Forest Service Sins of Omission and Commission

Let’s deal with “sins of commission” first, since these are more easily seen. We humans are not good at dealing with surprise. It gets worse when we are surprised by our own failings as pointed out by others. The sad tale of the US Forest Service’s continuing inability to deal with failures pointed out over decades by the environmental community is testament to this failing. There are sometimes private admissions of error, but where are the organizational admissions that translate to inbuilt policy shifts and organizational behavior changes?

I will never forget a conversation I overheard one day just outside the Auditor’s Building (FS Headquarters). Associate Chief George Leonard, arguably the most powerful FS player of the day was just ahead of me, talking with a companion. As the conversation turned toward the over-cut Pacific Northwest, Leonard remarked, “We did cut the shit out of the Olympic National Forest.” There it was, a personal admission of guilt. Unfortunately, only grudgingly and without overt policy shifts, did the Forest Service change its ways. This is understandable, because as Herb Kaufman (author of The Forest Ranger) predicted, the Forest Service has become a rigid, unchangeable force: a blind bureaucracy. That brings us to “sins of omission”, what you don’t see you can’t fix.

As bad as we humans are in dealing with surprise, we are worse at dealing with our own ignorance. Among the most important things the Forest Service has missed in its ignorance, is that bureaucracy must be managed and must be led. In order for both to be effective – remembering that the two need to be jointly and thoughtfully applied for successful organizing – they must be studied and talked about regularly. They must also be practiced. How was this missed? Note: The problem is much bigger than the US Forest Service. Only in the past few years have I realized how utterly blind and mismanaged are other agencies of the US Government, including the CIA, the NSA, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, SEC, the FTC, and so on.

Right now, supposedly, the top brass in the Forest Service is working with Bill Isaac’s Dialogos group to begin a journey to right what has heretofore been undiscussed and undiscussable, what I have elsewhere called “the management trap”. (See also this on the 2007 Dialogos report on the FS.) But little light (insight) from that effort has trickled down to the rank and file in the Forest Service. And, so far, little if anything has been done to change in internal working of the FS bureaucracy. Or maybe I’ve just not seen it from my “retirement” perch. Is anything being learned? If so, can individual learning translate into organizational learning?

Over a decade ago, I challenged the Forest Service to rethink its stance on management, leadership and learning. Here is a bit of what I offered-up:

In searching out answers, we would do well to read among the many good books written on “planning as social learning” and “planning as organizational learning,” and also among the many good books on “adaptive management.” It’s always dangerous to single out one book, but what the hell. I heartily endorse Lance Gunderson , C.S. Holling, and Stephen Light. 1995. Barriers and Bridges to the Renewal of Ecosystems and Institutions. Within even this one book there are many lessons yet to be learned about ecosystems, institutions and the boundaries that both separate and integrate them. Space doesn’t permit, but we ought not overlook the contributions of organizational learning writers like Chris Argyris, Arie De Geus, Joseph Jaworski, Donald Schon, Peter Schwartz, Peter Senge, and Karl E. Weick. Even if we could figure out a thoughtful approach to organizational learning and adaptive management, we still have to tackle the problem of working politics that Lee defines as “gyroscope” [in Compass and Gyroscope]. This is a lesson well known to Gunderson and friends, but a lesson yet to be learned by the Forest Service.

Later, I reprocessed my plea as a “process gridlock” suggestion:

Do we continue to operate our organization in an antiquated parent/child organizational framework? Do we continue to operate from a belief that running an organization always or most frequently requires use of power-over instead of power-with?

If we answer yes, as I believe we must, why not rethink our organization? We might begin with workshops or “inquiry sessions” for Line Officers, WO Directors, and Regional and Forest Staff Officers. The workshops would focus on how organizations function based on a premise of working with adults, rather than overseeing children. (See generally the literature on ‘Learning Organizations.’)

Sure we have rules and regulations dictated by law and policy that emanate from domains ‘above’ the agency in the US government that require certain things from us. Sure we have encumbrances (also opportunities) on ‘personnel management’ different from private sector organizations. And so on. But that ought not to stop us from reevaluating our organization functions in light of emerging organizational theory/practice.

As I’ve done before, I recommend that you bring in Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Margaret Wheatley and/or Peter Senge. You may want to include Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot as well. Let this group suggest recommendations on how to structure such inquiry sessions as well as on other organizational betterment ideas.

I reiterate my plea, that the Forest Service begin to reevaluate the agency’s approach to policy-making, management, and leadership. There is simply no way to effect better planning policy-making, and administration, if there is no substantial changes in extant bureaucracy. Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot were among the early proponents of such change. See Pinchots’ The End of Bureaucracy. Unfortunately they didn’t employ the proverbial 2×4 approach. You remember. The story goes something like this:

A farmer went to the State Fair and watches a muleskinner driving some mules in
the plowing contest. He’s got one mule in the lead harness that seems really
smart, doesn’t balk, works hard, has strength and leads the other mules so the
farmer buys the mule and takes it home only to discover that the mule laid down
and couldn’t be made to work.

