Political Appointees, The Good and the Bad: Guest Post by Jim Furnish. I. Mt Wilson and Thirtymile Fire

Former Deputy Chief for National Forest Systems, Jim Furnish. Photo by Amanda Cowan of the Corvallis Gazette-Times
I think it’s important for folks who haven’t worked in the agencies, or with politicals, to hear what the interface between politicals and career civil servants can be like, in terms of the day-to-day management of the agency. For the Forest Service, anyway, pressure by politicals can be less like an assembly line of policy from DC to Ranger District, and more like the Administration punching a pillow, where the pressure dissipates through time and space.

To open the discussion, I asked Jim Furnish, former Deputy Chief of the National Forest System, to share the good and the bad of his experiences with politicals. For those of you who are not Forest Service folks, the chain of command goes like this: the Secretary of Agriculture (now Sonny Perdue) is over the Undersecretary over the Forest Service (now Jim Hubbard, formerly State Forester of Colorado). Those are political folks, and under that is the Chief of the Forest Service (not technically political, that’s a historic discussion in and of itself, but new Administrations of a different color tend to get rid of the old ones, in more or less dramatic ways), and the Deputy Chief for the National Forest System is the next layer down. There are other Deputy Chiefs, e.g. State and Private, that are over state and private programs and Fire, and Research and Development, Administration and International Programs, but the main issues that concern us here (other than fire) are all within the purview of the Deputy Chief for NFS. For example, the Director of Ecosystem Management Coordination (EMC) where litigation, NEPA and Planning are housed, works for that person in DC. One of the ways it’s confusing is that the Regional Foresters actually work for the Chief, but when Jim Furnish was Deputy Chief they worked for him. (See it’s even confusing to former employees). It’s fairly complicated-both the way it sounds and the way it works, with lots of opportunities for tension between the line and staff folks at various levels. Oh and let’s not forget that the Washington Office, at least before efforts for “work at home”, was a six-story rumor mill with tendrils of information, of unknown quality, like the game “Telephone” dissipating throughout the country.

For non-FS people this may be all too much bureaucracy, but it can help to understand the ways that authority can be both straightforward (line to line) and diffused (all those staff people at different levels).

I think Jim’s stories are all worthy of consideration, so this will be a series. Others are welcome to submit their own advice or stories, either as a separate post (email me) or in the comments below. As usual, let’s reflect on irritating or helpful behaviors on the part of politicals, not so much saying bad things about individual human beings. Also, I’d ask you to note how important trust is..the interface is people suddenly working together who feel that there are high stakes, and don’t have experience working together, nor, many times, any basic level of trust. I like the way Jim does the Good and the Bad, so these posts will be longer than usual. Now onto Jim’s post.

It Was the Best of Times; It Was the Worst of Times . . .

The interface which resource agencies and their leaders navigate between “doing right by the land” and doing the bidding of politicos is fraught with intrigue. As Deputy Chief of the Forest Service (1999-2002), I had a front row seat as observer and occasional participant during the latter part of the Clinton administration and early Bush one. The politicization of the agency has ramped up in an ever more partisan manner, especially since the spotted owl crisis. With Congress in gridlock, the executive branch has become the primary driver of policy formulation. I thought it might be instructive to share a couple “inside stories” that illustrate both the best and worst of agency politics. Each involves the Undersecretary for Agriculture — a political appointee overseeing the Forest Service and its Chief – a person I had frequent direct contact with while dealing with national forest issues.

Dave Tenney came to USDA in 2001 from a lead staff position with the House Natural Resources Committee. He remained in an “acting” capacity for many months while Mark Rey awaited Senate confirmation.

The Bad: When Ann Veneman of CA became Secretary of Agriculture, it seemed every party there with a bone to pick with the FS pestered her office for a fix. Early in 2001, Dave Tenney asked to see me about a matter involving TV towers atop Mt. Wilson in Angeles NF. Univision claimed that a tower that Disney had started to build would interfere with its transmission. Tenney noted these were “powerful, influential” parties and he directed me to “fix it” as he dropped an issue folder in front of me. I quickly examined the contents, and then explained that lawyers were already involved, the issue had a technical component that would require FCC involvement, and it would also be necessary to confer with the Region and Forest to inquire about background and what had already transpired. Then we could get the parties together with FCC and see about brokering a deal. “How long will that take?” I estimated about a week. He said he needed this done “tomorrow”. I noted this was unrealistic; simply impossible. He pressed on saying it was essential to get this fixed now (reflecting Veneman’s demand, I suspect). I quietly stared at him contemplating my next move. I told Tenney I understood the gravity and the urgency, but a substantive, reasonable solution needed a lot of work and coordination, many meetings, and a need to calm the lawyers while we found a solution that fit the facts. Tenney glared and demanded faster action. I then said “If you want me to take care of this I will – I need a week. If you want it done faster, then you do it.” Then I returned the folder. He reluctantly told me to deal with it and brief him when solved, which I did a week later. This was about March 2001, and I left the FS in January 2002. What little trust and optimism existed for a Clinton-era deputy chief to work effectively with a Bush appointee evaporated. Tenney and I almost never spoke again.

