8 Jun 2009, 9:47pm
Federal forest policy Private land policies
by admin

Exploring USFS Employee Dissatisfaction

In the previous post we noted that the US Forest Service ranked close to last among federal agencies in employee job satisfaction, according to the annual survey administered by the Office of Personnel Management.

Why might that be? What is it that is so awful about working for the USFS?

Many if not most people would assume that USFS employees get to work out-of-doors, in gorgeous settings, in the bosom of Mother Nature, with respectable pay and benefits, and so should be quite happy, or at least relatively happy compared to other federal employees.

But they are not happy, evidently. Why not?

We can only surmise, and invite you to consider the question as well. One clue is that USFS employees rated Effective Leadership - Leaders near the bottom. The employees are not happy with the USFS leadership. And the Office of Personnel Management rated leadership as the single most important factor in job satisfaction.

But that is a little too vague to really answer the question. What is it about the leadership that is so disheartening to the employees?

One answer might be that USFS leadership has put their employees in untenable situations. USFS policies have alienated rural communities, and the employees have to live in those communities where the public is at odds with their agency.

The USFS leadership has shut down all commercial uses of public forests, and that has been a hammer blow to the people whose livelihoods depend on resource production of one type or another from public lands.

The USFS leadership has promulgated megafires that harm adjacent communities in myriad ways. The residents don’t like that. They are also very aware that land management and fire policies are set by DC insiders and urban know-nothings without the least regard for the opinions of those most impacted.

Rural residents have watched in shock and awe as the USFS has burned their watersheds and destroyed their lives and livelihoods. Residents have been forcibly evacuated as USFS fires have been allowed to burn uncontrolled in mid-summer, exploded across federal property lines, and burned the homes, ranches, farms, and businesses of the evacuees.

The USFS leadership has promulgated road closures, roadless areas, wilderness areas, and other bans on human uses of the public estate, which may not affect dim-witted Easterners and other urbanites, but most definitely affect rural residents who work and recreate on public lands.

USFS Chief Gail Kimbell has made it her personal mission to shut people out of 400 million acres of their own private lands, as well. Her Open Space Initiative is designed to ban roads, homes, lawns, and any other form of human presence on lands that do not belong to the government but are the private property of rural residents, who were not consulted.

The USFS has lost any and all goodwill they once enjoyed with the rural public. Nowadays when the USFS holds a public meeting in an “affected” community, they must bring along federal marshals to safeguard the employees assigned to attend, because the affected public is madder than wet hens.

The cases are legion of angry crowds screaming imprecations at the poor sot employees who themselves have no say-so regarding USFS policies. None but the clueless rookies wear USFS uniforms in public or otherwise let it be known who they work for, for fear of angry backlash from understandably bitter and angry rural residents.

So that could be one reason for declining job satisfaction. Employees who thought they were going to commune with Nature have discovered they are looked on as an occupation army, one hellbent on utter destruction, and who have become the targets of extreme dissatisfaction from the citizens they oppress.

That would be my surmise. What’s yours?

9 Jun 2009, 7:50am
by Larry H.


As I drive by my local Ranger District office, I see a big parking lot, a large two-story building with less than a dozen employee vehicles. This RD never has cut much timber, mostly due to rock and recreation. I contend that the problem is more acute than anyone really knows because much of the dirty-work is done by temporary employees who rarely have a say in anything. If they were “real people” in the eyes of the government, and allowed to interact on job satisfaction surveys as the permanents are, the ratings would be MUCH lower. These temps are not only used and abused in timber management work but also in “ologist” surveys. This is where a split occurs on the philosophy of what the Forest Service SHOULD be doing.

The “ologist” folks, when they first arrive, think that they will get out there and find all sorts of good stuff that they can use to prevent logging. They are all fired up, convinced that they will find all the things that their idols have promised would be there. The truth starts to set in as they survey for weeks and do not find anything. The realization sets in too, that they have become a part of the “machine” in that when they don’t find anything, they are basically putting their stamp of approval on a logging project. They start to find out that each day that they don’t find anything, their soul dies a little. I tend to think that even the big-wig “Ologists” feel the same way and become very protective of their land base.