The farmer and his wife finally drag the mule into the back of the farm wagon,
and the farmer goes back to the Fair. The farmer finds the muleskinner and
starts yelling that he’s been cheated. That mule won’t move, let alone pull the

“Oh, I’m sorry,” says the muleskinner, “I forgot to give you the rest of the
gear.” With that the muleskinner picks up a big piece of 2×4 and bangs the mule
a good hard blow to the side of the head. The mule scrambles up and looks as if
he just can’t wait to git started.

“Yes Sir,” says the muleskinner, “This is a really good mule. You just have to
get his attention.” He hands the 2×4 to the farmer and sends him home.

The next day, the farmer walks toward the mule carrying the 2×4, but before the
farmer can lay it across the side of the mule’s head, the mule scrambles up and
gets to work and drags the other mules up, too. Best damn mule the farmer ever

The problem is, who can deliver a “policy-making, management, and leadership” wake-up 2×4?
Or maybe such has been delivered via Dialogos and others. If so, when will we begin to see the effects?

5 thoughts on “Forest Service Sins of Omission and Commission”

  1. No one seems to remember when Region 5 changed their entire timber management situation to protect CASPO, WITHOUT being forced to be the eco-groups or the courts. Yes, it was the right thing to ban clearcutting and to protect old growth, despite some grumblings from the “dinosaurs”. The Forest Service STILL gets accused of clearcutting and “liquidating the old growth” despite the landmark decision made all the way back in 1993. Add to that, the claims that they cut and sell logs to the Far East. Now that the pendulum is stuck in the other direction, some want it to go even further into the other direction, regardless of the horrific impacts.

    Another problem is a conflict of interest, in that locals want to force more timber to be cut, knowing that 25% will go to the counties. I worked for a Timber Sale Administrator whose wife was the head of the School Board. You wouldn’t believe the liberties he took with the marking guidelines and his (illegal?) influence over the timber markers. Add to that the fact that budget money gets doled out to the “producers”, instead of those Ranger Districts who just cannot get things done.

  2. The 2×4 has been swinging for a while. Its these place-based collaboratives. They are everywhere. Its about power sharing, decision-space, and democracy. The important thing about democracy is not that 51% can role the 49%…its the discussion that’s supposed to happen so we can identify common ground. The forest service actually started moving in that direction in the mid 1990s with Bill Shands and his group at Pinchot Inst. who pioneered the “community of place/community of interest” approach. People just need to relax and let that happen. so far, it has taken us to agreement over restoration, stewardship, re-investment in public lands, and multi-party monitoring. These are good things. The Forest Service leadership is coming along nicely, as this planning rule effort reflects. As much as we’d like models and science and laws to make natural resource decisions for us, it’s not going to be as easy as that. We have to engage with each other. And the Forest Service has been both a leader and a recalcitrant participant, depending on who, where, and with whom. Leadership will out.

  3. Dave- For all of us non-abstract thinkers out here, could you bring your thoughts and readings to a more concrete level..
    “There is simply no way to effect better planning policy-making, and administration, if there is no substantial changes in extant bureaucracy.”

    what kind of changes are you looking for? What behaviors would change? Could you give some examples of how it works now, in your opinion, and how it would work if we incorporated these ideas?


    • Sharon,

      It may be next week, but I will try to comply with your request. For now, I’ll mention my old standby: throw the Manual and Handbook in the Potomac, and begin to require people (at all levels) to practice the handicraft of management and leadership. No more training wheels! Let FS practitioners learn to be adaptive. Let them practice! No more pretense that if only FS field people were better trained to use the M&H, all would be well. No more big messes, like rigidly structured planning, rigidly structured EMS (in that brief moment when EMS was going to engulf planning), etc. No more thinking that if only we get X right, we can go back to the good old days when the FS wore the white hats. Where X = Planning, NEPA, EMS, etc.

      For any who are just too anxious to wait, go to a local bookstore and get and read a few good books on management and leadership. Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellnor-Rogers A Simpler Way would be on top of the list. Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot’s The End of Bureaucracy: and the rise of the intelligent organization might be second. Ronald Heifetz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers might be third. There are more. And no, I will not just point to a few good books, I’ll give concrete suggestions. But remember that there are no easy answers. The Forest Service must learn to live (even thrive) in the emergent world of the 21st Century. Even without a trip to the bookstore, a good place to start might be to review the questions from the Dialogos Report — read the damn report — and think through just what organizational changes might be used to effect needed change. I made it easy a while back by reference to it here.

      I almost forgot one more little thing: NO MORE TARGETS! Performance measurement, like leadership , is the stuff of “no easy answers.”

  4. I’m with Dave on this one. Those performance measures and targets have used up their useful life. At one time they made sense. However, the science of measuring outcomes is pretty infantile but coming along….like fire risk condition class and the even better watershed conditon class……So, entering the 22nd century for forest planning is going to have to find a way to reset NEPA so that NEPA planning actually becomes useful and appropriate for modern goals. I’d just be relieved if we could get some congressional and administrative agreement and statement about those goals….once we had some agreement on that, we’d know how to adjust the agency to get those goals…it might be true that “no man can serve two masters”…the Forest Service today is expected to serve many…the fault may not be in the forest service, but in ourselves, that we are underlings


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