The Good: The tragic Thirtymile Fire (July 2001) in WA burned over a fire crew and 2 civilians, killing 4 firefighters and nearly all 16 hunkered in fire shelters. I received a midnight call asking if I would lead the fatality investigation. I agreed to do so. Chief Dombeck, shortly before he retired in April, had ripped into all his leadership group saying that the last time a fatality occurred, the safety officer had fielded 17 declinations until someone said ”Yes” to lead an investigation. In the future, Dombeck said “if your name is on top of the list when called, you WILL serve!” My name was on top for July 1-15. I departed for WA the next morning after briefing Chief Bosworth, who had just succeeded Dombeck.
The investigation team, including OSHA reps, proceeded briskly to determine the basics of what happened. Intensive Regional TV coverage covered every development and clamored for answers.

After 1 week we readied for a major press conference to lay out our findings. A lengthy report would follow after further investigation, but we had established a basic fact pattern that could dispel many myths. Then Chief Bosworth called to say he was sending his communications director to “manage the event”. This did not sit well with me. Our local public affairs officer and investigation team had performed well and we were ready as could be. My interactions with the natl comm dir led me to conclude he screwed up everything he touched and this event was too important. Further, I sensed the Chief had little or no confidence in me. I told the Chief he need not send him. Bosworth said it had “already been decided” (though I do not know if Tenney was involved, I suspected so). So I said he needed to understand that if he came to WA I would resign my position as investigation team leader immediately. I knew that the Chief could not stand the scandal of my departure one week in. There was a long pause on the phone.

Bosworth said “I’ll see what I can do”. The comm dir stayed home, and we had a good press conference that effectively addressed the media’s questions and allowed us to proceed with the balance of our work. In this case, I think my taking a stand had a good outcome and fostered improved respect and trust — with Bosworth, at least, who listened and understood and agreed to a mutually satisfactory outcome.

Career Ladders for Temps?!?! Maybe Soon!

More interesting news for “disposable” employees!


NFFE-Backed Temporary Employment Reform Legislation Approved by Senate Committee

There may come a time when temporary employees actually have a career ladder!

“Thousands of wildland firefighters and other dedicated seasonal workers have been stuck for too long in dead-end jobs, not because of a lack of merit on their parts, but because of flawed regulations that do not recognize their years of service,” said Mark Davis, Vice President of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) and past President of the NFFE Forest Service Council.  “Many others leave and take their years of experience with them because of blocked career paths. After years of work, I’m optimistic that we are about to fix that.”

Of course, this is most directed towards firefighters, as so many timber temps have been jettisoned or have found “other employment”. Most temps would say that there is plenty of work to do, outside of their 1039 appointments but, that issue is not being addressed. The higher-ups choose to continue to embrace the 1039 appointments, thinking that policy is “good enough for Government work”. There really is nothing stopping the Forest Service from changing their policies on 1039 appointments. Truthfully, I’d like to see the temporary appointments scaled back to 800 hours, essentially forcing the Forest Service and other Agencies to hire more 13/13 permanent positions. Yep, make it too costly and “inconvenient” for them to continue using temps to do work that is needed, each and every year. It’s up to OPM to impose more rules, to stop the abuse of the temporary hiring authority.

Sharon’s Post-Election Visualization

secs office 2

Remember, a while back on Election Day, I asked in this post for visualizations of this conversation. We were to imagine ourselves invited to the Cage and being asked to sit by the Secretary.

“Sharon, I’ve heard from my staff that you have passion, knowledge about and great personal experience with our National Forests. I’ve brought you in for this discussion because I, too, care, about them deeply, and I’m interested in your perspective. I’m looking for advice. I understand that the Forest Service is only one piece of what the USDA does, but it’s a very important piece. I believe that our public lands, in one way or another, touch the soul of each American. If you were sitting in my chair, what would you do differently?”

When I thought about it, I had a broad range of imaginative policy ideas. But when I visualized it, something else entirely came up. The right brain and the heart have their own voice.

“Mr. Secretary, I think the most important thing you can do in the President’s second term is.. I hate to sounds like Moses (just call me Moishe Friedman).. but let my people (Forest Service employees, or former people) go! I mean, in my opinion, you need to let up on the reins in a couple of areas, or otherwise, just arrange to move the Forest Service to Interior.