It’s a very different situation in the timber shops. The overwhelming majority of temps are hired right off the street. It may take years for them to become proficient in their jobs but, as long as they show the effort, their mistakes can be corrected. However, all too often their performance is not up to the ever-increasing complexity of marking prescriptions, along with the rules, laws and policies of timber sales. For example, setting stream buffers is a technical issue set in stone. More than once I’ve worked on a project laid out by the local employees, only to find that the stream buffers are significantly smaller than the standard. These kinds of problems are deal-breakers and easily discovered by eco-groups, who take it to court. I call this temporary employee phenomenon “Federal McForestry”, where temps come and go like burger-flippers and fry jockeys. The good temps are often faced with very little chance to move into a permanent appointment, due to budgets and racial hiring quotas. I’ve seen many a good temp worker bail out of the system, able to find a good job outside the agency. This often leaves those temps who are not so employable remaining with the agency in a temporary capacity.

The existing permanent workforce has had increasing pressure on them to do more and more with less and less time. Employees now have to do such things as fixing their own computers, doing their own personnel paperwork and completing more and more required computer-based training exercises (to cover the Agency’s butt).

A new term in the Agency is “Human Capital” but I used to always call it “Human Cattle”. The Agency has become much less personal, with the Human Resources folks herded over to Albuquerque. This has been a huge failure resulting in less efficiency and more frustrations. It often takes an entire year to hire a new position. I’ve received a rejection letter 12 months after the closing date. I’ve seen where job announcements have been canceled after the closing date, with no message to applicants saying so. Shady deals done behind the scenes, mainly to avoid hiring certain applicants, are still commonplace in the Agency. Fairness is an issue that definitely erodes a person’s faith in the Forest Service.

I could go on and on about the problems, since I have had my own issues. My body has taken a beating and there’s no place in the Agency for someone with a broken body.

9 Jun 2009, 8:38am
by Larry H.


I forgot to touch on how foresters are dealing with their jobs. Many foresters are now extremely jaded with the lack of unified vision and legal issues. Many of them are simply biding their time in the Agency, waiting for their retirement date to arrive. Some are waiting for buyouts, but those will probably not be coming — otherwise there would be a mass exodus. Some foresters feel that an entire system collapse is the only solution — an object lesson that would teach people something about the science of forestry.

With all the early retirements and a definite lack of recruitment due to budget cutbacks, forest restoration is impossible, even if the active forest management issue is resolved in Congress and the courts. It is easy to just give up when months of work are negated by an ignorant court or a catastrophic wildfire. Why start a project, knowing that it WILL end up in court? Why bother when some people blatantly call you “forest raper”? No one likes to be hated, especially when that hatred is heavily publicized.

9 Jun 2009, 9:49am
by bear bait


Sort of reminds me about the story that used to be told in the crummy on the way to work.

Seems this girl had come from a pretty hardscrabble background, and had fallen in love with a nice kid from the University. She was cuter than a bug’s ear, and just nice as could be. Her problem was explaining her family to her boyfriend. He understood when she explained that her father would get out of prison in only 35 years. And he was not taken aback about her brother’s indictment for child molestation. He was a kind man, and he knew that families had problems. So it was ok when she told him her sister had quit working in the whorehouse, and now owned one of her own, and her mother was still on probation for making and selling ’shine. Her boyfriend had really been understanding and a prince of a guy about it all. What really bothered her however, was how she was going to tell him about her brother who worked for the US Forest Service.

