“What I learned from 30 years with the Forest Service”

An essay from High Country News (subscription). It’s been a long time since I worked for the USFS, but some of what Marsh says I can sympathize with. Do preservationists have a role to play at the agency? Conservationists, yes, but the National Forests weren’t intended for preservation. I’d like to know whether Dan’s career was ruined for trying to do the right thing instead of “getting along.”

What I learned from 30 years with the Forest Service
Susan Marsh
Opinion Dec 17, 2014

After working for the Forest Service for 30 years, I finally had to write a book about it — especially about some of the painful lessons I learned. Here are just a few of them.

It will come as no surprise that it wasn’t easy being a woman in what was, and remains, a man’s domain. Nor was it easy being a resource professional in one of the fields of study known within the agency as a specialty. Specialists, or “ologists,” were considered narrow in focus and sadly misinformed about the relative importance of scenery or wildlife in the context of meeting targets. I was a preservationist in the midst of managers who wanted to roll up their sleeves and Do Something.

I soon learned that a bureaucracy like the Forest Service values loyalty to the “outfit” above all. One has to be a team player, and in order to play on the team it is necessary to embrace a worldview shared by one’s teammates. So I learned to hunt elk and go ice fishing, to head for whichever bar offered country music and scantily clad waitresses, and to keep my cards close to my chest.

“Never let ‘em know what you’re thinking,” one district ranger advised. While mulling the need for such a motto, I took the advice of a different ranger whose loyalties matched my own. “My first priority is to the land,” he said. “Then to the public for whose benefit we’re managing it. Finally, to the outfit.”

This got my friend in a lot of trouble. When he tried to reduce the number of cattle in a battered little watershed in Montana’s Ruby River drainage, his boss refused to support the action. Even though evidence was strong that the stream banks would benefit from having fewer hooves in one small area, reducing cattle simply wasn’t a viable option. The permittee would complain to his congressman and the governor, both personal friends.

Where most rangers would have backed off, Dan fought. The poor condition of a stream within his district caused him personal pain, and if he didn’t try to fix it, he felt he wasn’t doing his job. His boss disagreed, saying: “Your job is to get along.” The bitter lesson I learned from Dan was that you could ruin your career if you tried too hard to do the right thing.

After three decades with the Forest Service, there remains one lesson that still surprises me: I still cherish a strong sense of loyalty to the agency, however flawed it is, and to the high-minded principles on which it was founded.

My desire to defend it arises when I hear someone complain about how the local district doesn’t do one thing or another, or at least can’t do it right. If you only knew how hard it is, I want to say. I react each time I witness yet another effort to privatize the public land, to hand it off to the states, to divide it up among interests that seek only to exploit it. As humanity continues to leave its heavy footprint across the planet, the national forests and other public lands become all the more precious.

The stereotypical government worker draws a salary without having to try very hard. It is true that I have encountered my share of drones over the years, but the people who represent the Forest Service to me are like Dan: They gladly work nights and weekends, if necessary donating their annual leave at the end of the year. They care deeply for the land and want to make a contribution to the greater good.

Working for the agency is more of a vocation than a job. A wise-ass adage holds this definition of success for a conservation-minded employee: It’s not the number of projects you accomplished, but the number of bad ideas you successfully scuttled. Most of my Forest Service heroes scuttled plenty of dumb ideas.

The Forest Service is far from perfect, and I would agree with those who say it is less effective than it could be. But it gives me comfort to know how many of the people within it are driven by the loyalties once articulated by my mentor, Dan. My hat is off to them.

— Susan Marsh is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Jackson, Wyoming, and her latest book is A Hunger for High Country.

17 Comments

  1. It is encouraging to read Susan’s comments. I had the privilege of working with Susan, a very dedicated employee that could be depended upon to get things done and in a way that was sensitive to the land. I share many of the same concerns about the Forest Service and attempted to influence the current management of our remaining forested lands by writing a book. “Trees of Life- Our Forests in Peril” which was published last year and points out what I believe is the missing link in the science of forestry, in fact in most science. The only place I might differ is that I believe our public forest lands must provide for the preservation of the human environment, which will require management! I am excited about the need to speak out and change the way we view the importance of our remaining forested lands. I have been reaching out to encourage major adjustments in the principles that drive the science of Forestry, through my book and with my blog on my website, “forestsinperil”. Silence has allowed the continuation of principles and processes that should have been left along the trail years ago. Susan points out that we have been driven by measurements of what we can take from the forests, not what the forests need to support life and balance on this planet. I totally agree. We must focus on the forests’ needs for health and diversity, and the by-products of proper management will be valuable goods and services!

  2. Steve asks: ” Do preservationists have a role to play at the agency? Conservationists, yes, but the National Forests weren’t intended for preservation.”

    One word: “Wilderness.” The Forest Service is tasked with preserving tens of millions of acres of wilderness. Sounds like a job for preservationists.

