Perdue pressures forest managers on Trump agenda

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue gathered up the “good ole boys” at the Missoula airport on June 12 to unveil the Trump administration’s “Modernization Blueprint” for more logging, mining, drilling and grazing on national forests. Photo by Missoulian (

Oh boy, the Trump administration apologists and U.S. Forest Service fans are going to have a tough time spinning this one, I think. If you are one of the seven current Forest Service Regional Foresters who sees your current position advertised as vacant on how would that make you feel?  Why some people think we should continue to ignore everything the Trump administration is doing to dismantle and undermine key public institutions like the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Postal Service is a real mystery to me.

Perdue pressures forest managers on Trump agenda
Marc Heller and Scott Streater, E&E News reportersPublished: Thursday, August 13, 2020

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has asked regional foresters to step up efforts to implement his “vision” for forestland management at the same time the Forest Service is posting a call for applications for their jobs.

Two regional forester positions — in the Intermountain region and the Southwest — are actually vacant due to retirements, the Forest Service told E&E News. But all nine are currently advertised as vacant on

The other seven are being advertised through Aug. 27 in an effort to “be prepared with a pool of candidates for consideration if other critical leadership positions become vacant in the near future,” the service said. The posting on — posted a week ago today — remains open to applicants for up to a year, following Office of Personnel Management guidelines, the Forest Service said.

Officials advertised the vacancies four days before Perdue sent each of the nine regional foresters a memorandum prodding them to do more to pursue the administration’s “vision,” which includes increased forest thinning, more timber production, more grazing of livestock and shorter environmental reviews on land the Forest Service oversees.

An agency spokesperson said the memo and the job postings aren’t related, but it prompted some worries in the ranks that the secretary was getting ready to clean house.

Perdue’s memo also comes as the Forest Service falls short of timber harvesting goals, despite directives from the Trump administration and some members of Congress to increase sales from national forests.

In the memo, Perdue reminded the foresters of his June directive in which the secretary outlined those goals (E&E News PM, June 12).

Perdue — bypassing Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen — asked the regional foresters to answer a series of questions about how they intend to meet the goals and added, “I want to hear from you directly on how you are progressing in implementing the vision.”

The regional foresters have until Aug. 31 to reply.

“The advertisement is in anticipation of normal agency attrition and has no connection to the Secretary’s memo,” the Forest Service told E&E News.

But current and former Forest Service officials said the concurrent timing led to speculation that jobs might be on the line and that a pool of potential candidates would be in place if regional foresters’ answers don’t satisfy the secretary.

One senior Forest Service official who spoke to E&E News on the condition of anonymity called the memo “very brutal,” though Perdue took a congenial tone and thanked the regional managers for their efforts to date.

A letter from the secretary of Agriculture to regional forest managers is unusual, former Forest Service officials said.

But Perdue has expressed a personal interest in many of the related issues, and President Trump has taken up forest policy in speeches and in an executive order.

Among the top questions Perdue said he wants answered:

“What actions have you taken in your region” since June “to implement the direction laid out in the memo?”
“What future actions will you be taking to implement the vision and direction” outlined in the June directive? “Specifically, I want to hear your timeline and key milestones for implementation.”
“What more can be done by the Forest Service, the Department or our external partners to support implementation of the memo?”
Regional foresters are not political appointees but senior executive level employees who can be moved into new positions at the administration’s discretion. All “SES” employees sign a statement acknowledging that.

A shuffle of senior executive positions wouldn’t be unprecedented with a potential change of administration coming in January, former Forest Service employees said.

A Forest Service spokesperson said the agency has used a similar approach in the past for leadership positions such as forest supervisors, though people who work with the Forest Service said they’ve rarely seen regional forester positions posted publicly. Regional foresters are paid between $175,501 and $186,500 a year, according to the job posting.

Regional foresters are a key piece of the Department of Agriculture’s management of the national forest system’s 193 million acres of wildlands. They bring the administration’s forest policies to the field and are a point of contact for state and local officials. They also hire and fire the foresters for each national forest.

Some oversee as many as a dozen national forests at once, making decisions that affect forest ecology across vast areas — and they develop working relationships with state forestry departments.

“I’ve always considered it to be a really important position,” said Laura McCarthy, New Mexico state forester. New Mexico is in Region 3, home to one of the job vacancies.

