Wait. You're calling from where?!?
Erik Robinson, our star transportation and environment reporter, has a guest entry for our fine readers below:
All politics is local — except, apparently, when it comes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA, which counts the Forest Service among its galaxy of subagencies, requires local reporters to call the nation’s capital for even the most innocuous of inquiries.
On Thursday, with a federal government shutdown looming, Columbian reporters inquired about plans for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
Would offices be closed? Forest roads gated?
Public information officers in Vancouver and the Forest Service’s regional office in Portland were deemed to be nonessential. The USDA insisted that all calls from local reporters must go through the national headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Never mind that there are more than 150 forests and grasslands scattered across the country — not to mention beef to be graded, farm loans to make and food stamps to distribute.
When it comes to the status of narrow forest roads east of Amboy, the answer must come from the East Coast.
It’s not the first time U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has sidelined the employees he pays to be in the best position to know and communicate local issues — the men and women who actually live and work here.
In July of 2009, local Forest Service officers were muzzled when a round of economic stimulus funding included $1 million to replace windows at the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center — the same visitor center that had been shuttered due to chronic budget shortfalls two years before. That came as news to the spokeswoman in the national office back East.
“It’s permanently closed?” she said.
It wasn’t clear whether the new windows would enable the Forest Service officials to reopen the center, or if the project is simply intended to keep their options open. Agency officials in Washington didn’t know, and those in the Northwest wouldn’t say.