How Feminism Wrecked the US Forest Service

The following book review was written by Laura Wood for her blog, The Thinking Housewife: http://www.thinkinghousewife.com/wp/2012/06/how-feminism-wrecked-the-u-s-forest-service/

I thought this might provide an interesting discussion piece for the retired USFS readers who sometimes Comment on this blog, as well as the (usually anonymous) Commenters who still work there. It’s a controversial topic with which we are all familiar — it’s just unusual to see it laid out on the table for consideration and discussion, as Wood has done here.

How Feminism Wrecked the U.S. Forest Service

Book Review by Laura Wood

TWO YEARS ago, I posted an excerpt from a book-in-progress, The Death of the U.S. Forest Service by Christopher Burchfield. Since renamed The Tinder Box: How Politically Correct Ideology Destroyed the U.S. Forest Service, the book was published by Stairway Press earlier this spring.

Burchfield has more than fulfilled the promise evident in that excerpt. The Tinder Box is an outstanding work of investigative reporting and cultural criticism, a blow-by-blow account of how liberalism transformed the U.S. Forest Service, with its millions of acres of cherished timberlands, from one of the most effective and highly motivated government bureaucracies in American history to a rancorous, dysfunctional and despised workplace, a bureaucratic hellhole more preoccupied with egalitarian quotas and sexual harassment seminars than its mission to preserve and govern this country’s vast woodlands.

Burchfield, who has held jobs in the Forest Service, other government agencies and IBM, spent months poring over government documents and interviewing employees of the Forest, amassing a small mountain of evidence. Anyone who doubts that feminism severely damages the morale and initiative of men, and is inherently opposed to the pursuit of excellence, is encouraged to review this evidence. This story is so disturbing, pointing as it does to an environmental disaster of significant proportions, it is sure to be ignored by the mainstream. And that is a crime.

In 1876, Congress ordered the Department of Agriculture to establish the Division of Forestry for the purpose of protecting the nation’s threatened woodlands, which were susceptible to fire and had been carelessly exploited by timber interests. The bureaucratic arm was established five years after the Peshtigo Fire destroyed 1.5 million acres in Northern Wisconsin and killed as many as 2,500 people. With a growing interest in natural conservation and new scientific forest-control practices, the division was in charge of 17 million acres by 1897.

The agency was riddled with corruption and patronage when Gifford Pinchot became its head in 1898. In 1907, the U.S. Forest Service, “the oldest of America’s four great land-owning agencies — the others being the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management,” was officially born. Burchfield writes:

“A scion of a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Pinchot had studied forestry in Europe and felt that America with its immense unsettled spaces, required new concepts to manage its natural resources. A witness to the almost complete denuding of Pennsylvania’s hardwood forests and the watershed problems and poverty that followed, he felt certain that good management of both timber and prairie country was essential to preserving America’s heritage.”

Pinchot curtailed the era of patronage and adopted the Civil Service System, which required all applicants to pass an exam. He envisioned a force of qualified professionals devoted to forest work and prepared for its rigors. Pinchot said:

“I urge no man to make forestry his profession. But rather to keep away from it if he can. In forestry, a man is either altogether at home, or very much out of place…”

With acquisition of more land by Congress, the Service came to oversee 93 million acres in 44 states. Foresters and district rangers were expected to have studied dendrology, physiography, silvics (the study of individual tree species and their conditions) and forestry economics. In time, the forest ranger of lore was replaced by “hydrologists, silviculturists, range managers, geneticists, engineers and entomologists” who built long careers within the Forest Service. They were also expected to adjust to heavy labor and life in remote camps.

Pinchot, who insisted the foresters cultivate a good relationship with local communities and hire locals for seasonal work, was described as a “magnificent bureaucrat” for his vision and high standards.

The subsequent years continued this pattern of professionalism and dedication.

In 1968, in keeping with the times, administrators in Washington and other urban centers grew uncomfortable with a subculture that was overwhelmingly white and male. That year, the Berkeley office hired a woman named Gene Bernardi — “a dark-haired, ordinary looking woman in her mid-forties, wearing heavily rimmed glasses.” She was quickly promoted and appointed chief of the service’s new Equal Employment Opportunity Advisory Panel.

Three years later, Bernardi, by then known as belligerent and sensitive to criticism, demanded promotion to a higher Civil Service grade. When she was refused, she promptly filed a discrimination complaint in Washington, D.C. This too failed and then, after strong-arming a few other employees to join her, she filed a class action suit.