A long time ago, in a Region far, far away, I worked at a Forest Service nursery where there were Wage Grade and GS folks working. They were always comparing notes about the pros and cons about being one or the other. This is basic human nature. If you diverge too much in treating Forest Service employees from the way that BLM or FWS or Park Service folks are treated, people are going to compare notes. And when things have a tendency to be worse for the Forest Service, the result is not going to be good for morale.

Now, the Chief may have told you, but there aren’t that many diverse folks in the natural resource professions. You must know this as you picked the current Chief, Tom Tidwell, Harris Sherman, Jay Jensen, and Butch Blazer, and I’m sure you looked around. At the same time, when you run the numbers, you also need to look at women. We tend to be a smaller percentage than men of any ethnic group in natural resources, and a smaller percentage of veterans (less than what you would expect, which would be 50%). So if you and others are not careful, you could end up being diverse in many ways, but not with women,which I think is very important for a variety of reasons. If all you’ve done is increase the diversity of complexions of folks who discuss elk or turkey hunting at the morning staff meeting, have you really diversified?

When I retired, I worked for a black man, who worked for a Hispanic man, who worked for a white man (the Chief) who worked for a white man (Harris) who worked for another white man (you) who worked for a black man (the President) helped by a white man (the vice-president). All I could see is an unbroken linkage of testosterone molecules from me to President Obama. Even the President is having trouble with the Cabinet, as in this Denver Post story, so I get it. So I think you need to keep this in mind as you fill positions and look at your agencies filling positions. But enough on that.

The Forest Service is looking for the same kinds of folks that BLM and FWS are. If you want to diversify the Forest Service, it’s gotta look like at least as good a place to work, or a better place. As they say, it should be an “employer of choice.”

But some of the current efforts, to some of us, look both draconian and silly at the same time. I know your heart is in the right place, but the systems don’t exist in some cases, to get you’re the results you want, and in actuality it looks like a Dilbert cartoon out there. “Hire diverse people but you have no way of knowing if they are and you will get in trouble if you don’t.” “We have targets but we can’t tell you what they are or write down what they are because we know we’re not supposed to have them.”

Like I said, I know your heart is in the right place. So here’s what I’d do instead. I’d get a diverse panel of young leaders, tell them to work with the schools that produce people with qualifications we need, and give them 2 months to come up with a plan. I’d ask them to identify administrative barriers that need to be removed. I’d publish the plan and vet it online with comments from the rank and file. Then I’d work the plan. I might even go in with the other natural resource agencies on a plan, to maximize the taxpayer bang for the buck.


Again, the reductions in the Forest Service appear to be much more draconian than fellow natural resource agencies. What’s up with that? In any large organization, the top of the food chain doesn’t get into the weeds of how to manage subordinates’ budgets. If the USFS needed to save X millions of dollars annually, it would have made sense to identify the amount of savings and then say to the Chief, go forth and cut your spending. Instead, you specifically targeted travel after the agency had been reducing on its own for the previous three or more years, the end result is that some important work isn’t getting done because of the constraint, in some cases employee safety is being compromised, and it disproportionately punishes units that were proactive in reducing travel costs before the current quest for reductions. Somehow I don’t think Homeland Security can’t go get terrorists because of their “travel cap” (yes, I know they’re not a natural resource agency, but you get the point).

So maybe “work” needs to be defined differently and separated from meetings. One of the problems is that perhaps some people go to too many meetings, but the draconian aspect of this policy has cut into people’s ability to: develop relationships with their peers and potential partners, provide oversight for how federal funds are spent, and mentoring of younger employees by older employees, professional development, and membership in professional societies.

I brought a copy of Mike Dombeck’s 1999 letter on professional societies (attached to this post as Professional Society Letter. Take a look. All of the things in that letter are still true. It seems like the travel cap has had an impact on people’s participation in keeping up their professional credentials, both meetings and training. It’s extremely demoralizing for our employees, makes the FS an employer “to avoid” rather than “of choice” and keeps the taxpayer from having the best professional advice in an era when we write in regulation that the agency needs to look at the “best available science.”

Now I realize that you are just setting general direction, and people can and do, possibly, interpret things differently down the food chain. In my opinion, the best thing that you could possibly do 1) set up a group to examine why USDA travel policies appear to be different from other federal agencies,
And 2) ask the Chief to update Mike Dombeck’s letter. and clarify that professional development is still encouraged.


The election is over. You have a second term. So just lighten up! If people don’t get to tell their story, the public can’t make good decisions about their public lands. Sure, sometimes there will be screwups in a large organization. But there are enormously talented, hardworking, public servants out there. Just let them do their job, and if some do it wrong, hold them accountable. What you are saying implicitly, when you hold the reins as tight as they have been, is that you don’t trust them to do their job. Bad, bad, bad for morale. Bad for the public. It’s just all around bad. You might even ask previous administrations for tricks of the trade in communicating in a decentralized organization without going wildly awry. It seemed to me before I retired that it was worse than previous administrations. Part of that might be the growth of social media but it seems to me that can be an advantage if you trust your people.. more ways to get the story out.

