The decision to shutter the Oconaluftee Job Corps Civilian Conversation Center, one of eight such closures nationwide, raises more questions than answers.

Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen announced the move in a U.S. Forest Service email on May 24, saying, “This morning, Department of Agriculture Secretary Perdue sent Department of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta a letter to request the transfer of all USDA Forest Service Job Corps Civilian Conversation Centers to the Department of Labor (DOL). The move is part of the Secretary’s goal to make USDA the most effective, efficient and customer-focused department in the entire federal government.”

It’s estimated the move will slash 1,100 jobs nationwide, making it the largest purging of civil service jobs since the military base closures and realignments that started in 2010. In addition to the eight closures, 16 other centers are proposed for new management by private firms or, possibly, by state governments.

The Job Corps began in 1964. It trains around 4,000 students ages 16 to 24 for continued education, jobs in natural resources or careers in the military. The Forest Service trains students in wildland firefighting techniques. In 2017 around 200,000 hours of firefighting support was delivered by more than 300 Job Corps students.

Among the Oconaluftee CCC’s partnerships are work with the Mother Town Healing Project; Cherokee Central Schools; Swain County Schools; the Bureau of Indian Affairs; EBCI Cooperative Extension; and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Job Corps students in the Smokies have helped with firefighting, facility construction and the removal of invasive species and forest pests for decades. A renewal of the relationship in 2017 allowed students to receive vital certifications in addition to their job training.

This is touted as an “effective, efficient” move. Critics say it will punish disadvantaged youth trying to make their first step up society’s ladder, and that it doesn’t appear to have been very well thought out. The initial reaction from lawmakers has been bipartisan condemnation.

Washington state Republican U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers issued a joint statement saying the move represents “betrayal of the administration’s commitment to bring prosperity to rural America.” Democratic Sen. John Tester of Montana railed against the “irresponsible plans to close successful Job Corps Centers. Make no mistake, this decision will lead to an immediate loss of jobs in rural America and undermine economic development in communities…”

Fellow Montana Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, announced Monday he had secured a promise from President Trump to keep the Anaconda Job Corps open.

National Federation of Federal Employees president Randy Erwin said the closure plan “ a coordinated attack on the most vulnerable populations in the country: rural and urban low-income young people hoping to succeed in life.”

When word of the plan began to circulate, the union’s Forest Service Council vice president, said, “They have no plan for the students, no idea how to stop the loss of 613,000 hours of student service... It’s as if this administration just decided to do this without reservation or any forethought.”

And that’s where the questions really start.

Who will fill the gap in fighting wildfires across the nation, blazes that are growing in frequency and intensity? How will the Smokies, a vital economic engine for Western North Carolina, make up for the missing manpower that will come with Oconaluftee’s closure? They’re not exactly overstaffed to begin with. Will new programs be sufficient to help youth from hardscrabble backgrounds become productive members of society, or will they be ignored and wind up in the legal system, a much more expensive prospect?

Comments on the closures will be received through July 1. Online comments can be submitted at By regular mail submit comments to Debra Carr, Acting National Director, Office of Job Corps (OJC), U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, 200 Constitution Avenue NW, Room N-4459, Washington, DC 20210. Note that a message accompanying the address says “Due to security-related concerns, there may be a significant delay in the receipt of submissions by United States Mail.”