Former Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson on the Chief’s Job

I asked former Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson for his memory of the transition to the Clinton Administration, as previously discussed here, and his own views on the role of the Chief.

The Chief’s Job

First, maybe it would be helpful to clarify the nature of the Chief’s job. The Chief is the only FS employee who has a political boss, who in turn represents the Administration. The Under Secretary of USDA overseeing the FS is expected by the Administration to see that the FS is responsive and sensitive to the Administration’s philosophy, policies, and priorities in the management of the FS. The Chief is normally a career member of the Senior Executive Service (SES) with its own set of rules and procedures. Senior Executives have the same protection against being fired as other career employees. However, the big difference is that Senior Executives may be reassigned to any other SES position pretty much at the discretion of their boss with the concurrence of the Secretary. In my case, I was reassigned to a SES position in the Department of Interior with advance agreement that I would turn the offer down and opt for early retirement. I stayed on at USDA for a couple of months to wind up my work as Chair of the USDA-1890 Black Land Grant Universities Task Force.

I was always supportive of Jack Ward Thomas coming in as my successor and took no action to make it difficult for him as the incoming Chief. Chief Peterson did object to JWT for not being in the SES and was quite vocal about it. However, it was not an issue with me and I said so on occasion. I think the Forest Supervisor’s letter was probably prompted by Chief Peterson’s concerns. JWT was a world-class scientist and was probably the most knowledgeable person about ecosystem management and Spotted Owls at that time. Jack and I had known each other for several years going back to my time in R-6. At the height of Spotted Owl controversy, I asked Jack to lead a group of scientists to try to figure out how the FS could best deal with the issue. I had to personally persuade Jack that he was the best person to take on the job. He kept saying to me that “I’m an elk guy, not a Spotted Owl expert”. Further complicating the situation was that Jack wife was being treated for cancer. In the end, Jack agreed but neither of us knew that decision would eventually lead to him being the next Chief. The work of this group of scientists greatly expanded the FS knowledge and understanding of how the survival of endangered species is dependent on healthy ecosystems and protection of critical habitat requirements.

The Spotted Owl situation was one of the most controversial issues ever faced by the FS, to the point that both President Bush and Clinton got directly involved. I was trying to change the management of the NF’s to better protect the Spotted Owl, but keep some lower sustainable level of timber sale program going in R-5 and R-6. The Bush Administration thought that I was being too protective of the owl and too supportive of the Thomas Report recommendations and not concerned enough about the timber sale program. At the request of the Department of Interior, the Bush Administration even activated the God’s Squad to exempt the Spotted owl from the requirements of ESA. Fortunately, the Secretary of Agriculture voted against the proposal. I came very close to being reassigned under the Bush Administration for being too concerned about the Spotted Owl. Then overnight, there was a change in Administration and I suddenly was too protective of the timber sale program and was not supportive enough of Spotted Owl. There simply was no easy solution to the Spotted Owl issue and I got caught up in a sudden change in philosophy and policies by changing Administrations. The Clinton Administration decided to put the most knowledgeable person with a scientific background, JWT, into the Chief’s job to see if he could bring about a reasonable solution. Jack was likely the only FS employee that would have been acceptable to the new Administration and may have saved the FS from having a “real political Chief”!

As far as I am concerned, things worked out as they are supposed to in Government. The Administration has the right to choose who they want as Chief. Fortunately so far, all Chiefs have been professionals with a strong background in land and resource management. All Chiefs go into the job knowing that they may be reassigned at any time when their political bosses would rather have someone else in the job that is more in line with their thinking.

I also asked former Chief Robertson “how did you convince the Secretary of Agriculture not to go along with the idea of a God Squad?” He answered “It was a combined effort by everyone at USDA with OGC playing a vital role in the final decision.” The Office of General Counsel usually has one or more political appointees and many career folks, and are always involved in any big decisions but their role often tends to be behind the scenes.