In that region, McCarthy said, the regional forester has managed negotiations with environmentalists suing to protect the Mexican spotted owl, for instance. “We’ve been kind of a region in crisis.”

Missing the targets
The vision Perdue laid out in June has run into the realities of tough international market conditions for wood products, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. The Forest Service is on track to miss its timber targets as a result, according to industry and agency sources.

Through the first three-quarters of fiscal 2020, the Forest Service has sold 1.194 billion board feet of timber, less than in any of the four previous years, the agency reported.

In the Pacific Northwest region, the agency has attained just 58% of its timber target with two months to go in the fiscal year, said Dan Shively, the region’s natural resources director, in an Aug. 3 memo to forest supervisors.

“It’s clear that all of you are working extra hard this year under our COVID-19 challenges delivering not only the timber program but also a broad portfolio of integrated restoration activities and other work that remains critically important to our partner agencies, NGOs, communities, and the public we serve,” Shively said. A recent upturn in market conditions could help, he said.

Perdue, who told lawmakers two years ago that he wants USDA to be “the most customer-focused department in the entire federal government,” reiterated that priority in his memo, saying the department’s “customers” want a Forest Service that’s accessible, responsive and solutions-oriented.

He inquired what each regional forester is doing “to ensure a culture of customer service extends through every level of your operation.”

He also asked them to identify “the key stakeholders in your region,” and to answer, “what are you doing to improve your staff’s, your region’s and your personal relationships with them?”

Timber companies, state forestry officials and some conservationists cheer Perdue’s emphasis on more intensive forest management, which they say could prevent catastrophic wildfires and protect watersheds, among other benefits.

Environmental groups oppose those moves.

The secretary’s memo looks like “pure intimidation,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Any regional forester who doesn’t dramatically increase logging or curry favor with the livestock industry better polish up their resume.”

13 thoughts on “Perdue pressures forest managers on Trump agenda”

  1. Forest Service employees (at least ones who have been around a while) are used to various forms of the “silly season”. How can anyone “dramatically increase logging” before the election? As we all have seen, the wheels of project decisions and sale prep and contracting grind more slowly than there is time to the election.

    I’m thinking that these questions are not too challenging.
    “He inquired what each regional forester is doing “to ensure a culture of customer service extends through every level of your operation.”

    He also asked them to identify “the key stakeholders in your region,” and to answer, “what are you doing to improve your staff’s, your region’s and your personal relationships with them?”

    Every RF I’ve ever known could make those lists and speak articulately about both topics without any prep. (OK well maybe some thought if the question were asked in advance).

    I wonder if Randi thinks RF’s aren’t capable of handling any administration’s requests to do things that they think will make them look good before an election?

    It will be interesting to see if requests by a new Administration to feds to do what certain other interest groups want will be seen as “intimidation” or “elections have consequences?” As for me, having been told to do what environmental NGO’s wanted- it was just part of the job. Serving elected officials.

    PS I am not a “Trump administration apologist” but I am definitely a U.S. Forest Service fan. I try to ask the question “what is really going to happen on the land that’s different?” and “is the Trump Administration doing things wrong in terms of process besides giving different interest groups a seat outside the Secretary’s Office”? I also try to put in perspective (having worked in various Admins in DC) that it is very hard for R Prez’s to change anything in our federal forest world, because Congress has the gas pedal and litigatory groups the brakes.

    • Hi Sharon: If you are one of the seven current Forest Service Regional Foresters who sees your current position advertised as vacant on how would that make you feel? Silly?

    • When was the last time you recall an AgSec skipping over the Undersecretary and Chief to request this sort of information directly from Regional Foresters? Maybe that happened a lot in your day but I have never seen it before in mine. Your comments ignore or understate the extent of the political pressure and outright indignities (telework restrictions, performance management reforms, organizational restructuring, etc.) this Secretary has inflicted on civil servants Department-wide. I hate to break it to you, but your supposed expertise and inside knowledge about the way the FS and USDA operates seems wildly outdated. This memo was most certainly intended and perceived as a threat to all RFs’ jobs.

      • My point has been that I lived through a great many indignities – up to, and including, being removed from my job in a rather ignominious fashion- in the Forest Service before this Administration. I’m not saying that this Administration hasn’t done bad things.. I’m just saying they may not be as uniquely bad as portrayed if you take a long look at history. Remember the 30% travel reduction during 2012? Do we know if that was actually based on a Silly Season thing or not? I suspect that if that had happened this spring, the headlines would have read…
        ” scientists quashed by travel restrictions, Trump administration hates science”.