And a belly laugh was had by all. That was 30 years ago. My son still rides a crummy daily, but he watches movies he downloads on his Iphone. Or sleeps. The crew has never met a USFS TSO. They have never logged a USFS sale. And probably never will. He thinks the outfit will log one more sale under contract and then call in the auctioneers, and the crummy riders will become ObamaNation unemployment riders. He will like that for a year. He likes being Mr. Mom, and taking kids to school, cooking and cleaning, and not being away from home all the daylight hours and too many of the dark ones.

9 Jun 2009, 10:00am
by Jim P.


You’ve said it very well Mike, but my sense is that it is the Congress and recent administrations that have not provided strong or effective leadership.

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a solid, well grounded Forest Service Chief who understood his role. Max Peterson may well have been the last one. A case can also be made for the fact that the communities you reference also traditionally provided — or at least affirmed — both leadership and mission, both of which are missing now.

Roger Sedjo at Resources for the Future may have said it best more than a decade ago when he observed that the Forest Service no longer produces a product or a service that the public recognizes or will support. You can also go back to Sally Fairfax’s famous line about “the reification of process over substance.” So, while I certainly understand and share rural America’s frustration with the Forest Service, I believe that the Congress and the past few administrations are mainly to blame for the ecological collapse of the West’s great forests.

9 Jun 2009, 10:26am
by John M.


I agree with Jim’s assessment with one exception. He forgot to give due credit to the followers of Wildland Project ideology. Ever since this concept took hold in the US there has been a dedicated core group working to stop any commercial use of the public lands. These zealots have infiltrated many of the major so called environmental organizations, the media, federal natural resource organizations, non profits and definitely the Congress. Their stated objective is to “re-wild” the US. The devotees are intelligent, well skilled in public relations and fund raising and patient. In one of the web sites I have visited there is a statement that accomplishing their objective may take a century or more.

In my opinion there is no doubt that many in today’s FS agree to some extent with this goal as do their political bosses. The majority of our current elected Congress has so little understanding of natural resources and their importance to their daily existence that they never question the mantra of “save and protect” the land by locking it up. Those of us who complain about such thinking are considered to be nothing more than the “tools” of big corporations and their greed, and not very bright.

Current FS top level managers and policy direction are heavily influenced by this wildland ideology, from their schooling to the culture they live in. Most have little if any experience with the world of cuts, bruises, poison oak, rattlesnakes, spooked horses, wet brush, or day old ham sandwiches, to name a few of the experiences common to actual resource management. They have little understanding of the time needed to see the results of resource decisions, such as the time it takes the land to heal after the chaos of a stand replacement fire or an insect epidemic. They see the great outdoors as a big playground, not as the source of their very existence.

The past 30 years have also seen the focus of FS staffing change from caring for the land to meeting social program goals. I can’t think of a major organizational decision in the last twenty years where “Caring for the Land” was the priority over social goals.

So with the lack of commitment to the mission of the national forests, and double talk from the leadership who have no real concern for field operations or rural communities, I am not surprised at the low morale level.

9 Jun 2009, 10:37am
by Mike


John, you bring up an important point. There is a culture crisis within the USFS. I have seen it develop in other natural resource institutions as well.

I call it the “Realists vs. the Hysterics”. That’s shorthand for “The Experienced People Who Know and Care” vs. “Politically Motivated Airheads”.

The result is that polarization has occurred withing the Agency and employees cannot even talk to one another about it. The “analysis paralysis” coined by Bosworth is really a much deeper paralysis of thought and attitude.

9 Jun 2009, 11:46am
by Larry H.


It is not just the President or just Congress that is at fault. Even though the Congress passed the “Healthy Forests Act” almost unanimously, it was never funded and extremists succeeded in litigating against parts of it agreed to by their own Democrats. The only reason it passed was because Democrats felt that doing nothing in the face of very public wildfires was political suicide. They even insisted on re-writing much of it in order to vote for it. It’s interesting that how, even today, eco’s use it to criticize ALL forest management.

