Discussion: Leadership Impact on Forest Service Operations: Intriguing Ideas from Public Administration Theories


Here’s a link to a discussion piece by Cindy Chojnacky titled: Leadership Impact on Forest Service Operations: Intriguing Ideas from Public Administration Theories. This article has raised much interest in FS circles, and some have suggested that this would be a good place for a discussion.

It is from the Journal of Forestry current edition, so SAF member have a hardcopy in their mailbox or house somewhere. The Journal will be printing some responses, so if you are interested in doing that also, here are the requirements. Here is what it says in the Journal about that:

The author, Cindy Chojnacky, may drop in the discussion, but hasn’t made a commitment to do so..so please keep that in mind when we are discussing.

The Journal of Forestry invites readers to submit a response of no more than 1,000 words that reflects on the preceding discussion. Responses need not necessarily be critiques of the ideas presented in the discussion, but may expand upon elements that were not included and should be considered. Responses must be professional and courteous.

All responses will be considered for publication in a future issue. Send responses to [email protected] or Editor, Journal of Forestry, 5400 Grosvenor Lane, Bethesda, MD 20814-2198.

Let the discussion begin!

30 thoughts on “Discussion: Leadership Impact on Forest Service Operations: Intriguing Ideas from Public Administration Theories”

  1. Finally getting around to responding to this article. It surprised me that no one has commented here yet. Maybe its a “blind spot” for most folks participating in this blog. I don’t know.

    Having run a mid-level leadership development program for the USFS for over a decade, I can corroborate that at least some of what this article describes is indeed still part of the USFS culture. I love the concept of “voluntary compliance” to describe the inertia of the organization. I think Chojnacky does a good job bringing the theory of organizational evolution to light as it applies to the USFS but, as I think she would agree, I think the article leaves off the most important discussion.

    Before going further, I want to clarify that in my view (and in the view of the org development community) “leadership” has nothing to do with position or positional authority, but has everything to do with first being true to ourselves, and second influencing others. The question unaddressed by Chojnacky is what the role of leadership in this sense is or ought to be moving forward. Building the capacity to change an organizational culture is a long process with lots of fits and starts. The system that this article describes well has been in place for over 100 years and it will not change over night.

    But I see many many reasons for optimism in the participants that come through my program each year. Most of the conversations we have are centered around the two elements of leadership I mentioned above, leading yourself and leading other (i.e. one’s capacity to influence derives from knowing oneself humbly and leading from the heart).

    I challenge all who read this article to consider how your organizational norms (cultural assumptions of the “right” way to do things) may be holding you back from seeing what needs to happen and being willing to move into that space, even when it bucks tradition and puts you on a course which is inherently uncertain. This is the challenge our leadership program brings to all of our participants, most of whom are already seeing this need but may just need some extra validation.

    On a related note, I am personally exhausted by the endless barrage of criticism towards the agency. If “they” would just change…If “they” would just follow the law…If “they” would just tell the truth…If “they”, if “they”, if “they”….Its not that I don’t see value in constructive criticism, but unless we ourselves are willing to move into the uncertainty that increasingly defines our world, how then can we demand this of others? After all, is this about protecting our egos and sense of righteousness? Or is this about something bigger altogether? Let’s find the new pathway. Collectively we can all do better.

  2. Thanks, Mike. I went to some trouble to get this from Journal of Forestry and am surprised that all the folks who wanted a discussion, aren’t discussing. One reason might be that you have to read the article. Another might be that current employees don’t feel comfortable discussing in a public venue. It’s mystifying, because what could be more important?

  3. Sharon and Mike: this is Cindy Chojnacky. Finally had time to “drop in.” LIke you both I am surprised there is no discussion. I did submit the article as a DISCUSSION paper because I had read so much opining on the Forest Service over the years but with little consideration of public adminstration ideas that seem to well describe some of the design and institutional factors that can impact and capture an organization over time.Also was surprised he article ran without some rebuttal or different viewpoint either from Forest Service leadership, retirees, others. That is unusual for a DISCUSSIONS piece. I have heard directly by email from some Forest Service employees, consultants and others who have observed the Forest Service fairly closely. But the silence is interesting. There was much opining about Forest Service leadership in a fall Forestry Source by Jack Ward Thomas and other heavyweight former Forest Service people. Maybe everyone is tired of the subject of or more focused on current govenrment concerns such as budget cuts.

