We Need to Talk- About the “Other Kind” of Diversity

Our blog has profited from discussions of many hot topics regarding the Forest Service and public land management. Some folks, some internal and some external, have said “we need to talk about diversity in the FS.” I wondered about how the followers of this blog would feel, as it may be a bit FS-centric for our readers, but we’ll see.

I think that there are some reasons that it might be worth talking about:

1) who works at the FS is important to the future of the FS and our public lands
2) as with so many things, if not handled well, it can be demoralizing to employees
3) there aren’t many other avenues for people to discuss it
4) the whole enterprise of figuring out what “we” want, and bringing diversity, is, I’m afraid, rife with fuzzy thinking.

We have a proven track record here of mostly respectful dialogue on topics that people feel passionately about, so I am optimistic we can say things on this topic that express our experiences and remain civilized.

Right now I see a series, with this as the first installment. There are things happening right now in the Forest Service (or at least right before I retired) that are worth talking about and will be, but let’s start with the history, at least as perceived by one person. Check out this book and the reviews.. there are still a great many hard feelings and passion, as you will see. It seems like a fire-o-centric view, but then there are many fire-o-centric folks in the Forest Service (and among retirees, if the Rendezvous was a random sample).

The title of the book is: The Tinder Box: How Politically Correct Ideology Destroyed the U.S. Forest Service.

Of course, as one might expect, I see things differently, including that fact that I don’t think the FS, nor Region 5, are “destroyed”. But I think it’s interesting that in the comments, many of the current woes of the FS in California (and elsewhere!) seem to be attributed to the Consent Decree.

I ran across this piece about how “feminism” had destroyed the Forest Service; yet I have found it generally found the Forest Service to be a remarkably “un-feminist” kind of place:

Most of the women did not stay long in the most grueling jobs, but they were invariably replaced by others overwhelmed by the tasks. Shaw was eventually denied a position as fire management officer. He said a much less qualified woman was chosen instead. He told Burchfield:

No one had any respect for her; no one had any respect for fire management; no one had any respect for the Forest, and no respect for the agency. It all drained away.

Ironically, affirmative action made for a level of hostility toward female employees that did not exist before. Sensitivity training became standard.

Before the Bernardi decree, men who retired from heavy labor in the field often went into office work for the Service, where their knowledge of the lands contributed to their work. Afterward, these jobs went to those who had little experience on the ground, leaving a void where institutional knowledge was once preserved.

While quite a few men have won individual discrimination complaints against the Service – and have been denied promotion ever since – two major class action suits by male plaintiffs were never fully aired in court. The Supreme Court refused to review them.

The Forest Service, which once turned a profit, now loses millions. Undergrowth flourishes, causing many more fires. According to Burchfield, “eight of the eleven worst fire seasons since the 1950’s have occurred over the past twelve years:”

True enough, urban interfacing, changing climate patterns, and the ever-rising numbers of youths brought up without supervision (today’s arsonists, meth dealers, etc.) are contributors to these disasters. But, the primary cause of these losses is the agency’s madcap obsession with gender equity, which by 1987 had resulted in a tremendous drop in prescribed burns, clearing of fire lines and slash cutting. In many instances, the Forests are so badly overgrown, that they possess 10 to 100 times as many saplings per acre as those managed by the Indians of 180 years ago.

Mexican marijuana cartels commandeer acreage in the West for farming. Crime has increased and service patrols are inadequate to respond to it, with women forest officers particularly disinclined to restrain those violating rules. Recreational trails and mapping have deteriorated so much that the only hope in many places is that these duties will be someday turned over to local conservancies. The tremendous increase in the use of off-highway vehicles has exacerbated this neglect.

Last I looked, there were no female Station Directors, and in Region 2, last I looked 2/11 forest supervisors were women, and one deputy forest supervisor out of seven. So out of 18 line officers of the forest supervisor persuasion, there were 3 women. If women are 50 percent of the population, and after 40 years of trying, we are still less than 20%, then perhaps draconian efforts like the Consent Decree are needed (just a “straw person,” really!). But I think it’s hard to blame a more generic agency-wide torpor on too many women. Not impossible, just hard, especially if you look at the numbers.

This is definitely a situation in which we all need to “listen with the ears of the heart.” I think that if we listen carefully, with an open mind and heart, to everyone’s stories, perhaps we can find a better and more inclusive path forward.

10 thoughts on “We Need to Talk- About the “Other Kind” of Diversity”

  1. Wow. I just read both links and they gave me the creeps. The reactions of people and the mis-information that is spread in both articles not only gives me the creeps, but conjurs up images of men in white hoods. I now want to go home and take a shower. And I’m a woman Forester!

