The Power of Storytelling and Forest Service Culture

Rangers take a mid-day lunch break on the Pike National Forest in 1913,
Long before “organizational culture” was trendy, I was interested in Forest Service organizational culture and the role of stories. We were hiring lots of people (in the mid 90’s) and I wanted to give them some of the same (good) experiences that I had had. My first years in the Forest Service (in the late 70’s and early 80′) involved many hours of driving time and lunch time in the field, with the elders sharing stories of the organization. It was fun because, after all, they were stories. At the time, there were few women professionals, and many men did not reach out to help us. At least in part this was for fear that we or others would mistake their intentions. I have to give a special shout out here to John Nesbitt who was a great mentor (and storyteller).

My dream at the time, (in the mid-90’s) was to collect stories that reflected organizational culture and put them in a book for new employees. I received many stories through the Data General (email for FS folks at the time), and still have many of them. I plan to post them here as time and space allow. If people would like to contribute some now, we can post them here. My idea was that you would tell the story and then reflect on what you think the story tells about the culture.

Recently, I ran across this piece in Forbes:

The eclipse of storytelling in the 20th Century
Anthropologists always knew that storytelling is a universal feature of every country and every culture, even if, for most of the 20th Century, storytelling got very little respect. As so-called scientific approaches to life became dominant, mechanistic, machine-like thinking was everywhere triumphant. Analysis was king. Narrative was seen as either infantile or trivial.

The phenomenon didn’t just affect storytelling. In retrospect, the 20th Century can be seen as a giant experiment by the human race to find out what could be accomplished if organizations treated people as things and communicated to them in abstractions, numbers and analysis, rather than through people-friendly communications such as stories.

Employees became “human resources” to be mined, rather than people to be minded. Customers became “demand”, or “consumers” or “eyeballs”, to be manipulated, rather than living, feeling human beings to be delighted. Storytelling was only one of many elements that suffered “collateral damage.”

The whole experiment can be seen as a success to the extent that the material standard of living of a proportion of the world’s population for a time improved. But the experiment was an abysmal failure in most other respects. It made human beings people miserable. And organizations steadily became less and less productive, as the need for innovation grew.

Regular readers know that stories, personal experiences, photos and scientific studies are all fair game for commenting and discussion on this blog. For new readers, as we discuss topics like sexual harassment or government shutdowns or whatever, let it be known that stories are honored and valued here.

6 thoughts on “The Power of Storytelling and Forest Service Culture”

  1. How true. Personal experiences and observations relating to a happening, even though experienced repeatedly and by many, are dismissed as “anecdotal” and given little or no credence.

    I look forward to your sharing your stories with us.

  2. I am fascinated by how groups of people dismiss anecdotes/stories as being “unscientific”, yet it is those same anecdotes/stories that greatly influence a decision (policy or otherwise). The implication that “real science” somehow trumps an individual’s personal experience negates the human-ness that is a very real factor in many of our resource debates.

  3. Sharon’s post reminded me that we began to air “Stories of Forest Service Culture” some years back when the agency toyed with allowing open policy discussion. Our forum was titled Eco-Watch Policy Dialogues and provided space for Sharon’s gathered “Stories.” Internet openness didn’t last long. Our “dialogues” disappeared from the Forest Service site sometime after 2004, and until now I thought Sharon’s stories to have been lost. I still maintain the old defunct dialogues site here.

  4. When I think of Forest Service culture and counter-cultures, my mind goes to Star Wars mythology and the machine-state faced off against its rebels. Think about Harold K. Steen’s U.S. Forest Service: A History, and Herbert Kaufman’s The Forest Ranger, and Jeanne Nienaber Clarke And Daniel C. McCool’s Staking Out the Terrain (first edition). All three books were generally viewed to heap praise on the Forest Service and its bureaucratic culture. Dissenters were few, or at least not as vocal as they were later on. But times were a’changin. Contrast these books to David Clary’s Timber and the Forest Service, Paul W. Hirt’s A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War Two, Herbert Kaufman’s The Paradox of Excellence, (a 1994 talk to the USFS, where Kaufman unveils a dark side of Forest Service bureaucratic culture), and Richard W. Behan’s Plundered Promise: Capitalism, Politics, and the Fate of the Federal Lands. Not much praise for the machine-state culture found here. And we have all been struggling since.Add one more book: Nature and the Human Spirit, B.L. Driver and co-authors This last book reminds me to add that not only has our American corporate culture reduced people to machine-state components, as Sharon’s article notes, we have done so with Nature. Too bad. The book seeks to reverse this trend and add humanity and humility to public lands management. My review.I often think of a future Forest Service where planning is an endeavor where the agency (or governmental agencies writ larger) works to “rehash the past” and “rehearse the future” in story form. This is scenario planning as an open-to-the-public future search. Maybe someday it will happen. Likely not in my lifetime.

    • Thanks for this, Dave!

      “The anguish of these dedicated public servants is easy to understand. They are treated as rigid opponents of progress and new ideas for what they consider staunch adherence to principle. They are portrayed as obstructionist bureaucrats who will not execute the will of an elected Administration when all they are doing is protesting what they regard as politicization of an agency long governed by the highest standards of professionalism and integrity. They believe that numbers of public spirited special interest groups, each mobilized around one or two uses of the public forests, such as recreation or preserving wilderness or maintaining scenic beauties or protecting particular species of wildlife or vegetation, are so intently, exclusively, and self-righteously focused on their narrow goals that they have lost sight of other equally worthy uses and have misrepresented the Service’s multiple-use philosophy. They are disheartened because they think the general public, not well-informed about the agency’s diversified program, has been taken in, if not panicked by the propaganda of these groups, which portray the agency as a tool of the lumber industry. They wish elected officials would stand up to the single-interest pressure groups and educate the public about the need for balance in the management of the national forests instead of bowing to the groups in matters of policy and perhaps even in the selection of the Chief. Journalists picture senior forest officials as hostile to new ways and changing needs and unfamiliar fields of learning, yet seldom mention that the junior people within the agency, many of whom differ from–and with–their seniors and, are in professions other than the customary ones of forestry and engineering, were recruited and appointed by the very seniors now under fire (Tipple, 1991). So if the embattled seniors are resentful and embittered, one can easily appreciate their point of view.”
      Plus ça change and all that.

  5. Glad to see you giving comments Dave. You and Sharon are so enlightening. I think the agency has changed a lot but political pressure can send it in the wrong direction.


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