USFS and Small, Forest-Based Communities

Another article from the May edition of the Journal of Forestry is worth a look: “Changes in Relationships between the USDA Forest Service and Small, Forest-Based Communities in the Northwest Forest Plan Area amid Declines in Agency Staffing.”

The authors note “chronic budget cuts and shrinking resources,” but not the shift of a large portion of the budget it does have to suppressing wildfires.

The paper rings true for me, as a resident of a small community in the NW Forest Plan area. The local agency staff are good folks, but they are too few to meet the management needs on a diverse, high public use national forest. I’m interested to hear from others on Smokey Wire whether the situation is similar outside of the NW Forest Plan area.


This article explores the changing relationships between the USDA Forest Service and 10 small, forest-based communities in the Northwest Forest Plan area in Washington, Oregon, and California. Interviews with 158 community members and agency personnel indicated that community member interviewees were largely dissatisfied with the agency’s current level of community engagement. Interviewees believed that loss of staff was the primary factor contributing to declining engagement, along with increasing turnover and long-distance commuting. Interviewees offered explanations for increasing employee turnover and commuting, including lack of housing, lack of employment for spouses, lack of services for children, social isolation, improving road conditions making long-distance commuting easier, agency incentives and culture, decreasing social cohesion among agency staff, unpaid overtime responsibilities, and agency hiring practices. Community member perceptions regarding long-term changes in community well-being and agency-community relationships were more negative than agency staff’s perceptions.

Study Implications: We found evidence that staffing declines, turnover, and long-distance
commuting may contribute to decreasing agency engagement in some communities, and that
diminished engagement by federal forest management agency employees may contribute to
negative attitudes toward the agency. Agency employee interviewees suggested that incentives
(i.e., promotions, opportunities to live elsewhere), internal conflicts, and a lack of opportunities
and services for their families are reasons that staff commute from neighboring communities
or leave their jobs. Our findings suggest that the USDA Forest Service may improve agency community
relationships by supporting its staff in ways that reduce turnover and long-distance
commuting and incentivize community engagement.

Journal of Forestry, Volume 119, Issue 3, May 2021, Pages 291–304,

6 thoughts on “USFS and Small, Forest-Based Communities”

  1. FWIW, when I was working, we used to talk about this quite a bit in terms of the pros and cons of consolidating districts. Because it’s fundamentally all about relationships.. what isn’t?

    We talked about leaving at least one employee in each “formerly occupied community” with the major job being organizing work and building community relationships.

    When I started with the FS in 1979, it was considered important for employees to be part of the community, be involved with community groups such as Lions or Rotary (sadly they weren’t open to women at the time). But you can’t force people to do things in their off hours. Still, there are many employees who do feel this responsibility and take (and have) the time to do it.

    When there is something suboptimal, we can think of ways to make it more optimal. But we also need to honor and thank those folks out there.. pretty much invisible to most of us outside of those communities.. who give of their own time and heart to work around the suboptimalities.

    And so, a big thank you to all of them!!!

    • I remember a district ranger in the 1980s who encouraged his staff to wear their uniforms in town. Then word filtered down that this was not to be encouraged and in fact doing so was discouraged, including when in restaurants. What might people think if a uniformed USFS employee were seen buying a six pack of beer or having a glass of wine with dinner?

  2. I wonder how much “negative attitudes towards the agency” might influence an employee’s desire to live in a community (but I guess that didn’t come up).

  3. When the district ranger started commuting from the city hours away and was hardly ever available they eventually became invisible to the local community. I don’t think hardly anyone outside the FS even knows who the district ranger is anymore.
    They and other FS employees use to be well known and an important part of the community. The Northwest Forest Plan, consolidation, and staff reduction ended all that.
    It always pains me to see these small communities impoverished while surrounded by what were some of the most beautiful public forests in the world.

  4. I think there’s quite a bit of generalizability to these findings, bearing in mind all of the usual caveats around case studies and studies looking at a relatively specific area.

