Forest Service Stories: A Story from a Regional Office, by Cathy Dahms

(Note from Sharon: the first paragraph may not make any sense until you read the original request for stories I posted two weeks ago. Like all the stories, it’s from 1997 or so.  Here’s a link to the document the team produced, front page in the image above.)

by Cathy Dahms, Southwestern Region

I’d like to tell you about my team. Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it “my” team, as if a Forest Service team was like a baseball team that has an owner. But I’m the team leader have been for 3 years now and when you’re working with folks that long, you tend to get personal about it. My team is mostly a Southwestern Regional Office/Rocky Mountain Station team. As a team, we haven’t gone on long rides in green rigs (or even short rides together in our own personal vehicles). We haven’t had lunches in the woods; I don’t even recall us eating lunch together in local restaurants. This isn’t going to be a story of any “on the ground” experience, so I’m not going to be insulted if you decide that a paper pushing team of RO/Station folks isn’t representative of Forest Service culture. But the team cared enough to get the job done, and gave it their best. There’s a lot of teams in the Forest Service that aren’t working in
the field: in regional teams, in interregional teams, in national teams, in interagency teams. The story of my team is the story of their teams, too, and that’s why I want to share it with you.

My team was given the charge of consolidating all the information that was floating around on forest ecosystem health in the Southwest into one report. We had documents on fire and forest health, insects and disease and forest health, analysis of changing conditions from forest inventories, etc., but each document was typically used only by folks in that specific functional area. Our report was to give folks the bigger picture. This report was to provide “one stop shopping” for resource managers of any discipline wanting to know more about forest ecosystem health in the Southwest.

Initially, we had each resource staff put together a report on forest ecosystem health. We batched them up into one document and sent it out for review. Most of the reviewers didn’t have any heartburn over the contents, but they didn’t like how the report was structured. There was too much duplication of material between chapters and the document was too functional. My team had a hard decision to make we could publish the document as is, or we could completely rewrite the document as a holistic ecosystem health assessment rather than a collection of individual reports. It was not an easy decision. A year had passed, and most of my team members’ supervisors had, by this time, other projects that they wanted their staff to work on. It would mean doing a lot more work than the first document: researching additional references to fill in gaps in characterizing historic and current ecosystem health, addressing the human dimension of forest ecosystem health, developing scenarios of possible management strategies, pulling together a cohesive strategy for improving forest ecosystem health in the Southwest, and meeting guidelines for Station publication. Even more daunting was that each section of the report would ultimately need to be a team effort, since each section needed to be written as
an integration of all disciplines.

The team voted unanimously to rewrite the report. Thus began a two year cycle of meetings, research, writing, and cycling through the process over and over again. Meanwhile, some team members retired or moved from the Southwest and were replaced by others who had to be brought up to speed with the project. The technical advisor from the Station moved to Alaska; with his departure, the team recruited Brian Geils, from the Flagstaff office, and Dale Brockway, from the Albuquerque office. Dale contributed his ecological expertise to the scenario

development and in various sections throughout the report. Brian started out acting as a consultant to the team, but ended up writing sections of the report and serving as technical editor to the entire effort. John Shafer, Ron Moody, Doug Shaw, and Bryce Rickel were on the team from its inception. David Conklin, Lorene Guffey, Jill Wilson and Rod Replogle became members of the team during the second rewrite. All team members worked together in the assessment process. Even though at times it seemed that the assessment would never be finished, their enthusiasm never waned.

Keeping the project moving forward was always a challenge. Team meetings had to worked around full schedules and unexpected events like the furlough and health emergencies. In a typical team meeting, we would work through lunch and continue working long after most people had gone home for the day. We also kept discovering additional information that was needed to improve the assessment. Often that meant going to other forest and Regional Office specialists for help. Even though everyone had an overflowing plate of work already, they always made time to provide the information requested. Judy Propper and Frank Wozniak even offered to review the entire document from a human dimensions perspective and suggest appropriate additions and clarifications. At one point, we had to go outside the Forest Service for help; Raymond Lee from the Arizona Game and Fish Department and Wally Haussamen from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish volunteered to research information on game populations through time.

Team members made many personal sacrifices to get the assessment completed. The agency doesn’t give medals to employees who give up their weekends to work on a project because there simply isn’t enough time otherwise, or to someone who works late and ends up sleeping in the office overnight because they’re too tired to drive home. Employees don’t work because they expect a reward: they work because they believe in a shared vision, because it is the right thing to do, because it may make a difference. That’s what it means to be on teams in the Forest Service. We work together; we help each other out; we are persistent. As Calvin Coolidge observed, “Nothing takes the place of persistence.”

4 thoughts on “Forest Service Stories: A Story from a Regional Office, by Cathy Dahms”

  1. Hi Sharon –
    I’ve been enjoying the FS stories and would like to discuss an idea I have for one; similar to the Stanley thermos post.
    Thanks for letting me know what the process is.

    • Well, I haven’t had a process since 97.. but I’m going to run out of them at some point, so just email them to me at terraveritas at For people sending them nowadays, please also send your own photos, and feel free to put in weblinks. Thanks! Others.. please feel free to contribute.

  2. Interesting to read something from R3 late 1990s, since I worked on the Kaibab National Forest at the time, starting in Heritage and moving into a Recreation/Lands staff position before heading to the WO in 2001. I wasn’t aware of Cathy Dahm’s project, but I’m grateful for her work. A former colleague of mine, archeologist Neil Weintraub, is getting ready to retire after 30 years on the Kaibab and has been soliciting stories from dozens of people involved in the Heritage program, including students and volunteers, about how the culture of that program advanced all aspects of Caring for the Land and Serving People. Like you, he wants to leave a record of what happened and glean some principles for future leaders. His is becoming a book-sized project in itself, and quite interesting to read (especially if you were there). I’ll share this blog with him and see if he wants to provide a summary. I think its important to ask for these stories and to get them recorded for posterity. Thanks for doing so.


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