    • Hi Cindy,
      Just to add in some more thoughts, I thought you did a very nice job summarizing some of the key elements of FS culture (and the FS is not alone in this regard as you know). I did my Dissertation on CFLRP groups and looked at collaborative competencies relative the group leadership, and I am very interested in perhaps “extending” what you started by really picking up on the leadership role in changing culture. Again, the “voluntary compliance” concept you spoke of provides a rich context for talking about organizational inertia and shifting the course of an organization over time. Thank you for getting this started.

      I’d be interested in staying touch with either here or elsewhere Cindy. This is the “right” conversation to have in my view.

      Cheers, Mike

      • Hi Mike. Sure, my email is listed with the JOF article if you want to talk further. Actually I’m meeting with a couple of professors soon to discuss further research on the voluntary compliance idea. I had orginally planned it as a dissertation topic but found limited funding/interest a couple years ago so I thought the idea should at least go out into the marketplace of ideas! I have been ruminating on it since 90s when I noticed significant differences in values between line officers& other employees in Jim Kennedy’s surveys of Forest Service values.


    • Cindy – I read your article when it was published. Until recently, I haven’t been inspired enough to write – but that’s all recently changed.

      Although I was glad to see someone taking an analytical approach to the conundrum of management in the federal government and the FS in particular, I feel that your analysis ran amiss of the true issues at hand and failed to provide any real direction on where or how to go from where things are now to a better place. Re the fact that no one has made comment to this discussion thread, I feel that the main reason is at the root of the problem as a whole – the FS culture will not allow it to occur. People who speak out against the standards, norms, processes, and culture of the agency get black-listed – and they can find themselves navigating a long lasting, nasty and unbeneficial effect to their careers if they so indulge in speaking out.

      In general, I find that the agency is more concerned with APPEARING is if it’s doing the right thing, than actually doing the right thing. I see our leadership waste more time chasing their tails trying to figure out what the next new “management fad” will be than actually taking the initiative to do what is best for the organization. Part of the difference between the FS of the 50’s and now is that most Line and staff in the 50’s were empowered to make decisions without the unbelievably heavy burden of policy, regulation, and process that now crushes the life out of just about everything we do. The litigious nature of society in general forces management and subordinates into a position of submission and cowardice upon fear of retribution, a poor performance rating, or a directed reassignment to a lower grade position in Battle Mountain, NV. In other words, we’ve all become so concerned for our own wellbeing, no one is willing to accept the risk of thinking far and wide about better ways to do things out of fear of retaliation. The fact that the FS is actually hiring unqualified candidates by the droves for open positions because they meet some standard under diversity rainbow – yet fail technically – is demoralizing and a huge discredit to the function and history of the organization; no wonder morale is in the toilet. The FS is becoming little more than a training ground for how to be a good bureaucrat, thinking only inside the box, and attempting to reduce risk to the lowest possible level at any cost. There are no risk-takers anymore – they’ve been beaten into submission, retired, or left the agency for more meaningful work elsewhere.

      Honestly, I don’t see how the agency can continue to survive or approach anything resembling relevance without a top-down house-cleaning. The outfit is in a nose-dive and management doesn’t even get the picture. It feels to me like the agency is water-boarding itself to death. The problem as I see it is that FS leadership is unwilling to make hard decisions for fear of offending someone – high or low – along the way. The analysis paralysis has us all in its firm grip and the true leadership needed for the agency works for someone else.

      I’d just love for someone out there to stand up, accept the risk of failure, and analyze this agency under a new paradigm with operating efficiency at the top of the list. The FS has lost sight of its true mission and until it wakes up and brings that understanding of mission back into focus, it will remain off the tracks and headed for failure.

