Patrick McKay raised the question of how much latitude folks in the District Ranger position have and whether they have too much/too little, and whether their personal proclivities might have an influence on their decisions. I’ll start out by saying that land management decisions can have a great deal of latitude that is within law and policy. The decentralized culture of the Forest Service (and other organizations) start with the assumption that the line officer closest to the ground knows best. I’m calling this post “the cult of the line officer” in the sense of possibly excessive devotion, not that I necessarily think that it is excessive, but to draw attention to how different people in the Forest Service think about it.
I am not an expert on Forest Service culture and it seems to me that districts, forests and regions have different cultures. So I am just going to throw my own experiences out there, and I hope that retirees with different background through space and time will tell their stories. I’m going to assume that we are starting from scratch here, even though I know that most TSW folks have a working knowledge of how all this works.
We discussed the topic previously here about a year ago. In this post, I’d like to focus on the question of who decides ultimately and how the interactions among Rangers, Forest Supervisors and Regional Foresters work in practice.
(There are cases where the WO gets involved in projects, but those are relatively rare).
I’ll start with my experience with the concept of the Line Officer. That is the person who makes the decision. The rest of the people are staff. The Forest Service is a line and staff organization. You can read about them in any business reference, e.g., here. In my logical view, at least back in the day, there was a bit of mystique about the position of line officer. It was about managing people, but not entirely about managing people. It was about dealing with externals “well” (keeping “containment” so decisions and activities did not result in angry phone calls to the next level), and there was a kind of mystical connection to the chunk of land (we discussed that in the previous post and comments). They are also the people who have to notify others if there has been an accident… there’s almost a feeling that they are more responsible, and have more gravitas than staff folks. This may come from the military, and certainly there were many veterans in the Forest Service in the 80’s, as there are today. I’m hoping people with line experience will step in here.
In my own experience (both in DC and Region 2, where I was in a position to observe), it was very bad karma to overrule the level below you. When I was in DC, for example, in our staff’s judgement, a Region 5 forest was doing CE abuse- which could, as a result of random judge’s decisions, lose the CE for everyone. Why didn’t the RF stop it before it hit DC (the NEPA staff in the Region thought the same)? I guess because there is only so much overruling you can do of the next level down, and perhaps he was keeping his powder dry. He also knew that if it was too bad, DC would step in (as we did) and he wouldn’t have to be the bad guy (small p political theater).
Two more stories. A Forest Supervisor overruled a Ranger on a decision, and the Ranger was so incensed that he called the Deputy Regional Forester to complain about it. The DRF was kind of the next level of line officer above the Supe (his boss), (kind of, because technically the Supes work directly for the Regional Forester) . I thought that this was uncool (your don’t go above your boss’s head, unless it’s very extreme in some way) but the DRF felt that he was providing needed buffering for this Forest kerfufle, and he thought that’s just the way the Ranger was, still a good Ranger, generally. So you’re not supposed to complain to the person above your boss, but some people do and get away with it. Mysterious indeed.
Another story is that a Forest Supervisor and his staff were moving toward a decision on a particular project and the Regional Forester decided to overrule him (it was a proponent-driven project, and the surrounding community was not in agreement on the project). This caused much consternation to the Forest and the Forest Supervisor.. I remember saying to the Supervisor, “but doesn’t the RF get to decide? He’s our boss (and as a line officer, perhaps, just as much in charge of the Region as you are of the Forest.” But that was the cultural divide of being line (him) versus not (me). Line gets to make decisions and staff advises. I was staff, so submission was always the best posture (except for extreme conditions), but line to line is more complicated.
I’m hoping that some folks on TSW will share their own experiences.