Political Appointees, The Good and the Bad: Guest Post by Jim Furnish. II. Jim Lyons: Trust, The “Right” Views, and Unclogging the Personnel Pipeline

There are so many interesting things we can discuss about Jim’s observations.. the personal chemistry of liking and trusting, the buddy system, litmus tests for worldviews and “ethics”, figuring out what people are like based on what you hear about them (AKA..gossip?). Holy Smoke! It’s amazing that any of us stayed employed :). Oh, that’s right, it’s hard to fire us…

Sidenote: I checked back on the question of whether the Regional Foresters work for the Deputy Chief for National Forest Systems or for the Chief. From another former Deputy Chief for NFS.

I suppose it is a bit of both of in reality. As I remember it, I actually gave them their performance reviews and felt every bit their supervisor but whenever the Chief wanted he certainly had direct ties to each and in some cases an specific RF would try to go directly to the Chief if they thought that might be to their advantage, especially on cross functional issues regarding S&PF or administration and budget.

(Note that Fire is in S&PF).

Now on to Jim Furnish’s post.

“Next up: Jim Lyons, who came to USDA in 1993 from a lead staff position with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and remained Undersecretary for Clinton’s full term.

The Bad: I’ll be honest; I did not claim membership in the good ol’ boys club of forest supervisors when I became Deputy Chief in 1999. As timber production plummeted following the spotted owl crisis, Siuslaw NF, as well as I, became somewhat inconsequential in the larger scheme. I turned my attention to fixing roads, and protecting owls, salmon, and marbled murrelets, and struggling to develop a restoration model for a way forward out of the timber morass. Although, we were largely ignored in the PNW, Dombeck and Chris Wood, his policy advisor (and now Pres of Trout Unlimited) liked what they saw.

As Deputy Chief for National Forests, all personnel selections at the level of forest and deputy supervisor, regional director, regional and deputy forester, and DC NF program directors, had to be endorsed by me. Selections came to me as #1, #2, and #3 for my approval; I then had to brief the national leadership team on my assessment and selection rationale, occasionally bypassing the #1 candidate in favor of another. After discussion, the Chief made the final call and an offer was processed through. Except for Senior Exec positions, which went to the Undersecretary, who had veto power. For context, there are about 125 NFs, 9 Regions,and 10 national directors. In my brief 2 ½ year tenure, I processed about 125 selections.

We had a big problem when I arrived in May 1999. A huge backlog existed of unfilled positions, or more accurately, “pending decisions.” I assessed that Dombeck, having spent several years at BLM, was out of touch with FS field leaders. Lyons, similarly, didn’t know many except by reputation, but had strong views about personnel. As he traveled throughout the US, he met many leaders; some he liked, many he was wary of. After Dep Chief Gray Reynolds was ousted by Dombeck and Lyons, Bob Joslin filled the post but retired quickly thereafter. Distrust and indecision filled the gap as Dombeck felt he simply could not trust the process to deliver people with a necessary “land ethic” to carry his agenda. This engendered distrust on the part of regional foresters in particular, whose selections stood idling in DC.

I had been around enough that I knew, or had at least met, virtually every candidate for these select jobs. And I knew who I could trust when vetting a candidate for a particular position. I’m not bragging when I say I was key to breaking the gridlock. Dombeck trusted me enough to (almost always) accept my decisions. Lyons was another matter. He enjoyed his ability to pull strings to get people he knew and liked into positions (and prevent those he didn’t like), and had been infamously active in this arena since early in his tenure as Undersecretary, earning much scorn. This had a negative effect on field morale (putting it mildly). To be fair, both Dombeck and Lyons had legitimate concerns about finding leaders who shared their vision for a more progressive and “green” agenda, less reliant on logging.

Lyons and I did not visit this issue often, but we had a quite blunt talk about him needing to trust me and relinquish his grip on personnel selections. Slowly, the spigot opened and water flowed. I can well remember Lyons looking into my eyes occasionally and asking if so-and-so was “up to the job.” I think he had interfered unreasonably in personnel matters (Lyons would disagree, I’m sure), but he changed. He learned to let go.”

Next post: The Good, about Jim Lyons and the 2001 Planning Rule

9 thoughts on “Political Appointees, The Good and the Bad: Guest Post by Jim Furnish. II. Jim Lyons: Trust, The “Right” Views, and Unclogging the Personnel Pipeline”

  1. My two cents as a Washington Office drone at the time.

    (1) One of the reasons that there was resistance to Jim Furnish at the beginning was that he had been lifted directly from being a Forest Supervisor to Deputy Chief. Usually a person pursuing that job would have worked through chairs like being a RO Director or WO Director or being an RO or WO drone of some kind before you got to be a Forest Supervisor. It looked to many as if that were an act of picking someone for their worldview and raising them up outside of the normal channels.

    I think it wouldn’t have been considered so out of line if they had selected the one they liked most from a pool of people with the “usual” qualifications, but it was interpreted as “we don’t trust you all” and “we can do whatever we want” which is, of course, true but usually not handled so ..well.. in your face-ish.

    And Jim Lyons hadn’t been happy with Chief Thomas, who apparently who didn’t toe the line enough, so all of this was part of a broader narrative of ratcheting down control. To that end, this is a great story of an Administration resisting “pillowing” by personnel placements.