      • Mike, I think your reply to this would be good as a separate post. Would you be OK with that and would you like to add anything? If so, please send to me terraveritas*at*mail.com.

  4. I like our current Ranger District and Forest leadership. The Forest Supervisor and Contracting Officer, both women, have worked well together before, and I was one of their employees. Our relatively new District Ranger has a great skill set but, he needs to rebuild a neglected organization with poor funding. Being part of a collaborative group, he is well-equipped to deal with conflict and compromise.

    I am always concerned when the Agency makes bonehead moves that maybe fooled eco-groups in the 90’s but, it does no good to try and sneak intensive projects through, in today’s litigious world. Additionally, I don’t think it should, necessarily, HAVE to take so long to get NEPA and project plans together, jumping through all the proper hoops.

  5. Hello,

    I am not the same “Mike” as he who commented here a few days ago. Although my earlier comments here, when I posted last January, were under “Mike”, I more recently started using my full name, Mike Wood. The “Mike” who commented here just a few days ago is a different person than me, although we do share some common thoughts on this topic. Here is my response to “Mike”.

    Hi Mike,

    There is a lot in your comment with which I agree, although I might not have used such “absolutist” language. As I mentioned in an earlier comment here, I’ve been running a leadership development program now for 12 years with the USFS (via the U of Montana). Because of this I have a real luxury of seeing a broad cross section of employees at the mid-level of the agency each year (we serve R1-5, Job Corps, S & PF, LE & I, and Research). In general, I do see a very risk-averse culture and I do think this is a really problem. However, I don’t see the “top-down” approach to changing things that you suggest as either viable, or appropriate. Instead, I see a bottom-up approach as the only way for the agency to regain and/or improve its relevancy. As Larry points out above, there is anecdotal evidence that the agency is serving beginning to re-gain some level of credibility, at least at the local level, notwithstanding the real hallenges that you outline.

    Assuming more and more people continue to get involved at local and regional levels, and assuming agency people have the capacity to respond and engage in meaningful ways with them, my sense is that the WO will try to support, or at least not getting in the way of, these efforts. Some of the elements to which you refer are actually not within the control of the agency at all. Hiring decisions, for instance, are extremely bureaucratic due for the most part because of rules established at the Department level. Not even the Chief has a lot of say in such matters. (As an aside, one of the things I disagree with is your assertion that the agency is hiring unqualified people just to meet a diversity quota.) In my experience this is untrue, but I am open to any evidence to the contrary you would like to share.

    I think the road to positive change is non-linear and asynchronous, meaning it will be in fits and starts, with two steps forward and one step back. This can be really frustrating for people who want a clean, linear process (“like the old days”). The reality is that change does not usually happen at the same pace or in the same way in all places at once, and this is even more true today than ever before (IMHO). Moreover, this is a huge, multi-dimensional agency dealing with a broad array of constituencies across the country, so a one-size fits all approach would not be appropriate or desirable. Again, I see this happening primarily at the local and regional scales….All for now.

    Thanks for the comment Mike.

    • Mike Wood, I don’t know about today, but before I retired there was pressure to reduce the qualifications needed to try to acquire diversity. I’m not sure that that means they are “unqualified” but certainly, in some cases, qualifications have been reduced.

      For example, if there were no graduates in a field to be found who were diverse, we would find an undergraduate and support them with work through school. And if there are no GS 12 experts who are diverse, we would hire someone at the 9 level and then help them acquire those skills. This has two impacts.. one is that they are not performing at that level for a while, and the second is that someone is taking their work time to help them get to that level. So that person (the helper) whether diverse or not, now has two extra jobs.. helping, plus doing the 12 level stuff that the new person can’t, plus their old job.

      I am a big supporter of diversity, and always have been, but I believe that we need to look at things in a clear- eyed way to have good, effective, and just policies. So here’s to all the heroes who are out there doing that extra work, some of whom aren’t reaping the management benefits of hiring diverse people (because they are peers) but also do most of the extra work!

