Getting into the Weeds Perhaps on “Line Officers Have Less Discretion Than They Used To”

Following up on Al Sample’s previous post, the conversation  led more generally about the idea that Forest Service line officers tend to seek more discretion via not wanting to be tied down by specifics in plans.  Or perhaps the concept is really “managerial flexibility.” It’s hard for me to hold in my mind three things at once.. “the climate is changing at an unprecedented rate” “we must use the latest science” and  “what we think today should be requirements in forest plans that last 30 years or go through a tedious amendment process. ”

I think everyone in an organization seeks more discretion, in general.  But maybe not?  I certainly wouldn’t have turned it down.  I guess the question is whether people can be trusted with discretion, and how are they held accountable (for what? and by whom?)

I was intrigued by Chelsea’s statement in this comment.

“My research on the Forest Service has indicated that line officers feel they have less discretion/autonomy than they used to.”

I’d like to hear from Chelsea but also from current employees and retirees.

First let’s establish a timeframe- less that when, for example, than 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago?  Some of us remember 50 years or so ago, but are becoming fewer.  So we perhaps all remember different pasts.

And less discretion about what?

Budgets, hiring people, making decisions about the landscape?  A person could argue that communications and the need for alignment has driven some of this (a natural force).  On the other hand, centralization of business operations removed a large part of discretion (an unnatural force).  A Regional Forester shouldn’t have to beg an unknown person at ASC to get employees (in one notable case, a Forest Supervisor, paid).

I must point out that many, many folks (including me) who were not line officers but also hire people and try to get them paid were equally frustrated.  Having never been a line officer, but observing them, it appeared to me that their decision space is constrained by law, regulation and policy, plus concerns of unnecessarily ticking off people, be that their own staff, RO staffs, and their own supervisors.  Good line officers have sensitivities to this, and check with higher levels prior to controversial decisions to make sure that their supervisors have their backs. But my experience may not be typical; by the time a project reached WO- NEPA or even the R-2 planning shop, a project had “escaped containment.”  I’m interested in others’ experiences.

So I would like to hear from folks in more detail about this.  I’d also like to know, for folks who have worked on the BLM as well as the Forest Service side, how the two agencies compare in terms of line officer discretion.

17 thoughts on “Getting into the Weeds Perhaps on “Line Officers Have Less Discretion Than They Used To””

  1. The lessening of discretion may be related to how DC politics are being felt as more influential than they used to be. I remember this being a predicted outcome when Chief Jack Ward Thomas was the first appointed Chief rather than selected from within the FS ranks. Not that previous Chiefs ignored Departmental guidance/instruction, but my observation was the USDA began having more influence after Chief Thomas was appointed.

    The most dramatic example of this was when Sec. Vilsack was originally chosen as USDA Secretary. Many of the initiatives pushed to the field had their origin in the Whitten Building – the best the WO could do was screen those initiatives through the agency’s Strategic Plan and existing norms. So, changes on the landscape were becoming less from the ground up and increasingly top-down.

    I know this description sounds somewhat absolute in its timing, but reflection in retirement tends to be sharply focused.

    • I agree. From what I hear, some current policies are being directed by lawyer or lawyers at the White House so decisions have migrated upstream even from the Whitten Building

      • If that is occurring, then the future is not bright for public land management, regardless of the attorney’s background (practical or academic).

        • It’s certainly not good for natural resource professionals…who want to be involved in decisions regarding what we know about. It also is interesting that “the science” is important in decisions, but not the views of scientifically trained resource professionals.

      • Thanks for starting this thread. I have a number of thoughts, but in regards to your comment about the role of lawyers, I read (skimmed) an interesting study today about the judicialization of the administrative state where the authors suggest that it is the failure of elected officials to oversee and maintain the accountability of executive branch agencies’ working in a highly complex environment. I think the take-home was that agencies respond to the institutional perspective of the branch of government that wields the most influence. Not a mind-blowing proposition, but I’m not sure that I agree that complexity is the reason that elected officials no longer ensure accountability from agencies. I do agree with another comment here that the loss of autonomy/discretion is in part due to the politicization of decisions, that is, the feeling that the WO will not have your back if the right people are against it.

        • Ah.. but it seems like the leaders at the FS have to negotiate between the judicial branch, the White House, the Department (not always aligned with each other) and avoiding land mines from Congress. Seems like a difficult task no matter what.. each branch has its own influence and coevolution – say between court decisions and legislation. It’s also a blast, at times, I’m sure, to figure out how to fly between the branches as they’re flailing and even change the flailing path. When separation of powers becomes a dogpile of powers.

          • Haha! Can I steal that – “dogpile of powers”?!

            But to the real point, I think it goes back to your earlier question: for what and to whom are bureaucrats accountable? Particularly in a land management agency. Does it depend on level (District, Forest, Region) or by role (line officer or staff)?

  2. Well, you opened that door 🤣; yes, the erosion of authority is/was well rampant in the Line Officers’ role of decision making, but (in my experience) only certain areas. To be blunt, hiring was the most blatant pullback. I was a District Ranger from 2003 – 2010, 2003 was before AVUE and even a “lowly” District RMA could hire seasonals. Then, AVUE sort of cut the cloth for that authority to be held at the DR level. The centralization fiasco further removed that authority to the Forest Sup level, in about 2008, or so.