Like I said, I know your heart is in the right place, and I think you could do a lot for morale just by setting up groups to look at these two things (travel and diversity) compare us to other agencies, find the best ways, reduce the Dilbertiana, and let the communicators communicate (with guidelines, of course).

Thank you so much for this chance to chat. I hope you take my suggestions in the spirit in which they are offered. I believe that if you and the FS are working better together, you can get much farther down the road in the President’s direction.

I’d like to thank the two employees and one retiree who helped edit and provided feedback on this visualization. If you disagree with the points I made, or have other ideas, please comment!

And I still would like to get visualizations from others… not too late!

Review of First Obama Term Forest Conservation Letter- Item By Item #1

Photo from the Allegheny Defense Project, one of the signers of the 2008 letter.

Thanks to Matthew for sharing this letter that some environmental organizations sent to the President in his first term: RE: 100-Day Priorities for Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

It would be interesting to compare this with other letters sent by other environmental organizations last term, and with all of them this term, to be able to understand more about where the different organizations see issues and opportunities. Here’s the link to the letter.

First, they say they represent “grassroots citizen activists.” I think that’s true, but only a subset of grassroots citizen activists. People familiar with FS litigation will recognize many familiar names. Now Andy said in his comment here that “If I were the Forest Service, I’d pick up the phone and start talking with these groups. ” Of course, the FS is talking to them all the time, as is OGC and DOJ. I don’t know why those groups’ opinions should count more than other environmental groups (say, TRCP, TWS, TNC, Sierra Club). Other than the threat of litigation.. which I don’t think is a fair reason for some groups to have more power than others. That’s why I like FACA committees so much.. there’s less “behind the scenes dealing” and more upfront discussions.

If there were a FACA committee, these groups would have to explain to other interests exactly what they mean and have their points of view discussed and debated. Lacking that, though, we can attempt to do it here.
Here’s one of the first sentences:

1) Often federal land and resource management agencies operate under conflicting policy mandates, with timber, mining, motorized recreation, and grazing allowed to exploit resources at both the environment’s and taxpayer’s expense.

Hmm. Who is on this list and who is not?
First, I think the US Treasury comes out ahead in oil and gas receipts (I could look up coal and other mining also.. but). Here’s something from a GAO report…

The Department of the Interior’s (Interior) Minerals Management Service (MMS) collected the equivalent of over $9 billion in oil and gas royalties in fiscal year 2007, more than $5 billion of which it deposited in the U.S. Treasury; it dispersed the remaining approximately $4 billion to other federal, state, and tribal accounts. These royalties–payments made to the federal government for the right to produce oil and gas from federal lands and waters–represent one of the country’s largest nontax sources of revenue. Here’s the link.

(italics mine)

Now I know that many people with forest backgrounds are not familiar with minerals. But this seems like a fairly sizeable chunk of change. Which is one reason I brought it up on the blog.

So is it accurate to say that this occurs “at the taxpayer’s expense?”. That’s not even counting the jobs and tax revenue that wouldn’t exist but for the development of those leases.

Now ski areas, which have been litigated based on their impacts to the environment, are not on the list. Maybe this is because they are “above cost”?

Here’s a press release about this:

This has contributed $4 billion every winter and created approximately 80,000 full-, part-time and seasonal jobs in hard-hit rural communities. Under the new legislation, the Forest Service anticipates roughly 600,000 more summertime visits that may create and sustain up to 600 more full-, part-time and seasonal jobs. The addition of summer recreation is expected to infuse almost $40 million of direct funding into local mountain communities.

It’s actually not clear if this is $4 billion back to the Treasury or not. Maybe someone on the blog knows.

Motorized recreation is on the list, non-motorized not. We have seen a great many impacts to the environment from non-motorized overuse (trash, trampling, waste, dogs chasing wildlife, etc.). Taxpayers in NYC are paying to fund this environmental damage by people. We could argue that more environmental damage is caused by motorized recreation, but much motorized recreation is people driving around the forest and not getting out but looking at the scenery.

If “motorized recreation” in this sense is OHVs and snowmobiles, can we draw a line and say that all other recreation is “non-exploitive”? Are 50 people trampling and littering by a stream less “exploitative” than an OHV that stays on the trail?

It’s actually hard for me to think of any use that doesn’t “exploit” the environment and cost the taxpayer something. Except for concessionaire campgrounds.. still “exploits” the environment but doesn’t cost the taypayer ;).

Gee, that was only one sentence, but it did lead us up some interesting twists and turns. That’s probably enough for the first post on this letter.