  6. If diversity isn’t the sole driving factor in hiring in USFS, why is the new forest supervisor on the Cherokee NF from HR. Clearly a degree in sociology does not prepare for silviculture, soil, air, water, wildlife and fisheries….

    • You look like a spammer, Joe. The Cherokee doesn’t have a “new” forest supervisor. Mr. Morris has been Cherokee supervisor for two years. His bachelor’s is in business administration, not “sociology.”

      Of course, what you appear to really care about, Joe, is that he’s African-American. Get over it.

  7. I have no disrespect for anyone who has served in operations whether they were qualified or not. As long as they did their best, that is all that I ask.

    What I have a problem with is the political correctness driven by the powers that be which says that diversity of color, sex and heritage are more important than having the professional qualifications necessary to understand the basic principles of plant physiology and etc. in order to recognize when biologists or others are proposing actions that are counter to the long term sustainability of the forest. The professional qualifications are necessary in order for the District sup or whoever is representing the forest in a recovery plan meeting for some sub component of the forest ecosystem. It takes such a professional to be able to say, “Wait a minute, you are going to destroy the forest in the long run and here is why … You are going to destroy the very habitat needed and therefore your plan is self defeating”.

  8. Point taken. Said in a reactionary moment. Apologies. But nonetheless years of USFS has shown me that the agency has divorced qualifications and knowledge about forests/ecosystems (as well as local communities with regard to For Sup’s) as a prerequisite for attainment of such a position. Then it becomes easy to have a pliable “yes” person at the helm ready to do the politically expedient thing at the behest of the region or WO. Look at the L&E controversy right now in the WO. Now sexism is still rampant in parts of USFS, especially fire, but racism. Nope. Rather the agency has become anti-intellectual, anti-technical competency and devoid of any purpose save for creating a system whereby a select few can play the game, reach 15 or SES, retire and have a second career either for mining/livestock interests or conversely for the enviro’s. Bad on the right and bad on the left.

    • I’m not too current on FS affairs, having left agency a few years ago.
      But from what I experienced, I would have to say “amen.”

  9. Joe and Cindy,

    I do respect your personal experiences and I don’t want to pretend that I can speak to this issue in the same way the two of you can I’m sure. It seems, however, that you both have concluded not only the outcome of the agency’s hiring into Forest Sup jobs, but have also ascribed a singular motivation for these changes (based upon Joe’s comment and Cindy’s “Amen”). I’d like to push back a bit here and ask; Is it possible, just maybe, that there are additional considerations for hiring “non-traditional” people into line office roles that go beyond the motivations Joe has ascribed?

    Obviously, my question implies my own bias, but I’m not necessarily arguing against what Joe has said as much as just suggesting there may be “more to the story” as well. There is an old expression that if you keep doing what you’ve been doing you will keep getting what you’ve been getting. For decades, as you both know well, holding a technical degree in forestry or related field was a per-requisite to a line position (let alone forest sup jobs), and this eventually got the FS into deep trouble as public values shifted and diversified. Now, with an even more diverse population and global economy, maintaining relevance has everything to do with being able to meaningfully engage with people and knowing how to make the mission of the agency resonate with them.

    Does a technical degree in forestry automatically qualify someone to interact with an incredibly diverse and strong-willed public? Does a silviculture degree automatically bring with it the ability to deal well with conflict? What about the emotional intelligence to navigate through the aftermath of a devastating fire in a local community? You get the drift….Are there times when the agency hires “yes men, or women”? Absolutely and we’ve all seen that. Do these instances tell the whole story? I don’t think so.

    None of what I’m saying necessarily means that someone with a sociology or business background is automatically better qualified to handle modern day challenges than someone with a more technical, traditional type of degree, and there may indeed be instances where Forest Sups without technical degrees are hired with “ulterior motives” in mind. Nonetheless, in my perspective, we need to keep a much more open mind about what it means to be the best qualified candidate for the job here in the 21st Century. Some of the greatest leaders in history and today have been men and women who inspired and influenced people not because they had all the technical knowledge themselves, but because they were humble enough to know what they didn’t know, asked lots of questions, and actually listened to the answers. In my view, these are the essential qualifications for a line officer of any stature.