    Then, as Forest Sup, (2011-2015, 2016), that authority went to Deputy Regional Foresters (DRF). I fully understand where it came from – Department level constraints governing diversification of the workforce. I was Regional Forester Representative (RFR) in Region 3 for fire hire, hiring probably over 300 firefighters. Alone, and co-authority with another Forest Sup, that delegation went from our authority to hire (2011), to having it yanked back the DRF’s in 2014.

    As for decisions about land management, I really never saw that authority questioned – at the DR or Forest Sup level. I did make several Regional Directors despise some of my actions, but they were big boys and girls, and were able to get over it.

    In my experience, Region 3 leadership had a much more robust process for making decisions at the Regional level than Region 2! Regions 8 and 3 were very similar, Region 2 tended to be much more power centric in the corner office.

    I retired in 2017, so my experience is relatively recent; the war stories I hear now only accentuates the correctness of retiring in 2017……

    • Jim, what do you mean by “Region 2 was more power centric in the corner office”.. it’s the only RO I ever worked in and when I worked on Forests in 5 and 6, I only dealt with specific parts of the RO, not it as a whole (mysterious and powerful) entity.

      • As it relates to decision making at a Regional perspective; Region 3 (and 8), had a more “informed decision making” structure, where all members of the RLT participated in the actual decision. Elaine and Zane Cornett were big supporters of these types of decision matrices (and so was I, especially at the FLT level).

        Region 2, during my time, was discussion from the representatives of the RLT, then the RF made the decisions….. Not the buy in when you have no skin in the game, in my opinion. I saw “2” at both the Forest Sup and Director level, and was not real impressed! We’ll leave it at that.
        And to be honest, it really did boil down to the “tools” of management, not so much personalities….

  3. Just one historical observation from my move from R6 to R1 (ROs) in 1990 – R1 supervisors seemed to not get much supervision. (Correlation to how much they get sued? I don’t know.)

    My professional experience relates to forest plan discretion, rather than laws, regulations or agency directives. In forest plans, individual national forests impose restrictions on themselves.
    Under the 1982 planning regulations, forest plan decisions were made by regional foresters, so there was some normal line accountability associated with forest planning. Under the 2012 Planning Rule, forest plan decisions are made by forest supervisors. They have little incentive to get rid of their own discretion to make decisions project-by-project. Except for the NFMA diversity requirement, which must be substantiated at the time a plan is adopted, but we don’t know yet where the courts will set that “discretion” bar for the 2012 Rule.

    Interesting that Sharon’s comment about “concerns of unnecessarily ticking off people, be that their own staff, RO staffs, and their own supervisors” doesn’t include the public (and no comments about that).

    • Jon, I actually meant “people, including their own staff” people including the “public” elected officials, and interest groups of various kinds.
      If a project reaches the level of controversy I’m thinking of, there are people on both sides. Otherwise there wouldn’t be controversy. “The public” is a given, but often disagree with each other, as do elected officials, branches of government and even people on TSW.

  4. I guess I now qualify as an old-timer, so here goes.
    I believe “good decisions” made while exercising discretion attract many fans, bad ones attract unwanted attention, “tampering”, and often reversal. This is OK in my book. Leaders get paid to lead and manage well. If you screw up, reap the harvest. I lived out both scenarios.
    I recall FS being a very “uptight” command and control business, keeping line officers on a pretty short leash, expecting orders to be followed.
    As to USDA, I think every Chief should take the initiative to lay out how the FS will operate and manage for success, rather than waiting to be told. Going back to ascension of JWT to the throne, does anyone think Clinton admin and Undersecy Jim Lyons “trusted” Chief Robertson? There’s short leash, and NO leash!
    On the other hand, Lyons gave Dombeck a very long leash, and much discretion. Did this discretion trickle down from Dombeck to the field? No. I recall many personal discussions with Dombeck about field managers evidencing (or lacking) a “land ethic”. Dombeck sought big changes and rammed some through, but the past 20 years has shown the FS didn’t make it far down the road he envisioned.
    Me? I learned it was often better to get forgiveness than permission, but even I carefully sought “approvals” on weighty issues.

    • Very interesting, Jim. One question that keeps me up is how the FS as an organization can learn and change if mistakes are not allowed? I have observed much of what you described take place within the agency and it goes against the logic of organizational learning and adaptation if the fear of failure prevents actors from trying new things.

      • (This is a reply from Jim Furnish)

        Reading Kaufman’s update of “The Forest Ranger” reveals that, as he lauded the agency’s can-do accomplishments, he warned of the frailty of a homogeneous and rigid FS organization. The trick is to keep esprit de corps and gumption while diversifying. Yes, learning organizations foster innovation and reasonable risk. In my era, line officers better damn well “get the cut out” or they were replaced. Those that did were rewarded. This may explain why the FS rammed the “clearcutting OG rig” into a brick wall at full speed circa 1990. The 1980s were ripe for learning and changing. Lack of vision?

        • I remember at a Region 6 Biodiversity Workshop in the 80’s (maybe in Wenatchee??)
          a Ranger saying they were cutting too much (different than cutting OG, but..) and he wasn’t going to do it. I often wondered what was “the rest of the story”.. and what happened to him..does anyone know?

        • Kind of makes the venture into “ecosystem management” (as well as subsequent attempts at more holistic management strategies) seem disingenuous…especially if the metric of agency success has continually been “timber volume sold”.


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