  2. RFs are part of the Senior Executive Service. Years ago, when I was thinking of applying, they stressed that the downside of the jobs is that you could be moved anywhere at any time. I don’t know if this is still true.

    It’s mid August. The election is in November. The folks below the Secretary (no doubt) think that carrying this out would be a bad idea. There are requirements for advertisement, and so on. Lower level political appointees are looking for other jobs and their heads may not be in the game of making personnel selections.

    Even if the RF’s were to be replaced by others- job offered accepted, moving date established, there still is not enough time to do anything real in the ever-so-slowly moving world of federal land management. So.. this is all political theater, aka things that occur during the “silly season.”

    More than likely if people were picked by this Admin, they’d get detailed to the basement when the new Admin comes in and possibly replaced with the folks currently in the positions. So anyone applying would have to take that into consideration and look at the polls. Applicants have agency also..

    Nope, if I were an RF (many FS folks will be chortling at the thought) my anxiety about this would be 4 out of 10. I might be more worried (say 6 out of 10) about whether I had ever upset someone at a key environmental group that would have the ear of the new Admin.

    To be sure, I don’t like the idea of Admins of any color switching out RF’s willy-nilly based on the votes of their buddies or some ideological litmus test.

  3. After speaking with an RF and a For Supv I gambled and sent a direct email to Chief Thursday eve about 6:30 pm EDT. She called me immediately!! Yes, I remain surprised… but grateful!

    We had a good discussion. Here’s what I know — Milwaukee job was just filled, and 3 other RF jobs are or soon will be vacant (Denver, Albq, Ogden). Chief did not specify how many, but suggested that others plan to retire soon. Advertising those only would make sitting RFs lame ducks pending retirement. Thus the decision to advertise all to create a pool to fill jobs quickly and seamlessly — might involve transfers, promotions, bring in hires from outside FS, etc. Chief Christiansen was strong in stating there is NO ulterior plan to sack a bunch of RFs, and there is NO NEXUS between jobs and Perdue letter. I believe her.

    We discussed Perdue letter and I thought it should have come 2 years ago, not now. Too little, too late, almost laughable in effort to “make a difference”. She said Sonny has his way of doing things – he is guilty of ignoring or not understanding role that RFs play in delivering the goods, and is playing catch up. Timing is woeful.

    I leave the issue believing the optics are awful, but innocuous with explanation.

    • Hi Jim, Thank you for getting the first hand account from the Chief. I hope you are correct that the optics are awful, but innocuous with explanation.

    • Brilliant! Good on you, and thanks, Jim! My guess would be that it comes now, when it is essentially meaningless as party of the Silly Season. For my part, the fewer political “reach-downs” to get ideologically aligned people the better. But as Tom Mills used to say, “reasonable people could disagree.” 😉

  4. I don’t think the prospect of having their picks demoted by a new administration would deter the current one from trying to pack the upper levels of the Forest Service with employees sympathetic to commodity interests. In the broader context, experts are suggesting that an outgoing Trump Administration would do whatever it can think of to “gum up the works” of their successors.

    I think the Trump years highlight the importance of writing forest plans that say something more than “trust the Forest Service to do the right thing” for the ecosystems they manage since they are likely to do the political thing when they have to.

  5. Yes I take a political appointee or SESer statements at face value. NOT! Does Mr. Furnish really think the Chief is going to say “yes we are cleaning house per the secretary’s direction”. If I had a dollar for every conversation to FS colleagues that started with “let me tell you what they really are saying” or “they say this now, but watch what they do”, I’d be rich.

    You don’t even have to read between the lines with a statement like “Thus the decision to advertise all to create a pool to fill jobs quickly and seamlessly — might involve transfers, promotions, bring in hires from outside FS, etc…” Those RFs, wrongly or rightly are on the chopping block or at least headed to an SESer posting on the Redbird Purchase Unit in Kentucky or a NOAA weather station in the Aleutians.

  6. Interesting that the article in the post says that Regional Foresters may oversee as many as 12 national forests – try again – in REgion 6 its 16 National Forests PLUS the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area PLUS the Crooked River Grasslands. Not even close to 12…


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