    • I totally agree, Mike. The position of Forest Supervisor used to be the “Big Decider”. These days, the position desires to have a very wide skill set and a shown need for people management skills. Today’s Forest Supervisor cannot know all things about all fields, and needs to be able to rely on his staff and “Ologists” to give him good direction and analysis. I’ve been on way more Ranger Districts and Forests than most employees and have seen some pretty dysfunctional groups. I’ve also seen good organizations go bad when put under stress, or a key person leaves. Not everyone can be a great leader, regardless of how many framed pieces of paper they have on their walls.

      Here in Region 5, there is still a court-ordered bias for hiring women and Latinos. Many experienced white males have moved on to other careers, or just “doing something else” that has better promotion potential than that dead-end temporary job.

      • Larry.. that’s interesting because when I moved to Region 5 in 1988, I had trouble hiring ( a year or so later) hiring a woman who was well qualified because they didn’t want to also hire her husband, because of the Consent Decree.

        You’d think that someone in the public administration sector might be interested in why it’s now 2014 and the encouragement to hire women is still needed.. that’s 26 years..

        One more thing, I worked in the timber shop and we had more women than any other timber shop due to the energy and quality of my boss’s (Rex Baumback, at that time the Timber Staff on the Eldorado) efforts. I sometimes think if they had gotten some people with a track record of “getting things done in the Forest Service” to get Consent Decree done, they would have had greater success.

        One more thought along this line…I recently read a book “Winning from Within” by Erica Ariel Fox that talks about each of us having different people inside them and thinking of ourselves internally as a team. I find sometimes that good people do things because it’s the right/compassionate thing to do.. the internal Lover.. without engaging the internal Thinker (thinking about the best way) nor inner Warrior to make things happen).

        Mike Wood.. I think it would be interesting to take Fox’s model and share it with your young leaders.. but also look at it more broadly than internally.. maybe some case studies of FS successes and boondoggles and see how these different perspectives were used, or not, in the way things worked out. I would say, as a person who argued for a regional hotline when things were really bad at ASC, that compassion for our folks is not as high a value as might be thought (especially when it is tied to being open about “What DC says we need to do is not working..” which could be a career-limiting observation.

        Also of all the Myers-Briggs I’ve done, most people in the FS were T’s (not F’s) and of course a higher proportion of males are T’s. So that’s one of my hypotheses for why it’s hard for compassionate things to get done…we F’s aren’t as good at getting things done, and those who are good at getting things done aren’t F’s.

    • Howdy Mike.
      I am always cautious about getting into this discussion because it’s easy to be misconstrued. I didn’t say “amen” to all that Joe was saying about preferential hiring ect; only to his overall concern about wrong people getting into leadership. (And I also have known a few excellent leaders both in line & staff so would not dare try for universal truisms). I agree with you that technical degree doesn’t automatically qualify someone for management (the very personality type that wants a simple focused profession would struggle with the generalist demands of management). There are exceptions who have with great personal/leadership abilities. Someone like Dale Bosworth comes to mind who was an exceptional forest supe and regional forester with a BS in forestry. But he had an independent way of thinking, was continually reading and learning, and liked to reach out to people personally which kept him a bit out of the box. (I think).

      Anyway my overall point in the long-forgotten Journal of Forestry article (2012) was that in any organization the norms or “way we do things” become something of a mindless force no one really considers and they continue on through time just because of how people operate together in an organization. In the Forest Service, I gave some examples I had seen of how such norms often resulted in selection of leaders who were “voluntarily compliant”; ie. did what “the organization wanted” as standard behavior. (without questioning whether the order was really a mission focused urgent directive or the fantasy project of a WO director, for instance). To me a leader isn’t a rebel but would be well aware of those norms and try to work within them towards the mission. Since FS mission is complex and even vague, I admit that is tough going. But robotic compliance to every new law from Congress/national-regional directive etc when they are often contradictory contributes to the confusion and chaos. But if a supervisor is more focused on upward pleasing rather than “the job” however s/he might see it, it’s just automatic to “do what they want” and perhaps miss the opportunities and impacts on the staff, the community, the resources situation etc etc.

