The U.S. Forest Service is considering consolidating its two ranger districts along the Big Hole River, southwest of Butte.
The Wise River Ranger District office may be closed and merged into the Wisdom Ranger District office, according to a Forest Service spokesperson.
The Wise River Community Foundation is holding a public meeting to discuss the matter at the Wise River Community Building on Monday, March 25, at 6:30 p.m.
Public affairs officer for the Forest Service Leona Rodreick, who said she will be at the meeting, stressed that no decisions have yet been made about the two ranger districts. She also said her agency is sympathetic to the concerns of the Wise River community.
“I think their concerns are from an economic standpoint,” she said in a recent interview with The Montana Standard. “The Forest Service is a huge employer and provides services. Right now we’re exploring our options, digesting the information, seeing what our best options are.”
Ordinary budget constraints are forcing the hand of the Forest Service, not the recent sequester that mandates across-the-board federal spending reductions, according to Rodreick.
Rodreick said closing the Wise River Ranger district office is just one option available to the agency. The Forest Service is not considering reducing the number of overall employees between the two districts. The Wise River Ranger Station has 10 permanent positions, while Wisdom has 13, according to Rodreick, who said not all of the positions are currently filled. Russ Riebe is the ranger for both district offices.
Jen Downing, a board member of the Wise River Community Foundation, was instrumental in organizing the meeting.
“What I wanted was everyone to get an opportunity to get the facts,” Downing said. “We want to discuss why it is important and what people really need from this ranger district. It’s important for the community, but also for the forest and the land. Everyone always thinks first of fire, but (the ranger district) offers other services. We’re hoping for it to be a constructive meeting.”
Downing lives at the Wise River Ranger District in one of its four permanent houses. She lives with her husband Dan Downing, who works as a fisheries biologist at the district.
Along with the permanent housing, the ranger district includes three bunks houses for seasonal workers, a warehouse, and the office. The Forest Service does not anticipate the potential consolidation to have any affect on the recreational areas of the district such as the campgrounds and picnic areas.
Last summer, the Forest Service commissioned a study to determine operating expenses and costs for potential upgrades to the two ranger districts. The Wise River Ranger district office is the older of the two. It was built in the 1970s, so it would be the more costly to update, according to Rodreick, who said the cost of enlarging and-or updating a facility will be considered.
If the Wise River Ranger District office were to close, Downing said it would affect the whole town.
“When a change like this happens, it ripples through the entire community,” she said.
— Reporter Francis Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org