    The agency employee comments collated in table 2 are telling, and something that employees of the FS that I know have almost all dealt with. The staffing model and duty stations of the FS almost feel caught between two eras – neither old-school nor modern. On the “old-school” side you have ranger stations in rural, far-flung communities. On the “modern” side, there’s an impulse to consolidate. These are descriptive, not evaluative, terms in my usage here. This situation, paired with the current economic and social state of rural areas, the reality of tourism communities, and some policies but also some larger socioeconomic realities, creates tensions between work and family, social needs and work, that are often difficult to mesh. Allow me to elaborate a bit:

    So, the education side first. If you have an advanced degree, you’re much more like more likely to have a spouse that does so as well. I’ve seen some demographic survey stuff on this but I’m too lazy to cite off the bat here. This is an important piece of background, because if you both have degrees, you’re much more likely to both have student debt and the need / desire to work in order to deal with that and use your degree.

    Next, consider the placement of many ranger stations – there’s going to be an absolute dearth of opportunities for the spouse of the FS employee in many cases, particularly those in the most rural areas.

    Add to that the unfeasibility of a single-income family in most cases. It isn’t the 1960’s anymore.

    Then add to that the price-tags on housing in areas that are more tourism-heavy and the GSA policies that (unhelpfully for low GS-level folks) index the rent on government housing to that of local housing, even when local housing is premium summer tourism markets.

    And what about free time and community involvement? Organizations like Rotary and Moose lodge, etc., seem nearly moribund in most places. You can get out and enjoy the woods, yes, but in some rural areas (even many of the touristy ones) it hasn’t seemed particularly easy for the people I know to find another social hobby that doesn’t mandate casual alcoholism or church membership.

    And finally consider the state of what I’ll loosely call the “social fabric” in much of the rural USA at present. Government isn’t exactly what I’d call popular, communities aren’t often particularly welcoming of those perceived as outsiders. All this is to say nothing of the degree of ostracism I’ve seen people of color experience trying to work for the FS in these kind of situations, not (often) from agency employees but from long-time locals.

    So agency employees in situations like this (formal education w/ spouse who has peer level of education, young children, etc) try to make the best of both worlds, and a commute is often the easiest sacrifice to make.

    No real solutions here, just adding to the diagnosis of the problem and affirming much of what was presented in the article, though I would point out that their solutions are shooting for the stars (ie. never going to happen) when it comes to support from the agency for amenities like childcare and housing. The agency has been running full-speed away from supporting employees in a great many things, particularly housing, for decades now.

    There could be good coping methods in accepting demographic change but reducing turnover in order to build partnerships. This is going to sound harsh, but I want to tip the odds in favor of my kid not falling into some of the social ills that beset really rural areas, and nothing one agency can do will change that.

    Ultimately, I think policies to reduce turnover – even if not all FS employees actually live in the same community as the duty station – are key to increasing engagement. If you’re around for a while, it may matter less if you commute, as you’re still a dependable and engaged public servant, etc.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, A! This is a great topic I think because we live in a very different era than the past. Although I had the same problem with my spouse not being able to get a job in Lakeview Oregon nor within commuting distance, back in the 80’s. So we moved to Sacramento, and finally the best opportunities were in DC. So this problem has been going on for some time.

    The other thing I think of is that our definition of “presence” may have changed due to Covid. In the old days, presence was seen as valuing those individuals. Even in the discussion we had about moving the BLM headquarters, it was about the relationships and beer that wouldn’t be shared without being in the same town physically. Presence says “you matter”. How can we say “you matter” without physical presence? I think that would be a great discussion for the FS to have with communities, and I think reducing turnover, as you pointed out, might be a step in that direction.

    We also used to talk about having one generalist/people person in a community (that could be long term) and the rest of the folks wherever, or together somewhere else. But if you combine that with the long-term you run into potential difficulties with the loyalty of the person being to the community rather than the agency, which is probably what the “move to move up” culture was meant to temper.

    Finally I have noted in some desirable places where people want to stay a long time, the appearance that people are staying for their families and are really bored in their jobs and get grumpy because of no potential to move up. Jack Ward Thomas thought that good specialists should be able to move up in place but that was before things like Zoom. With or without an increase in salary, though, I don’t think we paid enough attention to continuing to challenge people who had chosen to spend a long time in the same place/job.


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