      I haven’t participated too much in this site (although I appreciate its existence) because the response to my JOF article was so disappointing. Few had the courage to weigh in with the Journal although the editors had hoped for a good discussion (and I think were as surprised as I was at non-response). The one response was a ranger who defended the status quo, and argued that without conformity there would be anarchy. He held up his own example of being greatly rewarded by the organization as good evidence that he was right.

      I figured my ideas were too obscure for people to get or that mood of federal government anymore is so disheartened and survivalist no one wants to engage. So I have had to let go my passion to inspire Forest Service and federal sector to examine the unconsidered organization norms that hamper mission and contribute to complexity and confusion.

      Sorry about going on so long. Another reason I restrain myself.

      Cindy Chojnacky

      • Cindy,

        I really enjoyed reading your response and personally find this discussion incredibly rich and thought provoking. I’ll explain why in moment, but first I want to reiterate a much earlier comment I posted her and say once again that the concept of “voluntary compliance” you brought up in your article was fascinating and really useful in terms of broadly understanding the power of culture in the FS (or any organization). Not to get too wonky here, but there is a very similar concept from the literature (that I think you mention as well, although it has been quite a while since I read your article) known as the “bounded rationale” of the organization. Basically, these concepts address the reality that cultural norms create the “reality” of people within organizations and can lead to increasing conformity of thought over time.

        The reason why I find this conversation so rich is that I think it is unveiling an interesting twist in the “voluntary compliance” to which you spoke in your article. For decades, voluntary compliance could have been equated with “acquiescing to tradition”, and the traditions of the agency were understood by most everyone to the legitimizing foundation and reason for the agency’s success.
        Another way to say this is, if culture is “the way we do things around here”, then those hired into line were those most likely to support “the way we do things around here”. This in turn provided everyone else a sense of belonging and safety. If ever someone wanted to know the “right” way to do something, or the right decision to make, they need look n o further than the guidance provided by their line officer.

        Here’s the twist: While those hired into line may still be “traditional” in the sense that they are less likely to challenge those above them within the agency (i.e. respect for the hierarchy is paramount), what “those above them” are asking of line officers is becoming more and more obscure and complex with each passing year. Because of this, line officers are less and less able to provide the kind of “bounded rationale” (i.e. sense of security) to those under their supervision.

        In response to the uncertainty that this creates over time, I see the rank and file folks begin to question the capacity and competency of line officers, and this questioning is further exacerbated when line officers don’t always have a “traditional” background and/or look and act like the ones that use to be hired into those positions (i.e. the ones who knew how to “make competent decisions” and “provide clear direction”.

        Moreover, folks begin to infer all kinds of nefarious motivations for why “certain” people are hired, and question the integrity of the agency’s leadership in making those decisions. To be sure, there are probably just enough examples of when hiring selection is influenced by “less than noble” notions to give some merit to this complaint.

        Nonetheless, what’s most troubling about these broad “conclusions” about the agency that we all hear so often, is that there has not yet been (to my knowledge) a clear and informed articulation of the raw political reality facing the USFS at the highest levels, followed by a clear articulation of an alternative to what is happening today. I would really value that kind of informed critique if anyone is, or knows someone in a position to provide it.

        Finally, and from a somewhat different angle on this issue, I will say that the agency does a pretty lousy job in communicating the “why” behind many of the policies and requirements line officers are expected to carry out (and the voluntary compliant nature of line officers tends to perpetuate this poor communication). In my opinion, this is a holdover from when there was much more clear direction from the upper levels. From what I can see, the agency is really caught in an awkward transition now, still believing that such policies, rules, initiatives etc. ought to be adhered to, simply because the upper levels have said so, while at the same time asking everyone to learn how to adapt and adjust to this “new way” of doing things. It can’t have it both ways in the long run, and assuming things will continue to be obscure and complex, the agency will really need to let go of it’s current “bounded rationale” regarding communication with the rank and file.