The story of her suit, which ended up before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, makes for harrowing reading. Bernardi was represented by the feminist law firm, the Equal Rights Advocates. The suit ultimately resulted in a “consent decree,” a formal settlement between both sides. (By the time, the consent decree was signed, all plaintiffs had dropped out of the suit, even Bernardi herself. As Burchfield writes, “It was thus the weakest class complaint ever filed, a class complaint without a complainant.”)

Though the Forest Service was absolved of all wrongdoing, it agreed to make atonement for its past, promising to employ women at levels equal to the civilian labor force. Judge Samuel Conti specifically warned against quotas, which are forbidden under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Zealous Forest Service administrators ignored his warning and adopted a plan to make its force 43 percent women.

The decree pertained only to California’s Region Five, but the affirmative action mission later spread through the other administrative regions. This project was not generally approved of by women who worked for the Forest Service at that time, women who were hired for qualifications that suited their positions. (And many others have performed well since.)

Accustomed by then to employing rugged outdoors men, elite firefighters and experienced administrators — almost all of them men — to manage its wild lands with brawn and advanced scientific knowledge, the Forest Service embarked in the 1980s on a program of recruiting and hiring unqualified employees to meet its quotas of women. (See Burchfield’s earlier excerpt.) Minorities were actively recruited too, but because the effort to hire minorities was so often unsuccessful — blacks especially were not avid for jobs far from urban areas — the liberal assault on the Forest Service primarily focused on the hiring of white women.

The trend endangered those in the field. Burchfield writes:

“On July 15, 1981, two weeks after the Bernardi Decree went into effect, a tragedy occurred after a fire broke out on the Angeles National Forest. Gilbert Lopez, a fire captain, went in search of an inexperienced pump operator who had become separated from the fire team. Though she later managed to find refuge with another crew, Lopez never returned from his search. His charred remains were found after the fire was extinguished.”

This was not the only death involving inexperienced women or women who were physically inferior to their male colleagues. Burchfield tells of other incidents, including the 1994 Storm King Mountain Fire in Colorado, in which sixteen firefighters, including four women, died. In that case,

“It is all but a certainty that a number of firemen on the crew returned to assist the firewomen and paid for their heroism with their lives.”

As the consent decree took hold, men were continually denied jobs or promotions. Burchfield describes the story of Bill Shaw who started to work for the Forest in 1977.

“He was born in Arcadia, California, where as a boy he and his family routinely camped and hiked in the Forests, and came to know many of those employed in them. He would return home after these excursions and as he admitted without embarrassment, fall asleep dreaming of Lassie, Smokey the Bear or some other animal character associated with the woods. After earning an Asssociattes Degree in forestry, he went to work on one of the Angeles fire crews, rising to the position of fire captain. The pay was poor, particularly considering the high cost of living in the area, but he was working in the Forest and that counted more than anything else.

“…. After learning that he would not be able to hire the engine crew he had trained and worked with over the past three years, he was ordered to take on several women.

“Despite the extra physical drilling the agency granted the new hires, Shaw’s bull** detector went off immediately. He instinctively knew that very few of them would develop the strength and stamina necessary to haul a fifty-foot length of fire hose up a slope. For the next several years it became routine for him to order his female crew members back down the hill to stand by, while he and his two firemen held off the blaze until one or more other engine units arrived.”

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.

Once the friend and servant of the public, the Forest Service has become the cause of antipathy toward the federal government in rural communities throughout the land, where threats against forest rangers and vandalism of government property are alarmingly frequent. Burchfield writes:

“[W]hen year in and year out, locals see an inordinate number of jobs awarded to people flown in from thousands of miles away, a tinderbox builds, waiting only for one match to ignite it.”

America’s forests have presented extreme challenges and temptations — and have been the scene of greed and lawlessness — for hundreds of years. But the reign of affirmative action racketeers has exposed them to an unprecedented threat. It is no exaggeration to say the U.S. Forest Service has been willfully destroyed by the religion of equality.

10 thoughts on “How Feminism Wrecked the US Forest Service”

    • Travis: You might want to take that up with Laura Wood — the link is there. All I’d really like to do is to post something here that might cause some meaningful discussion. This is a provocative topic. For your information, my reforestation business was among the very first to hire women to plant trees and operate chain saws in the early 1970s, and about the same time my Eddyville Little League team was the first in the league to accept — and regularly play — girls (including two starters!).

      Yes, I strongly think the USFS should have hired more women and minorities in the past; no, I don’t think it should have been done at the expense of career professionals, because of regulatory requirements, in conjunction with a quota, or at the expense of job quality.

