The Cult of the Line Officer. I. Line Officers in the Forest Service and Their Cultural Importance

Joan Friedlander, former District Ranger of the Palomar Ranger District on the Cleveland NF

We’re at a bit of an intersection between discussing the proposed NEPA regulations, and a discussion on the role of political appointees and career folks in policy development. But let’s go back to Sam Evans’ op-ed in the NY Times:

But under the Trump administration’s proposal, a host of potentially harmful projects — including timber sales of up to 4,200 acres (about 6.6 square miles), construction of up to 5 miles of roads, and permits for pipelines and fracking pads — would be approved without public involvement.

Sam assumes that if it’s not specifically required, line officers, in this case District Rangers for the most part, won’t do any public involvement (even using a 4200 acre CE). As a person who worked in NEPA in DC and in Region 2, my experience is that generally District Rangers wouldn’t do that. Which I think leads me to an important point, especially for externals. In the Forest Service, there is a cultural inclination not to overrule the local line officer, and I think we need to understand the cultural context of line-officerhood before we can project any real world impacts from a change in regulations.

After ten years of discussing the Forest Service on The Smokey Wire, it’s high time we talked about this aspect of Forest Service culture. I’m hoping that others will volunteer posts about different aspects of line officer-hood, including their own experiences- that’s why I’m calling this The Cult of the Line Officer I. Now, you might say that this is really “The Cult of the District Ranger,” and we can talk about what that might mean also. I’m particularly interested in thoughts from those of you who have had line responsibilities in both the Forest Service and the BLM. In my career, I spent a great deal of time trying to convince people that folks from my staff “had what it takes” to be a line officer when that was their career goal; and I’m still not sure I get it. Hence this discussion.

Why am I calling these posts “The Cult of the Line Officer”? I am using it in the sense of the “derived sense of “excessive devotion” arose in the 19th century.”(Wikipedia) I don’t know if it’s actually excessive, but that’s something we can talk about.

There are almost metaphysical elements of caring and responsibility for a particular piece of land. There is the responsibility for people’s safety and lives, and being the person who speaks to the family if there has been an accident. I’m sure that there have been people who have written beautifully about what this means for them, and culturally for the Forest Service. I’m hoping people will post these expressions below or attach links.

The other side, though, is that for some to have that unique role, other roles are, at least to an extent, considered “less than.” Let me tell two stories that illustrate this.

First, in about 1981, we had a Women in Timber meeting in Region 6. It was held at Hood River, and I remembered two things. First was that the Timber Director said that women could never be sale administrators as the contractors would not respect us. The second was that the women in line had a separate meeting. As I remember, there were only two, and one was a nursery manager (still line, but not quite as OK as being a District Ranger). As a relative newbie to the Forest Service, I didn’t quite get it.

Second, (I’ve told this story before), when I worked in Region 5 during the Consent Decree, we had to have a Consent Decree Action Plan as part of our performance. Since we didn’t have many women in line at the time, I came up with the idea of having a field course to teach women in administration all the things they would need to know so that they could become District Rangers.
I was thinking that some natural resource courses from a university would do it, and perhaps more importantly, history and culture. For me it almost bordered on mysticism. This was when the RO called me and told me to stop talking about it, as it might give those administrative folks “ideas.”

Finally, the question “do we expect too much from these human beings, and how has that changed over time?” One story. At the Retiree Rendezvous in 2012, I happened to attend a session on fire. Many of the retirees were conveying to Tom Harbour, the WO Fire Director, that they believed that every line officer needed to have fire experience. This seemed to me not remotely practical and I tried to break in to say so, but the other retirees at this meeting were very adamant.

So three ideas to riff on:
What is that exactly that being a line officer means? Yesterday, today and tomorrow?
Is it just a mid-level manager in the government, or something more culturally or metaphysically resonant?
We depend on their judgment calls to “care for the land and serve people,” are they up to it?
Are (internal and/ or external) expectations too great for these positions? (E.g., liked externally and internally, inspiring, make wise decisions, and so on..)

9 thoughts on “The Cult of the Line Officer. I. Line Officers in the Forest Service and Their Cultural Importance”

  1. I find this discussion really interesting. I’ve had some interactions with various levels of the Forest Service over the years, and find the agency’s “culture” (to use its own preferred word) largely baffling, opaque, and impenetrable.

    In this regard, I saw a post on Facebook saying that it doesn’t matter what the Forest Service’s NEPA-compliance rule proposal says, because if you have District Ranger A it’s going to be X and if you have District Ranger B it’s going to be Y, whether under the current rule or the proposed one if it’s enacted. That wouldn’t surprise me.

    Also regarding the NEPA-compliance rule proposal, all sorts of environmental and outdoors-recreation organizations are opposing it in lock step, repeating one another’s talking points and denouncing the whole thing wholesale, even though it contains dozens or hundreds of specific proposed changes to the current rule. The discussion on the Sustainable Trails Coalition Facebook page is one of the few outliers I know of.