        So there is my “short” response to Cindy…

        • Great thoughts Mike, you’ve really internalized and digested what you’ve learned thru your classes. Have you had the opportunity to communicate your above observations/sentiments to senior FS leadership???

        • Mike,
          Thank you for that thoughtful response. From my perspective, you “get” what I was trying to cover in my article about Forest Service leadership from an organization theory perspective. That perhaps the many complaints about the agency is finger-pointing at symptoms, and that a possible cause of many problems is normal but un-examined and unconsidered organization mechanisms such as bounded rationality/ institutional norms that grew out of past practices and that could be inhibiting the present and future of the organization.

          I like what you said, that those currently in leadership may be “traditional” in that they still respect hierarchy and are not likely to challenge those above them but “what is being asked of line officers is becoming more obscure and complex each passing year.”

          As I wrote, the simplistic hierarchy probably evolved in the Forest Service’s early history and may have served the agency well for its 50-60 years, certainly at the time when Herbert Kaufman did his study that led to the “Forest Ranger.” When the mission was oriented towards timber/range management and desired outcomes/measures of success were totally controlled by this insular and obscure timber/range management agency, it probably “worked” that people who had moved up the chain, (and had a wide variety of geographic & management experiences within that narrow business model ) could be the elders, the authoritative leaders. But now what seems to remain is a blind respect for the authority/wisdom of the “people above” while everything that supported that system has changed.

          Anyway you said it very well and gave some good examples. This was truly the type of discussion I had hoped to engender with my article. It was, after all, a “Discussion” piece.



        • I have many stories I could tell based on experience but not so much academic knowledge. All the directors on our region reviewed all 12 and above of certain kinds of jobs throughout the region. I served on a couple of Forest Supe panels, and I can tell you that once you get that competitive it does not seem “objective” (nor can it be) at all. In fact, it’s kind of like a research panel, for you all who have been on those. Each person has his or her own thoughts and biases and somehow the panel is the mean of all that.

          Here would be my “clear articulation” FWIW.The FS must do what the Dept wants. Some of these policies make sense theoretically but are difficult to carry out in reality. Some are opportunities to make political hay with contributors. Some are opportunities for higher ups of various stripes, political and not, to build resumes. But not all political people are people you would ask “how”, because they don’t know AND they might think you are just asking because you really don’t want to do it.

          That’s what leads to things like “we can only talk about this on phone calls because if we issued an order with quotas/targets it would be likely to be considered discrimination.”

          So the higher ups in the FS may not know why something is being done for sure. That’s not their fault, IMHO. They have to give the folks upstairs the benefit of the doubt. But then they can’t explain it other than “it’s what the Dept wants.” Or they may know and have been told not to talk about it. That’s a very awkward place to be in.

          Now sometimes a screw up based on the perceived Dept idea will get publicized. Then the Dept. says “that’s not really what we said, ASC (or some other person or group) misinterpreted it.” But none of the employees can know if that’s true or not.

          That’s why I think it would be fascinating to interview some FS folks and pick out their most irritating and demoralizing things.. and then see if the same thing occurs in other federal agencies.

          Some employees I worked with who came from other agencies claimed that FS folks have an “attitude of entitlement” compared to their previous agencies. I wonder if that’s true.

          A final note: once we had a disagreement between some supes and our RF in which they maintained their point of view was an “undiscussable” and the RF said that he had made up his mind.. which gets into the difference between higher ups “not listening” vs. “listening, but still disagreeing.” As this blog attests, people disagree about everything, so if you do push back you might not lose favor but still not get your way….

