The Cult of the Line Officer.II. The Complicated Nature of Forest Service Decision-Making

Andrew Johnson, forest supervisor for the Bighorn National Forest, explained the forest service’s organizational structure during a community meeting last Thursday. Over 40 Buffalo residents attended the meeting to petition Johnson to fill the district ranger position vacated earlier this year by Mark Booth. (Note: the Bighorn doesn’t feature in any of my stories in this post).picked this photo because

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.

6 thoughts on “The Cult of the Line Officer.II. The Complicated Nature of Forest Service Decision-Making”

  1. Sharon mentioned the FS is “decentralized;” it is but only to a degree.
    When I worked for the agency the voluminous FS Manual was used to direct many of our on the ground actions.
    Rangers and Forest Sups were routinely transferred so they wouldn’t get too settled in to a community. Lots of other things were done to exercise command and control from the WO and RO.
    Why do I think this?
    Primarily because right after my first seasonal job (Klamath NF; 1973) I read Herbert Kaufman’s excellent book – The Forest Ranger; A study in administrative behavior. Kaufman was a professor, perhaps in a business school, who laid out quite a good description of how the FS controlled things from the top.
    I highly recommend it. I believe there’s a revised edition within the last 10 years perhaps from Island Press.
    Check it out; I found it to be very eye opening when I read it a year before I became a full time, forester with the agency.

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  2. I note that the military culture is even more strict in some state wildlife agencies (Line and staff have military titles. Ours is not to reason why. Ours is to do, and let the resource die?) This has been supported in some wildlife literature on the subject of the North American model of wildlife conservation and the public-trust. It is proposed that staff have NO trust responsibilities to the trust beneficiaries, the public. They are expected to do what they are told and be quiet in the public arena. The theory that the elected legislature, elected administrations, and the judicial system, are the ONLY trustees with responsibilities to the public for the condition of the resource has problems in reality. This leads to morale problems, and results in some good staff leaving the agency, or becoming ineffectively quiet. — In recent years, arguably since NEPA, agencies have added to public relations and communications staffs, I suggest at the expense of science-based staff. There has also been an increase in emphasis on public relations in natural-resource academia. Thus, agencies hire more staff will little science background. In time, we have seen a loss of science understanding and appreciation in line positions, all the way to the top. NEPA, resulting public kick-backs and lawsuits, seems to have trended the agencies, through personnel trends, toward still more lack-of-science problems, and still more lawsuits – a “positive feedback” with negative results. Worse, we now have a federal administration that is almost anti-resource protection in its zest for economic development. — What to do? The first step is to recognize that we have a problem. (I like the Montana Constitution that says we ALL have public-trust responsibilities to each other.)

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  3. I worked as the assistant regional appeals coordinator in R6 for a couple of years. I analyzed administrative appeals and made recommendations on whether to reverse decisions of lower level line officers. I remember having a lot of independence, and I don’t remember any egregious disagreement with my recommendations (though I did get crossways with my peer on the timber staff). Most of my RO career was in R1, which only occasionally involved appeals, and I had just a general impression of less willingness to reverse decisions (that difference in regional cultures you referred to?).

    I eventually decided that making someone else the “bad guy” was one of the keys to career advancement for line officers, in particular blaming the litigants, the judge or the ESA agencies. Which leads me to suggest that what I’d really like to hear about is the flip side of line officer authority – their accountability. Especially given the likelihood that they won’t be there when the results of their decisions become clear. (And especially since they are removing as much commitment as they can from forest plans.)

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    • I didn’t see any blaming of “bad guys” many of our cases were related to dams, minerals and ski areas, so that we (or at least a general feeling I got) was that our job was to not be proponents but just do the analysis. Some timber and some gnarly travel management. But let’s face it all the studies show that timber litigation is much more popular in R-1. It seems to me that the natural consequences of people using a tool like litigation (adversarial) is that people tend to see those on the other side as well… adversaries.

      My examples are all predecisional. Our Regional appeals used teams from the field, including a line officer who made recommendations, and usually OGC folks would be working alongside (and also give their opinions in the meeting with the DRF). I think that system worked very well, and also gave field folks an opportunity to learn from each other and each others’ projects and find colleagues and mentors (back in the travel days).

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    • But chief came into English from Latin..according to etymology. And folks were speaking Latin long before the Western Europeans were even aware of the Americas…??

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