Budget cuts are forcing the Mississippi Forestry Commission to reorganize and cut 75 jobs in the process.
The MFC is losing $2.6 million in state funding for Fiscal Year 2018, which starts in July, compared to the current fiscal year, according to a department press release — a 16 percent decrease.
Because of the funding cut, the commission will reorganize its seven districts across the state into four regions. That process will begin on July 1 and the commission expects to have to eliminate almost 22 percent of its workforce.
MFC Assistant State Forester Russel Bozeman said of the job cuts, one-third will come at the administrative level. The other two thirds, or 50 jobs, will come from service foresters, forest rangers and forest technicians. He said MFC currently has about 345 employees.
“We’re deeply saddened by having to do this reduction in force,” Bozeman said. “We have a great group of people. They’re fantastic employees and a lot of them put their lives at risk trying to protect people’s property, homes and lives.
“Any reduction is a great concern,” he added. “We hate to make this change, but we have to live within our means.”
The commission is charged with suppressing wildfires, helping private landowners plant trees and manage land, allowing prescribed burning, helping with general best practices and other duties, Bozeman said. He said service foresters, forest rangers and forest technicians are the workers who carry out fire suppression and forest management.
For FY 2018, the commission will have $13.6 million in its general budget, which comes from the state. Bozeman said all of that money goes to salaries, and the commission has authority to earn up to $10 million for the fiscal year through grants and other sources to help pay for certain programs, vehicles and other needs.
The approaching fiscal year isn’t the first time the commission has had to grapple with budget cuts. For FY 2017, it received $16.2 million from the state, which was down from the $19.4 million the year before.
Over the course of the two years, Bozeman said, the commission has lost more than 30 percent of its state funding.
“The budget cut we took last year had a reduction in force as well,” Bozeman said. “About 25 people were reduced from the agency. We had the ability to bridge some of the gap without taking it out of personnel. But, there’s only so tight you can make a belt.”
Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties are in the MFC’s East Central District, and Clay County is in the Northeast District. On July 1, the counties will be part of the northeast portion of Region 2, which will stretch across the entire north-central portion of the state.
Bozeman said one forester serves Clay, Oktibbeha and Lowndes counties — though there is sometimes overlap from neighboring foresters’ service areas. With the reorganization, that forester’s area will expand to include Choctaw County. Bozeman said the forester will still have workers under him, such as forest technicians and rangers to help him in his work, and may even gain a technician through expanding to a larger area.
“That part of the state is currently already operating under a model similar to what we’ll be expanding on, where one forester is responsible for multiple counties, whether that’s two or three counties,” he said. “What’s happening is when you have fewer resources to cover an area, the box is going to get a little bigger. Some that were over two may be over three; three may be four; and some may not change at all.”
Todd Matthews is the MFC’s urban forestry coordinator. He lives in Starkville, but his work covers the entire state. He’s also a former service forester for Lowndes and Noxubee counties.
The urban forestry program is funded with federal money — and Bozeman noted that Matthews, as the only coordinator in the state, is the minimum staff the commission must have in order to get funding for the program — and thus insulated against the state-level budget cuts.
Matthews said he’s aware of the impending cuts and knows there has been a great deal of concern about them, but he hadn’t had a chance as of Monday to talk to anyone about them in-depth.
However, as a former service forester, or county forester as they’re also called, he said he knows they have broad responsibilities within their areas.
They manage timber on 16th Section land for school districts, in portions of the state that have such land. They work with the public, whether that’s advising private landowners when they should sell their timber, or advising on if they have pine beetles in their trees.
Matthews said service foresters also work to help prevent and contain wildfires.
As the urban forestry coordinator, Matthews works with cities to manage trees, from regular maintenance to dealing with invasive insect or plant species.
“Trees area resource,” he said. “A bit part of that is developing a management plan, doing inventories, training their people how to handled trees properly, whether it’s trimming, mulching or anything along that line.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.