Rachel Holmes was an urban forester for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for exactly two years until Thursday, and she didn't go out quietly.
The 31-year-old, with two graduate degrees from Yale, spent extra hours working on projects that she hopes will continue — ways to help cities recoup money from downed and removed trees; a grant to fight the infestation of ash borers; and a forward-thinking campaign to promote locally grown and manufactured wood products.
"We're looking at certifying people for the program, starting with the logger, through the mill, and the value-added product producer like a furniture maker," Holmes said.
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Holmes and two other young foresters have been a shot of energy for the state's forestry program, working as 2-year interns funded by the proceeds of multi-state environmental auctions.
Bolstering the full-time staff at DEEP that includes nine foresters, they've jump-started projects and helped manage and maintain Connecticut's 180,000 acres of set-aside woodlands, along with urban belts of trees that stand as a key natural resource for the state.
Now the two years are up and their tenure is ending — the other two foresters, Dan Evans and Jeremy Clark, will work until April 7. And it would take a public policy miracle to keep them on the job.
That's too bad for several reasons, not least that their work helps the state make money: DEEP has harvested between $250,000 and $550,000 a year in recent years through controlled logging sales.
This is not a story about an outrage or a social injustice. It is, rather, a look at the thin line between effective, well-functioning government and agencies forced to let important work go undone, perhaps to the future peril of the taxpayers in an era of nonstop budget crises.
In normal times, DEEP's hopes for keeping these three foresters would be part of a budget battle. Maybe one, two or even all three could stay on from the proceeds of some obscure fund — there is, in fact, a "timber harvesting revolving account" in Connecticut.
Perhaps a federal grant would emerge to replace the interns' funding, which came through auctions of carbon dioxide allowances in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
But these are not those times. Friday is Day One of the federal government sequester, with across-the-board cuts that almost everyone thinks are dumb. In Hartford, lawmakers faced with a $1.2 billion shortfall for the year that starts July 1 are looking at throwing thousands of low-income adults off Medicaid and into a subsidized, private insurance market.
Three effective foresters to help sustain a priceless resource? "It was a great opportunity to bring in new people and certainly the energy and enthusiasm they bring," said DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain. "They made great contributions and we believe it is the exact right approach but we are not able to continue their employment at this time...there's not additional funding available."
While Holmes has worked with the state's urban forester, Evans and Clark have helped in the state's land management program, which, even with them on board, has vast tracts of unmonitored forest. Evans wrote a management plan that's been approved and is working on two others, in addition to boots-on-the-ground forest work and electronic mapping.
"Younger state foresters like myself are more able to work efficiently in the forests," said Evans, 30, because of physical stamina and more importantly, comfort with technology.
He's raised a sensitive issue that his employers can't bring up. Several of his colleagues on the permanent staff are at or near the age when they could retire. They already have a huge workload, each one managing an area in the range of 30,000 acres, or roughly the size of Vernon and South Windsor combined.
Having been at this newspaper for 32 years, I'm not about to concede that younger workers are always a better bang for the buck. We veterans are walking encyclopedias of history and knowledge, and I don't feel any less energetic than the gen-Y-er at the next cubicle.
Still, like a forest with fauna and flora of all kinds, the workforce in a large organization does need renewal, and that is threatened at public agencies when we live with permanent scarcity. More broadly, Connecticut — two-thirds covered by forests — relies on good woodland management as a densely populated state. DEEP foresters work with private foresters, and industry leaders want to see that continue.
"As those foresters retire, they're not being replaced," said Joan Nichols of Lebanon, a forester and logger who's president of the Connecticut Professional Timber Producers Association. "It's a lot of work to manage a forest and do it right, and we would like to think that the state of Connecticut is taking the lead."
The three foresters, all paid under $40,000 a year, are part of the Connecticut State Employees Association under SEIU — which is mounting a vigorous effort to save their jobs. "For us it's about good governance and running the state properly," CSEA spokesman Ben Phillips said.
Few public agencies are run by a manager as intelligent and committed to progress as Dan Esty, the DEEP commissioner. If anyone can see the forest through the trees, pun intended, he can. But there may be no way to make this work in the budget storm of 2013.
Holmes, who holds masters degrees in both forestry and divinity from Yale University, would like to keep her DEEP work going. If she can't, she's thinking about returning to an old pursuit: teaching urban forestry to under-served urban kids.
Follow Dan Haar on Twitter at @couranthaar and on his blog at http://www.courant.com/haar.