Until the blame is spreaded over to the courts, nothing will get done in our forests. Let-Burn fires will continue to burn and people will still continue to think that they are good for the forest. Cutting edge forestry science will continue to be outlawed in favor of the “common sense” of the people. Forest Service leaders will continue to follow political sense instead of scientific facts. Courts will continue to follow process instead of science.

It has taken us many years to get into this predicament, and only through education can we climb out of this abyss. In the meantime, the Forest Service is doomed to be a rudderless ship on a stormy sea.

9 Jun 2009, 12:31pm
by Mike


Forest science is a big nadir. Our forest science institutions are as corrupt as the USFS only more so.

The culture crisis in the USFS started in universities and research centers. Junk scientists with a political agenda successfully eliminated most good science and good scientists years ago. The handful of real scientists that remain are completely ostracized.

I am reminded of the the rather public squabble at OSU College of Forestry that took place following the Donato fiasco. One faction labeled it as the “Greens versus the Browns.” But in fact the “Green” faction favors un-management and catastrophic holocausts, whereas the “Brown” faction favors active management and forest restoration. More properly the “Browns” should be called the “Greens” and the “Greens” should be labeled the “Charcoal Blacks.”

9 Jun 2009, 7:59pm
by bear bait


So why not have Congress just not fund the USFS. Form a fire fighting outfit from all the land management agencies, including Defense, Interior, Ag, Homeland Security, and Energy, and put out fires and the hell with the wasting our time. The constituency for forests dwindles every day. Fewer people have a stake in the whole of it. Daily it becomes less important. And in the not too distant future, nobody will care, visit, or participate. Look around you, and see those 300 lb adult women in their teens and early 20s, and the equally obese male population, and you know that their interests lie in music, videos, and electronic games, and what is there to eat? Them ain’t outdoorsy folks, comrade. Them be our future! Cod help us!!!!!

9 Jun 2009, 8:27pm
by Mike


bear — what you suggest has basically already happened. Congress has abandoned our public lands, and/or given them away to BINGOs. Fire is about all they fund, and the mission is to Burn, Baby, Burn regardless of the destruction inflicted on watersheds, wildlife, communities, and any and all other resources and lives.

What we need is a Congress that doesn’t hate America, and that seeks to govern wisely for the benefit of the citizenry.

Right now Congress is filled with treasonous madmen (and women) who seek the destruction and dissolution of the USA. It’s a tragic thing.

Our duty, as I see it, is to promote the truth and fight to rescue this country, no matter what the odds against us are.

9 Jun 2009, 11:49pm
by Mike


It is also true that we get the leaders we choose. Congress is made of elected individuals who were voted in by the majority of the voters in their states or districts. If Congress is made up of madmen, it is because the voters were mad when they made their selections.

We have become a nation of anti-patriots. America is to blame for all the world’s problems — for war, poverty, famine, disease, and a host of other ills, real or imagined. Hence America must be punished.

If our government wages war against us, it is because we (the majority) opted for that. We must destroy our forests, watersheds, economy, etc. as penance for our crimes against the world, real or imagined.

It is not national suicide that drives us, but national flagellation, self-punishment, masochism become auto-sadism, the infliction of suffering upon ourselves to neutralize feelings of conscious or unconscious guilt.

The cure? Self-compassion (and compassion for others), self-forgiveness (although there is no sin to be forgiven for), and trust in God (not a popular idea these days). The only way to break the self-destructive modality is to leave punishment up to the Deity and base one’s existence on doing good works. Simple answer, difficult to actualize, especially on a mass consciousness scale.

10 Jun 2009, 7:32am
by Larry H.


I’m sure there’s a TON of people out there who have gone into debt buying “green” stuff, like a Toyota hybrid, because of guilt. Similarly, they will go out and plant a few trees because of that guilt. They voted for Obama because of the guilt.

Guilt, guilt, guilt!

However, Americans soon tire of guilt, easily distracted by TV, movies, Facebook, Vegas, fashion, the latest dance craze, etc, etc, etc

Even Obama is old hat now!

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