      History doesn’t give us a mulligan, though. The best we can do is learn from our successes and failures as we go, and try and make better decisions in the future. It’s not a “luck” thing.

      Reply
      • Travis: Forgot to make the point that “ecology” has been “a word” since the 1890s — when it was first used by a woman home economist in regards to Housekeeping(!). I think it was first coined as a concept by a German scientist in the 1860s, but spelled slightly differently. (Maybe because it was in German rather than English?)

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  1. Also, I have worked with a great number of women in the Forest Service, and my personal experience has shown the accusation that “women forest officers (are) particularly disinclined to restrain those violating rules” to be the farthest possible thing from the truth.

    There are a great many things the Forest Service can be justly proud of. But hanging on the wall of the breakroom at my duty station is a reminder that the past is never dead – and it’s not even past. It’s a late-1960s letter sent from a FS supervisor to a woman who applied for a firefighter job – and it is the most condescending thing I have ever seen on paper, telling her that her application was thrown away and inviting her to apply for secretary jobs. We all get a good laugh out of it now – because that mentality is fading into the dark recesses of history, and deservedly so.

    This is “a new century” for the Forest Service, as the blog title suggests. Misogynistic, spiteful, morally-wrong and legally-impossible arguments are not helpful in a debate about the direction of the agency in the 21st century.

    Reply
    • Great, powerful points there Travis.

      I have to wonder if there is a correlation between those who believe “feminism wrecked the US Forest Service” and those who believe a lack of industrial logging wrecked the Forest Service? Just wondering, of course….

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  2. Yes, I remember lots of reverse discrimination and discontent over women and vet preference hires. But I have to say the women who got into line positions had greener shorts than any of us boy types. Get the cut out and keep the ologists in line was not hard for them. One real life example was a part-time mail clerk GS-3 that ended her career as DRF. However, in that case she was competent, qualified and was truly a net benefit to the agency.

    No the FS demise happened from the 1960s to 1990s when the agency transformed itself from a decentralized district ranger operation to a very centralized, top down WO/RO organization. The FS put more value on congressional ties than being forest stewards.

    I can remember Chief Cliff being asked to come up and join a House panel rather than testify from the witness table. I was just in the beginning of my career. It put a whole new perspective on the FS mission to placate congressman for a bigger budget. I think my colleagues said grow up.

    I can also remember a DRF telling me that we were part of the President’s political team during Iran/Contra with more emphasis on being team player than simply managing the public’s forest. I also remember replying that I never heard which party Smokey had voted for or that Woodsy’s job description included covert ops. But the CIA/FS firefighting airplane sales changed that. I never signed up to work with Olie North, but I may have tolerated Fawn Hall as RF.

    So, good doc, nice try but you are going to have to look farther than FS women.

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  3. One thing not mentioned is that some Ranger Districts preferred to fill positions with temporary employees, instead of using permanent employees for jobs done each and every year. This practice continues today, with jobs becoming more technical as time goes forward. It is a lot easier to justify hiring men into temporary jobs than into permanent ones. It takes about 2 years to train a timbermarker, and it takes about 2 years for a temporary employee to become jaded with the Forest Service’s hiring practices and lack of career opportunities.

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    • Larry: In my field, a number of contractors who specialized in illegal alien labor contracted with the USFS in central Oregon for a number of years — where they were being counted as “minority employees,” until someone stopped the practice. They weren’t even temps! Most of them weren’t even legal! Even a couple of the contractors themselves turned out to be illegal residents — somehow qualified to bid and perform USFS contracts on public lands.

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  4. JR makes some interesting points in his discussion, especially the one that related to events of Pres. Reagan’s tenure (Iran/Contra). For those who missed one of my previous posts months ago, it is my contention that the USFS began its tailspin into a second-rate federal bureau as soon as Reagan and his hirelings took over. I experience several years of this disgraceful period; the directions from the RO/WO became so blatantly political in tone and substance that true land management with even an iota of science or consideration of balance, NFMA or the “good of the order” was finished. One of the reasons the first batch of forest plans took so long can be attributed to meddling from Washington.
    That era, plus some obvious foolishness in hiring and placement of inexperienced women in crucial positions broke the back of the old “green underwear” traditions. I don’t agree with the thread in the book review that the women ruined the agency, but I do agree that the manner and speed of this sea-change in agency culture had a very serious, negative impact.

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  5. Women made the department better. Maybe if you spent more time working instead of whining on forums you would have got that promotion.

    Reply

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