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.