The Forest Service and A Box of Frogs: Seven Years Later

A burned truck and smoldering ruins is all that is left of a garage near a house that burned on Cedar Drive in Oakhurst,  Calif., Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, as two raging wildfires in the state forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said flames damaged or destroyed at least 21 structures. (AP Photo/The Fresno Bee, Mark Crosse)

A burned truck and smoldering ruins is all that is left of a garage near a house that burned on Cedar Drive in Oakhurst, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, as two raging wildfires in the state forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said flames damaged or destroyed at least 21 structures. (AP Photo/The Fresno Bee, Mark Crosse)

Thanks to the reader who found this and thanks to Ron Roizen for posting on his blog! I think it’s great fodder for discussion on a sleepy late August day. Interesting that it was originally posted in 2008.. so a question might be “do you think some of these things were true or are true?” “how much have things changed since 2008?”.

Here’s an excerpt:

More realistically though, it has become nearly impossible to dismiss from service the incompetent, the lazy, the inordinately prejudiced, the foolish, the deranged… Unless they commit the most vile of bureaucratic sins: insubordination. To disagree or question any directive – no matter how senseless it may seem – is a cardinal violation of internal politics and will get you canned (or more likely re-assigned) in a week.

Their method tends to reward those who are lazy but compliant, to promote people who are incompetent but who object the least to performing nebulous tasks. Those who remain become entrenched Lemmings. When they retire or leave the FS (for any reason), they seldom find work in the private sector – unless the employer desperately needs a FS interpreter to fix government contracts – because they have no viable skill in the actual economy.

REASON 4: JOB SECURITY MOTIVATION

Forest Service employees do not spend sleepless nights worrying about the condition of the National Forests or the welfare of American citizens. They do not drive to work dreaming of ways to improve land management or cut costs.

What Sharon experienced: Yes, it can be difficult or impossible to remove those people. But people have stood up for their other employees and actually done it, at some risk to their own well-being and reputation, which can be pretty much a thankless job. I can’t argue with those who weigh the costs and benefits and give up.

And I would like to give a great big shout out to the Forest Service employee relations folks.. when I have had employees who needed a push, or more (!), and when people were trying to remove me, and did things that were not according to law and regulations, those folks had my back. Just sayin’, they are pretty much the backbone of the Forest Service, in my opinion.

I do think that sometimes employees who didn’t make waves were promoted, and then accused of “not having a vision” or the even more vague “not being leaders.” There were good ways of questioning and bad ways, and they were all in the eye of whichever beholder happens to be talking about you. It’s kind of like “Management by Innuendo” (I coined this term after one employee of mine who was great, had a bad rep in the Regional Office (because the regional guy had heard something bad once) so people listened to that and not to me, his supervisor and he couldn’t get promoted.

BUT Forest Service employees DO spend sleepless nights worrying about the condition of the National Forests or the welfare of American citizens. They DO drive to work dreaming of ways to improve land management or cut costs.” I’d say most of the employees I worked with did.

4 Comments

  1. Hi Sharon. The 10 points may be exaggerated for a little mean spirited humor, but in my opinion they do hold true for the Forest Service organization culture–at least for the 24 years I was an employee. Yes, there were and I am sure are many good people trying to do the job. But I think so often doing that in spite of the organization culture. And that culture is reinforced by the way line people are managed, promoted or (rarely) disciplined. Since I was one of the outspoken line people whose career was abruptly aborted I would also agree from personal experience that those who do not comply can be disciplined or removed. As you know I made some of these points in a Discussion article in Journal of Forestry a few years back from a more scholarly viewpoint, looked at organization theories from public administration that seem to explain why leadership in FS hasn’t changed much from the “voluntary compliance” observed in the late 1950s by Herbert Kaufman his administrative study”The Forest Ranger” . But to disappointment of JOF editors, myself (and you) few people responded. One ranger wrote that we would have anarchy without compliance and he was rewarded for his compliance so it must be right. I imagine I will be demonized for agreeing with this article but I think it is getting at the organization, not the people within it. Most of us joined up because of love for the land/ natural resources. But the highly-paid upper grades of the agency, generous retirement system and pressure for conformity are among many reasons people go along rather than try to improve. Further the interaction of natural resources is complex, fields like forestry and wildlife are in their infancy, and is just easier to go along than push for different approaches. I am probably going to avoid reading this for a few days, Sharon; I don’t really want to read angry comments pushing back on me. Leaving the Forest Service was very painful and I am only speaking up because I doubt that many others who feel this way would.

  2. I agree with the blog post’s basic thesis. For example, if you blow the whistle, you will suffer retaliation. It doesn’t matter if the FS is breaking the law, the whistleblower will be the one prosecuted. Now, there will be readers who will say: “Really? That’s not what I’ve experienced . . . .” You aren’t Glen Ith. You aren’t Mary Dalton. You aren’t Bob Libershal. Each blew the whistle, each was vindicated in a court of law, each suffered retaliation by their Forest Service higher-ups. No one was ever held responsible for the retaliatory acts. Far from it, the retaliators received promotions and enjoyed successful careers.

  3. While there are many exceptions to the rule in the Forest Service, the article referred to has more than a little veracity from the perspective of someone who has to interact with the Service instead of with the quality individuals too infrequently found within.

    A current example is the Forest Service refusal to allow the modified helicopters in Montana to work on fires within USFS boundaries because they were modified to a point where they can safely carry . . . what . . . a hundred gallons more water than the Forest Service allows . . . while the west burns . . . largely because the Forest Service appears incapable of managing their holdings for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows.

    Another hearkens back to a Forest Service biologist and lynx hairs from a lynx resident in a zoo. (Is that worthy individual still working for the FS?)

    I will now sit back and become the third person who may (or may not) be thumped vigorously about the head and shoulders for uttering such heretical thoughts.

  4. This is stirring strong memories for a somewhat outspoken (later in my career) but not disciplined (except for last job as Deputy Chief) careerist. Case one — I participated in a remarkable 3-day workshop at Mt Hood Lodge about 1997-8 with folks like Sally Fairfax (Berkeley) Steve Quarles (atty for timber industry), Andy Stahl, Randall O’Toole — result was the largely ignored 2nd Century Report about FS future. I vividly recall leaving there thinking how energetic and passionate these outsiders were compared to my peer forest supervisors. Case two — PNW leadership team about 1995 went to the area around Bend OR to discuss forest health, fire, bugs, looming crises — and what we were going to do about it. Much oratory; yet, I observed no visible R-6 followup actions or change in behavior to indicate serious efforts were made to fix known problems.
    I do recall many lower echelon staff with fire in their belly who were frustrated, dismayed at lack of leadership by leaders. I myself had many personal discussions with peers about bold action, and left thinking risk aversion was the currency of the day. Life is not always fair — compare Steve Mealy “Butcher of the Boise” and me “Savior of the Siuslaw” — I personally don’t think he deserved all the rage, nor me the accolades. But it is worth considering why the stigma attaches. Not taking risks is still largely true, I think. I still hunger for “the outfit” to aspire to greatness equal to the task at hand — I argue that this NECESSARILY involves boldness and risk.

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