Trump administration reverses decision to end Forest Service Job Corps program

Washington (CNN)The Trump administration is reversing its decision to end the US Forest Service program that trains low-income, rural students how to respond to national emergencies, after bipartisan backlash from Congress.

In a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta back in May, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced his agency’s intent to “terminate its role in the Job Corps program” by the end of September, arguing that it was not essential to the Forest Service’s “core mission.”
But the agencies reversed their decision this week following “robust engagement” with stakeholders and members of Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who strongly opposed the changes.
“For the time being, USDA does not intend to transfer these centers to DOL to allow management to determine a pathway that will maximize opportunity and results for students, minimize disruptions, and improve overall performance and integrity,” a spokesperson from the Department of Labor and a spokesperson from the Department of Agriculture said in a statement.
    Over 1,000 federal jobs were in danger of being cut, according to the union that represents Forest Service employees.
    Nine of the 25 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers under the Department of Agriculture were expected to close in states like Wisconsin, Kentucky, Virginia, Oregon, Montana and Washington state. The remaining 16 centers would have been under “new contract operator or partnership,” the Labor Department said back in May.
    The two agencies said it will conduct a “robust organizational review to determine the appropriate course of action keeping in mind the US (Forest Service) mission, the students we serve, and the American taxpayers.”
    Politico first reported on the reversal Wednesday.
    After the Labor Department’s announcement in May, the pushback from lawmakers who would have seen Job Corps centers close in their states was swift.
    McConnell reached out to Acosta and Perdue to reconsider their proposal to shutter centers in Kentucky.
    “These distressed Kentucky counties, with unemployment rates above the national average, need more support, not less,” McConnell said.
    A group of 51 Republican and Democratic lawmakers wrote to Perdue and Acosta earlier this month demanding more information about their decision to end the program and strongly urging them to reconsider.
    Started in 1964, the program trains nearly 4,000 students, ages 16 to 24, each year and prepares them for jobs in natural resources, continued education or the military. Its students are also trained by the Forest Service on how to fight wildland forest fires.
    In their letter, the members of Congress argued that with hurricane and wildfire season quickly approaching, “now is precisely the wrong time to be reducing capacity” at centers.
    Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana had successfully appealed to the President to keep the Job Corps center in Anaconda open.
    Daines and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana introduced legislation earlier this month to block the administration’s changes to the Job Corps program. Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington also offered an amendment prohibiting any funds from being used to close or transfer centers.
    On Tuesday, the lawmakers who had lobbied the administration to keep the centers open celebrated the administration’s turnaround.
    Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon called it a “victory” for rural communities across the country and Daines said he was “glad” Trump, Acosta and Perdue listened.
      But Tester argued that “too often this Administration acts without regard for the real-world consequences of their decisions—consequences overwhelmingly suffered by folks in rural America.”
      “Suddenly, without any real reason or justification, the President pulled the plug on one of the most successful initiatives in rural America and my office was flooded with stories and objections from Montanans,” Tester said in a statement Tuesday. “That’s why I fought so hard to reverse this decision and today I’m extremely proud to have helped make their voices heard.”