  3. late last night I thought of wilderness as a good example (but was too sleepy to post), possibly roadless as well, and I would submit that the ESA is preservationist at heart. And while ESA may not be “national forest policy” per se, it certainly plays a large role in policy implementation. But what’s in a name? Richard Nixon said that Aristotle and Socrates were “homos”; “conservationist” and “preservationist” are (almost) equally unenlightening labels.

    • Really bad analogy, Guy! What would your label be for people who want nature to take its course, regardless of the impacts on humans? The “Naturists” label has already been taken… rofl

      I will continue to use “conservationist” and “preservationist” as non-insulting labels for people who embrace those values and impacts. The general public NEEDS to know the differences!

      I have worked extensively with “ologists” of all kinds, even doing wildlife surveys for them. I’ve always made a point to work with them, respecting their knowledge and opinions, while providing some necessary education regarding my own knowledge, skills and experience. Many ologists (and “interns”) say they prefer to follow the science, and not the rhetoric of preservationist groups. I also will defend those ologists who are open-minded and willing to listen to compromises. The ones unwilling to compromise, ignoring established science and common sense don’t last long in the Forest Service. Sometimes, ologists doing surveys discover that they have become part of the “logging machine”, when they don’t find “stuff” to “protect”. Some of them joined the Forest Service, thinking they would be “saving the forest” from the “evil loggers”.

  4. OMG, I worked with Susan on my very first job on the Fremont in 79.. I think I remember watching “Shogun” at her house in Lakeview. There were not many of us womenfolk in non-traditional jobs on the Fremont back in the day.

    • OMG, I worked on the Fremont, too, circa 1980. Silver Lake district doing one of the first outsourced stand exam contracts as a member of those hippy tree planting Hoedads. Never could figure out why the FS cared how many dead, dying, diseased & decadent lodgepole pine there were on each acre of the Fremont’s pumice flats. Not like having those data would change management options. Those tree thickets were worthless then and are worthless now.

      • Andy, are you making fun of me? If so, it’s totally OK :).

        I remember some beery nights at various bars in Lakeview with Hoedads and other contractors (note: I was only a COR on cone collection contracts, so this behavior was legitimage).. I remember young government workers and contractors having a lot in common. Besides the obvious attraction to beer.

        To younger people reading this blog. It’s true.. we grannies and granddads were young once.. now if I could only remember more of what happened then, I’m sure we were just as wild as you.

  5. I guess I learned pretty much the same thing that Susan did in my 32 years, except that I’ll avoid the conservation/preservation debate by going with the active/passive management distinction. The Forest Service has a definite bias towards active management and there are good reasons for it. DOING things creates budgets and PRODUCING things creates jobs, and both of those things are high on the radar of the people who pay the salaries of the Forest Service, and therefore of the people in charge in the Forest Service. In addition, many of those people in charge are probably the products of schools that teach you to DO things, so there is some professional bias as well. Anyone working against that tide is going to find it difficult. (Fortunately, for awhile any way, there is some agreement that active management is sometimes needed to UNDO things.)

    • As an ecologist, I value those who would preserve our watersheds and forests for the long term, not short sighted denial of science to justify extractive uses, many of which cannot be economically justified. Is this the Jon Haber of San Francisco?

      • So, John Carter, just who is using “short sighted denial of science to justify extractive uses, many of which cannot be economically justified.”, on Federal lands?? Here in the Sierra Nevada, every tree over 20″ in diameter is now a “sacred tree”, to be preserved forever and ever and ever. There has been no clearcutting or old growth harvesting here in over 20 years! Thinning projects had been “economically justified”, before the diameter limits returned to their lowest limits.

        What value is there in preserving overstocked and fire-prone landscapes, which are as unnatural as can be (here in California), compared to pre-European conditions? Please tell us, Mr. “ecologist”!

    • Jon – I like your distinction of management…it implies a choice is being made with the level of human interaction with the land. Neither choice is “right” nor “wrong”…those choices are usually issue- and geographically-dependent and difficult to employ through broad-based policies. Still, each choice does indicate how an individual views the world and those world-view perspectives must be openly discussed. Otherwise, we have bunker-mentality conversations.

  6. I can not understand when you have millions of dead trees why you would take the ones with the most economic value and make them off limits. It’s not like they are going to harvest them all anyways.
    To me is just ignorance and arrogance of the part of the environmental community. What a waste.
    I always though that putting the large diameter trees off limits was a form of decimation against small local mills that need something special to process in favor of the large multinational mega-mills.
    Sorry, you just can’t have a small local sawmill and make 2 x 4’s for Home Depot.
    I have worked for the Forest Service as a contracted buyer of “their” timber for about 25 years and have almost always found it very frustrating. Some great people, just not ruled by common sense, or good science, mostly just politics.

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