Getting the Band Back Together? Forest Service Leadership Predictions from E&E News

Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen on Capitol Hill last February. Francis Chung/E&E News

Thanks to Rebecca Watson for this one..

“Christiansen appears safe in the position, former Forest Service officials and policy insiders say, if the Biden team determines she can deliver on the incoming administration’s increased commitment to climate action and decreased emphasis on timber harvesting.”

Just for the record, if you use Headwaters’ handy interactive map and graphs of timber volumes.. they look remarkably invariant to Administrations. I’d think that was because Congress gives the FS bucks to do it. Plus there’s the desire of many states (including the politically influential California) to increase funding for fuel treatments and increase the ability for the wood to be used (and paid for). And, of course, Bonnie and others know all that. So I’d guess that “decreasing emphasis on timber harvesting” might be more nuanced than reported here.

Other Forest Service officials Bonnie served with include Deputy Chief Chris French; Associate Deputy Chief Christine Dawe, who ran timber programs during the Obama administration; and Glenn Casamassa, who helped write the agency’s planning rule in 2012 and is now regional forester in Region 6, covering the Pacific Northwest. The undersecretary for natural resources and environment, Jim Hubbard, was deputy chief for state and private forestry under Bonnie, but as a political appointee now, Hubbard wouldn’t be expected to remain.

Bonnie “can’t help but notice a strong continuity in staffing on the team,” said a forest industry source with relationships inside the agency.


The Forest Service chief works most closely with the undersecretary for natural resources and environment. It’s a critical relationship and a delicate one to keep untarnished by politics, said Dale Bosworth, former chief from 2001 to 2007. During his term, he said, the relationship amounted to, “I don’t screw with politics, and you don’t screw with policy.”

Sometimes the line blurs, Furnish said. Prior to the Clinton administration, the agency took pride in its leaders’ surviving the turnover of administrations, he said. But in 1993, the Clinton administration fired agency Chief F. Dale Robertson and brought on Jack Ward Thomas, a wildlife biologist who had written on protecting the northern spotted owl and wasn’t a career government employee.

The appointment was a “bloody coup,” said Furnish, who retired in 2016 after a 34-year career with the Forest Service.

Former officials and lobbyists who worked with the Forest Service recall Thomas’ tenure as a lesson in what happens when politics creep into decisions on Forest Service leadership. In 1994, Republicans gained control of the House, and Thomas — who had kept on top Forest Service managers from the prior administration — became torn between newly influential timber interests and environmental groups, both of which turned against him.

No, Thomas was absolutely a career government employee. He worked as a research scientist and had not been to SES training nor certified, but had a lengthy and impressive career IN THE FOREST SERVICE. I’m a former WO drone who got to see Thomas operate during this period. My interpretation would be that he had legitimate policy disagreements with the Undersecretary and his allies, probably based on his real world experience. I can’t see him as being “torn,” I can see him picking the position in each case he thought to be correct. But that’s just me.. who else was there at the time?

Also Jim retired in 2002, I thought. Maybe he can chime in here.

I found this a little creepy..

Agency officials who embraced the Trump administration’s change and helped craft it may find themselves out of step with the incoming USDA leadership. That might include the regional forester for Region 10 in Alaska, Dave Schmid, Stahl said in a post on the blog and in his email to E&E News.

While I appreciate the nod to TSW (albeit not by name, sigh) I’d have to disagree with Andy. I don’t know how you measure “embracing” , but those who “helped craft it”.. really? So those who applied for a detail.. or maybe those requested by name, who said yes. I feel that feds should be free to carry out orders from any color of politicals without being monitored by the Enthusiasm Police for potential future punishment.

It would have been nice, perhaps, to have interviewed someone from NAFSR.

13 thoughts on “Getting the Band Back Together? Forest Service Leadership Predictions from E&E News”

  1. Seems like TSW’s prior post and punditry on this topic was this reporter’s sole source. This article provides no additional observations, investigative depth, or perspectives. I hope this is not indicative of a new approach now that E&E is owned by Politico.

    • A. Thanks for mentioning the Politico buy.. I actually had a paragraph about that but decided the post was too long. So here it is…

      E&E has always been a good news source. It was recently bought by Politico and we’ll see how this works out.

      Michael Witt, the Co-founder and Publisher of E&E News said, “We are excited to join forces with POLITICO. I believe the combination of E&E News’ trusted, independent and comprehensive journalism, and POLITICO’s ambitious reporting, influential audience and innovation, will provide unparalleled and unique coverage of energy and environmental issues that our subscribers and the world need right now.”

      Personally, I’d go for trusted, independent and comprehensive over “ambitious,” whatever that is.