      • Ms. Chojnacky, I only recently came across your JOF article. Fascinating and reassuring to see that you’ve observed the same patterns of leadership behavior and as I have in my 25-yr career. Regarding your note above, I find it almost comical that the district ranger held up as evidence of his being right his own conformity (and I suppose we should credit him for recognizing he’s just one more sheep in the flock), when in fact its additional evidence to support your characterization of the “voluntary compliant” leadership organization. It’s like Kaufman all over again – FS employees not understanding the underlying criticism: they’ve self brain-washed. Your article helps me understand that, the Dombeck era notwithstanding,with initiative after initiative, why nothing has really changed in 25 years.

        • Thank you so much for your comment. It is so reassuring to see someone from the Forest Service who “got” the whole thing. Other than Sharon, the former JOF senior ediotr & a few commentators on this space, the silence has been pretty deafening. It may be as you say–hard for fish to see the water they are swimming in. Anyway, thanks for speaking up; you made my day. I agree with you–Mike Dombeck tried to make some serious changes in the FS culture but we snapped right back afterwards.

  10. You may be right. Nothing is going to change because the rank and file are so disheartened. Everybody in USFS knows the exact date they can retire. Preferential hiring at the onset to undo historic wrongs/discrimination (up to a point) is laudable, however USFS combines that institutional culture of moving the pliable/expedient up with an attitude that there should also be equality of final outcome. That can never achieve a culture of achievement and merit that serves the resource and nation. No college degree program prepares one for leadership, however, good or bad leadership w/o technical skills, i.e., science and management based foundation is generally a recipe for disaster. Case in point, I heard that at one time the USFS leadership college or group program presenters that touted the mental powers of Uri Geller as real AND nobody in the class knew that he was a fraud. People identified as leaders believe you can bend a spoon with your mind? Really? It leads to natural resource relativism where multiple directions and outcomes are OK when in reality many issues are right or wrong, fact or fiction. Maybe we ought to be even selective within the pool of foresters and “ologists” as one previous blogger wrote. Leaving race and sex aside, USFS mistakes in management direction and personnel are never admitted because to do so would require leadership to admit that, and rather the non-technical types and/or the folks not “up to the task” are shuttled around upward and onward until they find themselves running the show (9’s and 11’s goof up and there is an after action review, when leadership goofs there is never and after action review, and most likely a promotion and an expense paid change of duty station; still waiting on the after action review for the SES’er that consolidated HR at Albuquerque). And then it becomes a perpetual motion machine where playing the game to reach that 15 or SES is the goal. Nothing else. Would we accept this culture at NASA, CDC, etc? No way. Not for agencies that matter. Leadership from a meritocracy through superior tech-ocracy is the only acceptable way forward. Politics and policy decisions then are confined within that space which will yield a better outcome.

  11. I often wonder how the people of my generation,who are smart, caring and intelligent,(and now mostly retired) after the drafting of the Record of Decision, of the Northwest Forest Plan, pretty much just let the Forest Service fall apart.

    • Finally made may way through this long, tedious, and somewhat depressing, but very accurate accounting of American political system dysfunction. Wow, it is tough to see it all laid out in such stark and realistic terms. To save others some time, the article actually talks very little about the USFS, other than to use its history as an example of how the administrative state has suffered under our political system m ore generally. According to the article , like most federal bureaucracies, the USFS has suffered from a gradual loss of autonomy and discretion at the hands of special interest based politics and judicial decision-making that has increasingly reached into executive branch powers since the mid-20th Century. I’m not sure what, if anything, can come of this article, but it is a fascinating read for anyone that has the time. Just be sure you get outside (preferably in nature) and remember what is really important in life after reading this piece……which is exactly what I am planning to do right now! 🙂

      • Nice summary, Mike. Thanks for sparing others a rather long, wearing read.
        I agree the author mainly used example of Forest Service as launch off to explore broader problems of our political system & how it might lend itself to domination of special interests that would have no motivation for the ‘greater good.’ He didn’t link this back to the FS or feds, but archaic bureaucracies led by compliant leaders could indirectly aid and abet such domination since the agencies simply respond to interest-based policies or directives handed to them by Congress or courts as more directives to be dutifully carried out rather than negotiating w/ the disparate interests and/or weighing new ‘orders’ against bigger picture of overall mission.


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