9 thoughts on “Former Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson on the Chief’s Job”

  1. A missing detail in his story is that the Bush administration was losing lawsuits left and right when Robertson was trying to protect the timber program, and the Clinton Administration was not just arbitrarily more concerned about the owl than timber, they were trying to follow the law. So, under Clinton, after adopting the Northwest Forest Plan, they started winning lawsuits.

    • Why didn’t harvest levels meet PNWFP targets? A 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting explains that:

      “The plan promised a timber harvest of about 1.1 billion board feet per year on public forests in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. This was an 80 percent reduction from original levels, according to the American Forest Resource Council.

      “The plan has never met those expectations,” says Bob Ragon, the head of the Douglas Timber Operators. “It’s been dramatically less than that because of all the legal challenges that have been filed by the environmental groups.”

      “The actual logging levels have average closer to half the promised amount.”

    • It was probably at this time the decision was made to train people in the way NEPA was supposed to work. Losing lawsuits was not the way to go.

  2. Thanks Andy!
    Were there two votes for these different tracts? and really was the first vote about 1700 acres?
    Maybe Dale was talking about the second set of tracts.

    “By a 5-2 vote, the special Cabinet-level Endangered Species Committee agreed to sidestep the endangered species law and allow the Interior Department to sell timber on 13 tracts comprising 1,700 acres in two Oregon counties.

    The two counties would be among the areas hardest hit economically if timber were put off limits permanently to cutting, argued Michael Boskin, chairman of the president’s council on economic advisers and a panel member.

    The panel, headed by Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., rejected a request to set the law aside for 31 other tracts where the timber industry wanted to cut.”

    Interesting, Luhan was probably the Hispanic Interior Secretary and it looks like close to the first Hispanic Cabinet Secretary.

    • A little more on this story:

      “The federal courts have halted all logging in owl habitat until a preservation plan can be developed. Officials said it is not likely that any logging actually will resume even in the two Oregon counties singled out Thursday until the court cases are resolved.

      White House spokeswoman Judy Smith would not say whether President Bush personally was involved in the politically charged decision on the spotted owl, but said, ”The secretary certainly speaks for the president.””

      A court subsequently held that this was, in fact, a case of potential illegal political interference by the President. Because the process used by the “God Squad” is quasi-judicial (unlike rulemaking), ex parte communication with “any person” is illegal and includes the President. So the decision on the 13 tracts was reversed pending a determination of whether the President had actually pressured the Committee. ( Shortly thereafter, the BLM gave up, and issued a statement: “Upon further consideration, the BLM has decided to abandon its plan to go forward with the 13 proposed sales that the Committee voted to exempt from the ESA.
      Accordingly, BLM hereby withdraws its request for exemption for timber sales from the Committee.” (

      • BLM withdrew its exemption request because Clinton was elected president and the new administration told BLM to give it up. But for that good fortune, I was destined to spend more days in Portland’s Lloyd Center (on top of the month the original ESC hearing took) helping ferret out who said what to whom.

  3. Thanks you Sharon for soliciting a revealing, candid, and responsive post from Chief Robertson. I can certainly appreciate his feeling like being squeezed in a vice, between timber and owls and politicians. It is worth noting that Robertson and others were found to have “willfully violated the law” (Judge Dwyer). And one of Chief JW Thomas’ immediate “5 edicts” was “Obey the law”. A sad statement on the circumstances of the time. I know that Undersecretary Lyons watched and waited to determine if Chief Robertson was moving swiftly to change FS direction before he told Robertson and Leonard (Assoc Chief) that a change was needed. That was a rough time indeed for the FS. My own perspective, centrally engaged as I was at the time, is that FS leaders at all levels struggled (begrudgingly?) to implement “ecosystem mgmt” principles envisioned by the NW Forest Plan. The onset of the Bush administration revealed a desire to snap back (rubber-band like) to former times.


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