  2. This sort of thing is alive and well in the Service. Any one who will not anknowledge this is either completely out of touch or sees this type of enginerring as a good thing.
    With seven more years of experience and a Masters degree I was passed over for a position by the Forest Supervisior in favor of a woman who was one year out from her B.S. degree. I know that I was the one who was the pick of the committee. But a female employee is a big feather in ones cap

    Diversity is shoved down the throat on a daily basis ad naseum. During the work force survey that I took this year many questions were about diversity and outreach recruitment efforts, perhaps others feel differently but I am pretty sure that diversity outreach has little to nothing to do with the low morale in the agency.

  3. Well, my career was severely impacted by the Consent Decree. It took me 15 years, and some college to finally get me an 18/8 permanent appointment. Then, the “trainwreck”, called CASPO came and I had to go to work in Idaho, because there were now GS 3 and 4 timbermarkers, and us GS 5’s and 7’s were too expensive. My best chance to get on was in 1992, and the Ranger District wanted to pick up three of us “free white males”, along with at least one woman. Well, the three of us didn’t lie on our “self evaluations”, so we didn’t rate as high as the top woman, who mysteriously never marked timber before, but claimed to be an expert on it. We were not selected but, the woman never did do timber work. She did range work.

    I asked our crew foreman about her thoughts on the Consent Decree, and she was against it. She wanted to be judged the same as a man, not wanting the lowered standards and job skills. I’ve had the pleasure of working with very qualified equals, and I tend to prefer working with compatible women.

    I do think we’ll still see a LOT more fallout from the loss of institutional knowledge, particularly in contract inspection. In many cases, the loggers know the timber sale contract better than the Timber Sale Administrators. Sometimes women want to “try” that job, and realize that they cannot deal with an obnoxious logger. They don’t like coming home from work with “moon dust” everywhere below the waist. Not to say that women can’t do the job, because they clearly can excel if they have confidence and knowledge.

    Another aspect of the Consent Decree is that women who had troubles with their new jobs were often “kicked upstairs”, to move them on. Now we have people in the upper hierarchy who haven’t “been there and done that”. My own career is reaching an end, because I’ve been used up, physically, without any health plan or insurance. I can only work 1039 hours in a year. I’m criticized for having health problems. Truly, we are “disposable employees”. In the past, such physically-limited long time employees would be offered jobs they could do, until retirement. Today, they just kick you to the curb.

    In the past, people could work their way up the ladder, after a few years as a temp. Now, much of the fieldwork is done by temporaries, and there is little consistency and quality from year to year. Most Ranger Districts marking crews, in the past, had at least a few permanent employees on the crew. Now, most of them are temps, with a high turnover in people each year. I also hear that some RD’s are blatantly ignoring OPM’s temporary hiring rules and policies, because they have too much work to do.

    My advice for the women who worked back then was to take advantage for all it was worth. I’d sure rather see a quality woman fill the position, instead of a woman not very skilled.

  4. Thanks to all who responded. It appeared to me before I retired that we were entering a “more draconian” phase of improving diversity.

    Since the Consent Decree was about as draconian as the FS ever got, I thought there might be some lessons to be learned.. I wasn’t dredging up bad stuff for the fun of it.

    It still is interesting to me that with the draconian stuff that went on, it is still occurring to have no female station directors and 20% in leadership in the one region I looked at. Since we can actually tell by looking if people are female, and if we used draconian measures and haven’t been successful, how are we going to get to where we need to go with ethnic kinds of diversity, when we can’t tell by looking and people might not enter the info into the database of record, and the database might not actually be accurate?

    What did we do wrong during the Consent Decree (a variety of bad things happened to good people, as did in pre-Consent Decree) and what could we do right to get the desired outcome?

    What Larry brings up about the permanent workforce and timber marking is also an interesting question. If we go back to this news story..

    Are there places where there are some trees that I’ve seen out here – some live trees still standing and some stumps – that I would have preferred be marked for retention? Yes,” said Tom Quinn, supervisor of the Tahoe National Forest.

    We can wonder if this structural issue about marking crews has impacts on the quality of work. Which is really another topic, but related to the broader topic of “how is the work going to be done into the future.”

  5. I hesitate to comment, lest I be viewed as an old-fogy, women hater. But in the late 70’s, early 80’s the impact of the consent decree was clear and had a noticeable impact on events here in north Idaho. I was amazed to see very “green” (and I don’t mean green underwear) women specialists (landscape architects, biologists, etc) women moved into upper career slots and even district ranger slots with NO field experience working on a district. Two or three years out of college, and they were supervisory foresters making daily decisions of import on “their” districts. And of course, many of these gals later became forest supervisors

    Guess I am of the old school, where new “junior foresters” or other new professionals hired as full-timers were tested and tried on the district first. You spent at least two or three years in the brush, doing it all, learning what a USFS ranger district and forest management was about. There is no doubt in my mind that a number of young women were given the fast track, without experiencing the trials and rigors of real day-to-day field work. Marking trees, burning slash, scaling, cruising on snowshoes, fighting fire, etc.etc. Without this background I can’t imagine how they can do a good job as rangers or supervisors.