      When I wrote Heller about this piece, I mentioned my concern. Here is what he wrote back:

      “As to Politico, it’s our understanding that they want us for what E&E is, which to me is more about the real world outside of Washington, far away from politicians, where the news matters most.” As so many things, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

      Another side note, Heller had contacted NAFSR for an opinion, but they did not want to make prognostications.

  2. I concur, Sharon, with your assessment of Chief Thomas. While I was not in the WO at the time, I do remember supporting the Chief’s approach to real world solutions, even as he was advocating for ecosystem management as a way to manage the national forests and grasslands. Plus, if you talked with him, you got the sense of his “down to earth” perspective. He was not a polished bureaucrat, that is for sure. BUT, he was polished in his beliefs and was not afraid of standing up for them.

  3. Sharon’s concern with political litmus tests for senior civil servants has much merit; in fact, that’s the point of the civil service.

    My comment to E&E News regarding the Alaska regional forester’s future tenure had nothing to do with his political views (he’s a pro-fish guy) nor with his carrying out the President’s marching orders to repeal the Tongass roadless rule.

    But being a “good soldier” requires more than following orders; it requires doing so competently. On this metric, Schmid’s performance can be criticized. The USDA Office of Inspector General reports that the Alaska region broke the law (“the processes FS used to award the $2 million grant to Alaska did not comply with Federal laws and regulations”) by granting the State of Alaska fire money to promote the roadless rule repeal, money that the state laundered to the timber trade group Alaska Forestry Association.

    The Tongass roadless rule will be a top agenda item for the new administration, which will seek “good soldiers” to implement its new policies. That will mean people who both get the job done and, in this litigious era, do so correctly and durably.

  4. I agree that they should not have transferred the money that way and that the onus is on Schmid as the main one in charge. In Colorado, as I recall we used PN $ and the state mostly supported their own work except maybe some travel to the RACNAC meetings. I know the folks working on Alaska Roadless knew this because folks even asked me what I remembered about the funding, and staff also warned that this was a bad idea. However, as I learned working in DC lo those many years ago, Alaska Is Different, and so it goes.

    Having read the docs, it seems to me that the industry was paid to help figure out where they would really what would work economically in terms of logging. Once the Feds passed the $ to the State, it was their call how to support the rulemaking, at least to some extent. So what I’m saying is that I agree that the Feds used the wrong bucket of money and transfer method, but I don’t think that what the State did with it was so wrong.

  5. Where to begin…? I had a lengthy discussion with Heller, a small bit of which made it into print as expected. About the “bloody coup” — and I have this from people who were in the room where it happened — Dale Robertson and George Leonard were NOT fired. Each was given ample opportunity to demonstrate they were interested in putting ecosystem mgmt in play (as generally articulated by NW Forest Plan). When it was obvious to Undersecy Lyons after many months they were not going to play ball, he told them a change at the top was coming. They were given the option to gracefully retire or take new positions at USDA. Both opted for the reassignment, retiring later when it suited them and their annuity. My using the term “bloody coup” reflects my view that the wound was self-inflicted, intended to make Lyons look bad in the eyes of FS regulars for the blood on the floor. The strategy was quite successful.

    Jack Ward Thomas was a political appointee (FACT!). Lyons made every effort to make JWT’s promotion to Chief through an SES appointment, since JWT insisted on this as a career professional. But JWT was opposed by influential actors, such as former Chief Peterson and many high-level FS leaders, who thwarted Lyons’ efforts at every turn. I refused to sign a letter opposing a political Chief when it was well understood that JWT was poised to be named, even though it was signed by most forest supervisors. After JWT was named Chief, I immediately began to circulate a simple congratulatory letter from the same forest supervisor cadre and it failed to garner any meaningful support, save for a handful of JWT supporters like myself. It was never sent, to save JWT the embarrassment of such a puny Hurrah.

    I could go on and on about Dombeck and others. Safe to say the FS Chief is an important and fascinating position, and perhaps it has become more dramatic than it should. But, like JWT once said, the person at the desk should aspire to greatness in conservation leadership equal to that of NF lands and responsibilities (paraphrased).

    • Jim, I was a lowly GS-7/GS-9 peon when this was all occurring, so I find it fascinating to read your perspective knowing where I was in my career at the time. All I understood at my level was that JWT butted heads with well-established senior leaders, and JWT had a less-than-easy time of transitioning the agency’s thinking to be more holistic in its management of public lands.

      But, I also had several personal encounters with JWT, the first one being in 1995 when I was on a 2-week detail in the WO. JWT was gracious enough to have dinner with several members of the detail assignment the last night we all were in DC. That gesture to interact with field personnel (who provided an audience for his tale spinning) was an important component to my respect for him…as Chief, but more importantly, as a leader.

