FS Story of the Week: Remote But Not Remote Enough

I hope that this is the Sioux Ranger Station or someone will tell me if it’s not.

From James Keyser on the Data General.

From: James D. Keyser:R6/PNW

Date: ## 03/03/97 10:20 ##

I always liked the sign I saw (my FIRST month in the agency) at a VERY remote ranger station on the Custer NF in South Dakota (R1).

Above the ranger’s desk hung a sign that said: “Last Year was a GOOD year.  I saw the Forest Supervisor THREE times. He saw ME ONCE!”

And it was a Ranger District on which that REALLY could have happened

30 mile drive to it on dirt roads.  All the NFS land is sparsely forested mesa country from which you can see for miles.

You’ve probably heard it before- it may not even be original to the Forest Service but…it does convey the deep  value of decentralized decisionmaking (yes, and a certain mistrust of the next level up).  Decentralization is indeed an important value, but in this hyper-connected day and age, it can also be frustrating sometimes for employees and the public alike.

13 thoughts on “FS Story of the Week: Remote But Not Remote Enough”

  1. Actually the USFS in those days was spatially decentralized but was very centralized policy wise. Remember going to the voluminous FS Manual for direction? Those huge green binders full of directives from the WO and RO?
    Herb Kaufman (sp?) documented the centralized, command & control methods of the FS in his book “The Forest Ranger; A study in administrative behavior.” I read the book in the early ’70’s after my first season w/ the agency. It made me think a lot about how the agency controlled District Rangers and other line officers.
    After reading the book I came to think about Rangers as the ruling lord in medieval fiefdoms; allegiance to a king (the Chief in WO) but entitled to make some of their own decisions within the framework from above.
    It’s still that way now as the level of “the cut” timber targets come from the WO.

    BTH – James Keyser was an archaeologist in RO in Region 6. I can recall spending time with him in the field on the Gifford Pinchot NF

    • I read the book but also like the Handbook and Manual system as one sort of learned from others mistakes and did it right the first time. The Cut was another matter. Like said, it was dictated. When I as a Ranger I made a decision not to make a timber sale base on an environmental report before NEPA. That caused an uproar since the Forest would not meet its CUT. Rather than the cut amount coming from the District the District was told what to cut, and usually where. As long as there were trees, the cut could be met no matter what the ground said.

      I guess nothing related to the far out Ranger Stations that I thought I would work at.

      • David, I remember being at some large Region 6 meeting in the 80’s (Biodiversity? Wenatchee or Spokane?) at which some of the Rangers were saying “the cut is just too much! We’re not doing it.” I remember others thinking that they (or at least one Ranger) was very brave for doing so. I don’t know whatever happened to him as a result of saying this.

    • My first “awakening” (in 1993, 9 years into my career) to how the upper levels of the agency dictated what the field units should do came when I first learned how the 1986 Allowable Sale Quantity was calculated for a particular district (which will remain unnamed since this occurred on other national forests/districts also). The story told to me was that the timber staff on this district figured out what the maximum annual amount of timber could be cut given the constraints of Forest Plan standards and guidelines. This calculation maximized road density, emphasized the cheapest logging method (i.e., pushed the envelope on what slopes could be tractor logged), minimized protection zones around waterways, etc. The calculated volume number was submitted to the Supervisor’s Office as 25 million board feet per year. The response the district received back from the SO was, “that is 3 million board feet short of what you need to produce.” My idealistic view was popped like a balloon. I came to find out that what drove this SO response to the district was political pressure from the state’s senator, who believed that the national forests should be a significant source of softwood for the timber industry.

      While we hear terms like “landscape scale conservation”, “shared stewardship”, and “Good Neighbor Authority” (among others), I have come to learn that decentralized decision-making (while sensible in Gifford Pinchot’s vision) is rarely allowed to conducted without some puppeteering occurring from some higher level of the agency/department.

      What is disheartening to me is that I watched many good and effective line officers have their hands and feet tied together, unable to make reasonable decisions that would be benefit the natural resources while taking into account the social and economic implications of those decisions. There is a clear reason, in my mind, why the Forest Service continually scores at the bottom of the heap when looking at the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” survey – the dynamic I have described is a clear contributor.

      • By 1994 the Federal forests of Western Oregon were pretty well on there way to being shut down as far as timber harvesting went.

      • Tony, I think you’ve raised an interesting question about what is legitimate political power and how it should be exercised vis a vis federal lands. When you mention “Best Places to Work” I think about comparisons with BLM- the other multiple use agency and I hope someone who has worked in both will comment on whether the diving down by political or the expectations of independence are different between the agencies.

  2. I’ve always thought the Spotted Bear RD on the Flathead would be an awesome duty station due to it’s extreme remote location in the summer except for how much I like cities. It’s starting to look better and better these days…

    • Matt – Spotted Bear is a pretty great spot, so shhhhhhh.

      Since I do not work for the agency anymore, I do not feel I can comment on the decentralized nature of decisions and political process legitimately. But Spotted Bear, the Custer, sigh. Miss those places.

  3. I’ve worked for both. BLM is hands down the better model of an efficient bureaucracy. FS is top heavy, and culturally inclined toward narrowly specialized, ideologically driven staff. What is almost comical to me is the way the FS doggedly clings to their outdated myth that a Ranger District is autonomous. Even worse than the “just say no” obstructionists are ego driven District Rangers themselves. They need to do away with that position in favor of lower graded office managers for any forest less than a million acres. One look at the FS Manual will verify that the agency has stripped decision making authority from Ranger Districts in a big way. This is good for public service as the handshake deals and Ranger built kingdoms, wildly inconsistent across the years and the nation, are finally squashed, although it is way to easy for Forest Sups to keep them alive. The agency’s internal dogma, including a misguided obsession with diversity, and a coddling of poor performers, is its own worst enemy, and will make it increasingly irrelevant. Someday the FS will be moved to Interior, not at all a bad thing from this chair.

    • Thanks, ODS! I wonder what specific decisions Rangers have/had or don’t have compared with their counterparts in BLM and how that has changed over the years?

  4. That reminds me of the suggestion made sometime during my time at a regional office that the Forest Service had too many layers and it should get rid of regional offices. I agreed that there were too many layers, but I suggested getting rid of the forest supervisors offices instead. Cost-effective centralized regional experts and decision-makers and field-level administrator-implementers doing the public interface but with limited decision-making authority, and none of the policy changes we see across national forest boundaries. Needless to say not popular.

  5. I remember sharing a copier on the 4th floor NW in the Yates Building with Recreation. I remember the Rec Special Uses person not being too happy about the effort to reduce the Region 9 RO- she said that meant she was on the phone with people from all the forests there. I think her actual words were “I don’t have time to be phone pals with everyone in Region 9.” The RO specialist work hadn’t gone away. That being said, from the District up, there can be tension between having people who know more about a specialized subject at the Region (good thing) versus “being told what to do” by the Region (bad thing). I don’t know why authority and expertise wires seem to get crossed, but they seemed to, in my experience.

    • The wires get crossed because we hire technical experts into positions with authority. For example, I was hired into my Washington Office planning position because of my expertise and experience. That gave the first impression that when I spoke with someone into the field, I was an “authority”. But, as Jon will remember, there were many topics that he was more the planning expert than I was, but he was at the RO while I was at the WO, a seemingly volatile situation when debating policy.

      The best approach is communication and humility. However, there are plenty of people at all levels of the agency who do not subscribe to this approach, hence the constant state of conflict we see.


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