    As a result of this and much more that is beyond the scope of this topic, we have a somewhat demoralized agency that seems unable to cope. I was proud of my years with the Forest Service, but I wonder how proud current young professionals are today?

  6. Sharon :

    We can wonder if this structural issue about marking crews has impacts on the quality of work. Which is really another topic, but related to the broader topic of “how is the work going to be done into the future.”

    When new markers are hired every year, training can go on for months to bring someone up to speed. Some people seem to think that they can teach ANYONE to mark timber, to do it fast and to do it perfect. I once had my own crew of markers who had never marked before, and this was before there were diameters limits. Imagine two teenage girls trying to do forestry work, while gossiping. I finally convinced the girl, who was 19 years old, and going on 13, that if she couldn’t “tie into” the next marker. that she shouldn’t be in the woods with us. She answered that she wanted to quit….. on Friday.

    Another aspect of the Consent Decree is that Ranger Districts would rather use their tried and true temps, rather than hiring brand new uncertainties. They sure liked working their temps for up to 45 weeks out of the year. The 180 day limit went a long way when applied to four 10-hour days per week. When OPM yanked that hiring authority away, and “protecting temporary workers” by further limiting their workhours per year, many quality temps gave it up, and found other careers. The remaining temps were less experienced and skilled. I’m currently a GS-5 timbermarker, and I once was a GS-8 Timber Sale Administrator. I ran timber sales when I was also a temporary GS-5 and GS-7. Many of the permanent employees on my Ranger District, including the Ranger, don’t know that about me. I’m just another “disposable employee”, who can be replaced by someone right off the street. Before the end of the year, I’m going to write a long message to the current Forest TMO and Forest Supervisor (who both know me very well) pushing to keep a marking crew on our Ranger District, instead of bringing in non-locals. This could become an issue with the RD’s collaborative projects funds. A major selling point of our collaborative projects is “putting local people to work”. I’ve long-wondered if that only means in the private sector.

  7. That’s interesting because this year there was a lot of pressure in some places to hire a more diverse temporary workforce.
    Which is difficult for many reasons, not the least of which is that you can’t tell from applications. What you can do is to go local places and look at people and hope that 1) they are really diverse, and 2) they check the right box.

    So based on my pre-retirement observations of that effort, that would have led to MORE locals in the temp workforce rather than fewer (assuming that you have places to go to get diverse people locally). That’s why it’s good to get people’s observations from different parts of the real world.

  8. I think Sharon’s last comment really gets to the heart of the frustration that I hear from many within the FS today. I run a leadership development program for mid-career FS employees through the U of Montana. We have one full day within our program dedicated to cultural diversity (the program has three one-week classroom components). Each group that goes through the program has 30 people, and there are usually lots of differing opinions on the many topic we cover, but when it comes to the whole “diversity thing” my sense is that there is a virtual unanimity of thinking and its very simple:

    1. Forcing the numbers is the wrong approach, and is demeaning to the very people its supposed to help.
    2. Nonetheless, the FS is a “can do” agency and would meet whatever target is provided, but the govt can’t provide “specific numbers” since that would be lead to lawsuits on reverse discrimination grounds.
    3. As Sharon intimates, it is illegal to ask about race or ethnicity during hiring.
    4. So current employees that are doing the hiring are left with ambiguous “targets” to meet, and must “ask around” or guess by last name, or use some other silly tactic to see if an applicant is “diverse” or not.
    5. This leads to incredible frustration and may be hurting the very cause it is supposed to promote.

    If anyone else sees this differently, please let me know. As always, I know my view but one piece of the picture…

  9. No, Mike, you are spot on with your observations. It makes us all wonder when the emporer(s) will realize they are indeed wearing no clothes.

    I have led a number of hiring panels recently. The pressure to consider the “diversity” candidates first, regardless of qualifications is very real. When a selection is made a “justification” needs to be prepared and forwarded with the recommendation. One of the questions is how you considered diversity. I have cut and pasted the EEO statement as response to that question each time. Guess what….it always disappears and gets replaced with some pat answer as it moves up the line. Funny.

    Here’s something else fun to think about. Let’s suppose for a minute that David Beebe is correct…the FS has been captured and corporitized. Begs the question, who is behind this “diversity” movement?

    Ponder that.


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