talking about developing new evaluation protocols, but he said what they’re looking for is a way to save face.
“What they’ve discovered is these organizations do a lot of important work and have powerful support in their communities. And that they just didn’t understand. They didn’t do an evaluation before they entered into this decision,” he said.
He said when he was able to reach Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, they had an intense and testy conversation in which Merkley brought up Perdue’s home state of Georgia.
“I asked how many forest fires they’d had in Georgia. He said none. I said that’s the difference, a big difference between our state and the West and Georgia,” he said.
Merkley said the effort to save the CCCs involved Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate who had CCCs in their states slated for closure or privatization. Prior to the administration backing down, they put forward bipartisan legislation and wrote a joint letter to the secretaries of agriculture and labor. Merkley said he even found common ground with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose home state of Kentucky had three CCCs slated for closure under the administration’s plan.