    • I’ve thought about Jim’s and Tony’s observations and my own as a GS-14 RPA WO drone. I would never have thought to send him a congratulatory letter or round up the folks in the Programs and Legislation Deputy Area to write one. It might seem like brown-nosing.. isn’t culture odd? Especially that I don’t remember talking about culture all that much, and I was cublicled next to a person with a Ph.D. in public administration (Terry Tipple), so we talked a lot about executive leadership and JWT.

      Which is not to say that there weren’t people whose feathers were ruffled by JWT’s appointment. OTOH I was the R&D rep in RPA, my R&D colleagues thought it was exciting that one of us scientists could become Chief! My point being that most FS employees have to work for people they may not think is the greatest in all areas, and history written by those in power may be different than if written by the rest of the populace. Or so historians tell us. What is cool about recent history is that we have access to many of those different voices.

  6. It only became “necessary” Sharon, after virtually EVERY forest supv signed a letter saying they opposed a political appointment as Chief and then… there was JWT! – a FS careerist, but a political appointee nonetheless. The plot thickens when efforts to appoint him as SES were blocked and frustrated by FS insiders who didn’t want him to be Chief. Putting myself in Jack’s shoes (which I tried to do), I think a “Welcome Chief, we support you” letter was essential to let him know that we considered him a career professional, not a “politician”. Bizarre circumstance called for unusual measures.

    • That’s interesting..I would have thought SES bureaucracy/decisions would have been housed in the Department or above somewhere in bureaucracy-space..

  7. USDA approves SES appointments, but, seriously, how do you think they get names on the piece of paper on the desk? Sharon, you need to get out more…

    • Jim, I worked as an underling in DC for fourteen years, both at the Forest Service and at CSREES (now NIFA). Certainly as an underling, I wasn’t privy to some things, but the WO and externals-in-DC gossip network were alive and well. So my experience there was longer there than yours, even if I was seldom “in the room where it happens.”

      I understand they they are usually recommended by people within the FS. But we all agree the JWT appointment was unusual. It seems that if you were a political and you wanted your own person to be SES, there would be a variety of ways to avoid the FS. Favor-trading with politicals at smaller agencies with less obstreperous employees? There are so many creative folks in DC to imagine rules and ways to get around them.. And the QRB (Qualifications Review Board) only has one representative from a given agency.. “QRBs are composed of three members of the SES, each from a different agency. At least two Board members must be career appointees, and, whenever possible, one of the three executives will have previously served as a QRB member.”

      Maybe someone remembers the details of why this was so difficult.. ??

  8. Sharon, would you like a “users” perspective?

    I have been following your page for a while trying to get a perspective of what Forest Management is thinking in terms of usage versus conservation. The “forest,” whether you spell the word with a capital letter or not, has an important role in society, and always has had that role. A huge part of the American persona was developed from cultures completely raised, and developed, in a forest environment as opposed to a plains, or a steppe, environment.

    What I am saying here is that there is, within a huge segment of the American culture, an ingrained bonding with the forest. People from an urban environment go there and feel a sense of belonging without necessarily knowing, or understanding, why that is. For myself, always holding down a high stress job situation, those cut-aways to the forest were a return to sanity delivered at 7,500 feet in elevation, the smell of pine, the sound of rushing water, and the nightly bear run on the trash cans. Seventy-seven years of forest use, so far.

    But, these days things are not the same. There really is a huge battle going on between those that want to use the forest and those that want it to be one big human exclusion zone (The Wilderness Project). The tendency in California is to close almost everything in the coastal forests to most of the public and to discourage, in every possible way, the use of that forest. I do not agree with that policy, for very good reason.

    Several years ago, in a discussion with a Forest Supervisor, over closures of trailheads because they had had a budget cut and claimed they had to close things down because they had no one to empty the trash cans. I pointed out they, that Forest, had more chiefs than indians and that what would probably happen next is that a two year “study” would be started, using 10 of those chiefs to determine why the trash cans could not be emptied.- and travel expenses would be authorized. They didn’t see my point or the humor in my remarks. But, the Chairman of the Congressional DID see my point. The trash cans got emptied.

    What was the point of my trash can story? Sometimes the Forest gets involved in the day-to-day grind and forgets the mission set down by Teddy Roosevelt, and the boys and girls of that era. Worse, is that too often, from my perspective, the Forest is a little too concerned with listening to radical ideologues screaming about the importance of the effects of the supposed disappearance of the Big Horned Battle Baying Bad Breathed Bifurcated Bumble Bee’s Butt Bug – described as a direct threat to humanity, blah, blah, blah.

    I am seeing huge areas of the Forest being blocked from usage. I know of one actual coastal State Scenic Highway where, at the request of the local forest, EVERY turnoff has been posted with No Parking signs. you cannot even stop and look at the beauty of the place.

    Is THIS what you want to get the band back together to do?


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