    (2) My own first experience with Lyons: I was excited to attend a Yale Alumni function at which the new Undersecretary was speaking. As a WO low-level drone, this was very exciting. Well I got there and he said he was looking for good people to work at the Forest Service, as the people who already were working there were generally a bunch of clueless and vile timber beasts, and Yale grads would be both smarter, and more right-thinking. Well, if that wasn’t a creepy feeling, I don’t know what would be. Overt and public disrespect is not a good posture for new politicals IMHO. Of course, that is now pointed out widely, and thought to be a bad thing, when someone disses federal employees but then- we did not hear all these things.

    • Sharon suggests that “One of the reasons that there was resistance to Jim Furnish at the beginning was that he had been lifted directly from being a Forest Supervisor to Deputy Chief.” Certainly, his opponents raised this objection.

      But, I suspect the opposition was more rooted in Jim’s advocacy as forest supervisor. He was, notoriously, the first signatory and only line officer on an employee petition to the Chief to protect roadless areas.

      • Andy and Jim, I don’t get the timing.. the article says:
        “Hundreds of United States Forest Service employees have signed an E-mail petition calling for strict limits on logging in the pristine back country of the national forests.

        The petition comes just as the chief of the service, Michael P. Dombeck, a Clinton Administration appointee, is nearing a decision on a hotly debated new approach governing forests where there are no roads for logging.”

        But Jim, I thought you said you were already Deputy Chief shortly after Dombeck came on board and were heavily involved in the Roadless Rule? So then you wouldn’t have been a Forest Supe and signed the petition?

  2. When my memoir came out (April 2015) Betsy Marston (High Country News) asked if it was “scandalous” — I replied “No, I left that stuff out, but I’d say it was candid.” Here’s more candid: As to Sharon’s observation that my becoming Dep Chief met with resistance — spot on and to the reasons why as well. I was duly concerned about this jump from Forest Supv to so near the top of the FS and spoke bluntly with Dombeck about how difficult this would be; for him, for me, for the FS. I had doubts that I could succeed no matter how adroit my skills in managing the situation. Dombeck’s supposed “mistrust” of the usual candidate pool (recall that Dale Bosworth had declined the Dep Chief job after Gray Reynolds was ousted) could more accurately described, as he told me personally, as “professional disappointment” at a perceived lack of imagination, guts, thinking “big”, and a progressive agenda on current challenges. Dombeck was willing, though not eager, to endure angering field lieutenants if it meant they “got the message” they needed to EARN a promotion. I concluded my most important tasks lay in major policy accomplishments — Roadless Rule, Planning Reg, Transportation Reg — rather than stroking RF’s egos. Could anyone blame Dombeck for not wanting another unenthusiastic doubter as his Dep Chief? Not me.

    • Jim, this is a really interesting discussion, as when people write their stories, we always don’t get a chance to hear from other points of view and put the pieces together.

      I always felt my job was to do what politicals wanted (and give them my best arguments for what and how to do it, and if they were rejected, that was where my responsibility ended. So I am kind of surprised that Dombeck would say. that he felt “professional disappointment” at a perceived lack of imagination, guts, thinking “big”, and a progressive agenda on current challenges.”

      I heard that back in the day (without the progressive agenda part) and I remember thinking “does the Chief even know the same folks I do?” I’d say many of them had imagination and thought big (but may not have expressed these thoughts in all circumstances 🙂 like at meetings with the Chief). But if you sat down with them and asked what they thought (I worked on the issues for the RPA Program), they had lots of imagination and ideas. Of course another point is that the Chief’s feelings about my fellow employees were known through the grapevine- this is not a good message to send to folks. It’s par for the course for a “real” political, not so much for a Chief.

      Given the context of Chief Thomas, maybe people thought “hey, you can think outside the box all you want until you cross Lyons, if he can get rid of a Chief whom he picked, I could even more easily be toast. If I sign up with this guy, am I on a escalator of ever more difficult ideological litmus tests (and making enemies with people I will need to work with in the future) until I get tossed off, potentially needing to move my family to a district in (name your least favorite place)?
      Having lost all my friends and acquired new enemies in the process- best thing is to keep my head down.”

      As to guts (that would require definition, it probably doing what you think is right, but that’s what JWT did…). And I wonder what questions you would ask in an interview to find if they would follow a “progressive agenda” and if those would be questions it would be legal to ask (since partisan affiliation is not). I can’t imagine someone running for a job saying “well, if you want to do a Roadless Rule, I can’t really participate.” But maybe that happened, which would also be interesting…

      Or if he didn’t interview them, then it would be a litmus test by hearsay?

      At the same time, I totally get that people don’t want employees that are going to stab them in the back, or that exhibit behaviors to show that they aren’t with the program. I’m sure that every Chief and everyone else who supervises people would like that!

  3. Gee, Andy — I’d forgotten that petition. As progress on the Roadless Rule ensued, I recall being quite baffled by the internal resistance to protecting roadless areas in spite of overwhelming public support and evidence on the ground that roadless areas were becoming an ever more unreliable source of timber. This reflected to me at least a dogma in the FS that was not “progressive” but clinging to a fading reality about the need to produce timber vs. protecting roadless values.


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