    • Well, L. FWIW, sometimes even to agency employees it’s “baffling, opaque and impenetrable” because what it says it is, is not always how it is. Each Region has its own culture, each Forest and each District.

      I can see why the author of the post on Facebook said what they did. It’s hard to get hundreds of people (thousands? don’t know how many Rangers there are) all lined up to change what is working for them and their employees and the public, when they know that it will take a couple of years to plan and execute the project, by then the administration may have changed…. so people who want to try it will, and those who don’t won’t.

      Oh, and FS employees are also highly aware of the category being litigated, as every proposed category has been. “Wait and see” is generally a successful strategy, watch what the early adopters do, and so on.

  2. ummm… Sharon, you can’t pull on this thread just a little. Too much “mysticism” I think. Here’s a quick anecdote about fire experience. Mike Edrington, R-6 Fire Dir, called to ask that I lead an investigation into 2 women seriously injured in smoke jump on Okanogan NF. I said I knew almost nothing about smoke jumpers. “Exactly”. Mike said he needed someone who wouldn’t get sucked into the cultural vortex. He wanted an honest and serious probe. Turned out they were dispatched to a little snag fire 1/4 mile from a road to “keep their numbers up.”
    Now about the NEPA issue: most rangers are pretty quick to get a wet finger into the wind. I believe a major driver (not the only one) for this reg change is to get timber cut with less hassle. For example, why is R-8 currently doing CEs for very large acreage timber harvest for wildlife habitat (WAY more than “70 acre limitation”)? Because the current regulation does not SPECIFY an acreage limitation for wildlife habitat projects. Many rangers will continue on with exemplary public engagement. But I have no doubt that field practices will vary wildly, and that a lot of people will no longer “waste their time” doing UNNECESSARY work that is no longer required.

    • Hmm. In my experience the Rangers may have a finger in the wind, which they have to balance against getting the public ticked off, the general proclivities of their NEPA and specialist staff, the upcoming election, results of litigation, and so on.

      PS If folks are using “old” category 6 for large acreages already, it’s a bit of a counterargument to the “this new regulation will allow swaths of logging without public involvement” because as we’ve seen the current scoping requirement just says SOPA plus one other notification, which isn’t actually public involvement- just notification. I’m not saying that that’s good (either using category 6 for large acreages, or not doing public involvement) but the novelty of category 26 in the new reg would then appear to be overemphasized by some.

      Maybe because of my experience with many District Rangers over time talking about NEPA, their projects, and public involvement, I have a more sanguine view of their general approach to public involvement? I don’t think they see it as unnecessary, I would think they will use their judgment to right-size it. Or maybe R-2 has a different culture?

      I’m curious as to the names of some of these category 6 projects in R-8?

  3. I agree that “cult” is accurate to describe the oddly pervasive deification the agency has built around the District Ranger position. Especially when you look at how little authority is actually delegated to a Ranger to make decisions. I have spent much of my FS career feeling like my staff voice didn’t matter- even though I was classed as “professional”, as opposed to “administrative”, and was at the same pay grade. There are valid points about unique nature of the Ranger job in regards to personnel safety, particularly managing wildfire incidents. But on the whole, the FS has doggedly clung to an outdated model that biases the agency against meaningful centralization and change. It has also led to a lack of humility among Rangers, whose egos seem to be swollen from the hubris of tradition.

  4. “Finger in the wind” must be another term for what I used to hear being called “risk management.” This seemed to mean “what can I get away with” to help me meet my targets. That depends on what the law allows and whether the public is likely to care about the law being followed. Expanding categorical exclusions doesn’t change what the public will think, but it could change how much the decision-maker cares what the public thinks by reducing the legal hooks. And if you add more pressure to meet targets, that will change the “risk assessment,” too (and you will see less public involvement).

    And I’ll just throw this out there for discussion. I don’t think most people with strong personal/professional beliefs (including the value of public participation) are going to do well on the line officer career ladder because they will be asked (told) to compromise them.

  5. Jon: the finger needs to be wet so you can see which way the wind is blowing, by which I am inferring that most line officers will see this reg change as helpful to them in getting timber cut. As long as it becomes “legal” they no longer have to “get away with” anything. Very comforting.

    • IMHO, district rangers need to have wet fingers in the air — but primarily to seek understanding of local and regional issues. Better a finger in the air than a head in the sand, eh?

  6. I am NOT arguing in favor of putting a finger in the wind… I’d rather see people of conviction and principle occupy line positions (like Jon Haber noted) who prioritize doing the right thing the right way. The FS should aspire to a culture where this kind of person is drawn to the responsibility and such behavior is routinely rewarded. OTOH hand I hate to see rangers or supv’s taking a principled stand and then FS caving to political pressure to move them. THAT is horrible and demoralizing.


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