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..)