18 Jun 2009, 11:22pm
Federal forest policy
by admin

Addressing Forest Service Employee Morale

by Doug MacCleery, 06/18/2009

This is a follow-up to the note I sent on June 3 on the Forest Service’s abysmal rating in the recently released Best Places to Work survey. The agency was 206 out of 216. In this survey, 945 people from the Forest Service responded, a healthy 3% of agency employees. The results are [here].

I understand this issue was discussed briefly at the Forest Service National Leadership Team meeting last week. I believe that it is important to ponder ways to address this critical issue, even as the leadership of the agency is in transition. It would be difficult to conceive of a issue more important to the future of the Forest Service.

Last week (June 10) the Washington Post ran a story on the topic “The Forest Service Struggling with Morale” [here]. This story discussed the Best Places survey, as well as a March 19, 2009 hearing before the National Parks, Forest and Public Lands Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee.

This hearing, “Restoring the Federal Public Lands Workforce,” focused on management and morale issues in three federal land managing agencies — the Forest Service, BLM and National Park Service. Hank Kashtan provided testimony for the Forest Service. Several other government and outside witnesses testified, including George Leonard for the National Association of Forest Service Retirees, and Ron Thatcher, President, Forest Service Council, National Federation of Federal Employees.

Last Friday (June 12), Chief Kimbell issued a letter to all employees discussing the Best Places survey and the Washington Post story. Chief Kimbell reinforced the importance of the issue by stating that it “deserves leadership’s attention and your attention at every level of the agency.” Clearly, this issue is a major one for all those who care about this agency and its future.

There are certainly a variety of factors that have contributed to this situation, several of which were mentioned by Chief Kimbell, including fire transfer and downsizing. Other factors were mentioned by Kank Kashtan at the hearing mentioned above, including centralizing business and human resources in Albuquerque, and others.

But the Forest Service is an agency which has faced many challenges in the past and has found ways to overcome them. In writing about Forest Service history, I reviewed many of these challenges in a brief history, released in 2008: “Reinventing the U.S. Forest Service: evolution from custodial management, to production forestry to ecosystem management” [here]. See, in particular, pp. 62-71. Given our impressive history and important mission, there is no doubt that we can address this challenge — if we will only devote ourselves fully to the task.

The hearing mentioned above provided a wealth of information about the Best Places survey and its implications for the Forest Service, BLM and NPS. It provided detailed information on the causes of the situation, as well as suggestions and recommendations for addressing it. The full hearing record can be accessed [here].

Kevin Simpson, Executive Vice President of the Partnership for Public Service (which helped compile the Best Places to Work survey) testified and discussed in detail the Best Places survey and its implications. This testimony was delivered before the recent ratings were released, which saw the Forest Service decline and BLM and NPS improve somewhat. His summary of the situation (p.6) is that:

The Forest Service, NPS and BLM are fortunate to have workforces that are highly committed to their respective missions and who generally believe their immediate supervisors are doing a good job. But these are also workforces who say they lack the resources to do the job required of them, that their agencies do not excel in recruiting new talent with needed skills, that their leaders fail to inspire and motivate high performance, and that the skill level of the agencies is stagnant. We can say with confidence that an under-resourced, under-trained workforce will not be able to perform at its best on behalf of the American people.

Mr. Simpson also discussed what he thinks should be done to address this issue. He described a NPS case study (p.6 of his testimony) that focused on the situation and made specific recommendations as to what might be done to address it. Most of these recommendations would be applicable to the Forest Service as well. Many could be put in place immediately at various Forest Service organizational levels. Kevin Simpson’s testimony is [here].

There are also other excellent assessments of the situation, as well as recommendations, in the testimonies of George Leonard, Ron Thatcher and others, which can be accessed from the full hearing record link provided above. Mr. Thatcher’s testimony contains both his recommendations and those of 37 district rangers who sent them to the Forest Service National Leadership Team (Exhibit 1).

Many Forest Service retirees are very concerned about the situation and could be called upon to help. For example, I have spoken to a former Chief and a former Associate Chief who both brought up an arrangement called the “Junior Staff” that used to exist in the Forest Service. It was a group of staff level employees (from a variety of resource areas) who had direct access to leadership (no gatekeepers) and who were expected to alert leadership as to important management issues affecting lower level employees.

We clearly do not need to start from scratch to analyze this issue or wait to develop more centralized solutions. We have some capacity at all levels to begin to deal with it appropriately.

Very respectfully,

Doug MacCleery

Douglas W. MacCleery is Senior Policy Analyst and Assistant Director, Strategic and Emerging Issues, Forest Management, National Forest System, USDA Forest Service

“Conservation is our attempt to put human ecology on a permanent footing.” — Aldo Leopold

“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” — Colin Powell

19 Jun 2009, 9:08am
by bear bait

Thirty years of social engineering was nothing less than an all out frontal attack on white males in the agency. The demographic majority in this country was disenfranchised by the USFS, purposefully, and it has become apparent that sub-surface discontent has boiled in a pot with a lid securely in place by the Politically Correct Police. My observation from afar.

I spent time in many ranger stations as a timber purchaser. Now you can’t visit with someone unless you have an appointment, and then you get to wear an ID card around your neck and cannot walk to the bathroom without an escort. The Police State is here. Working in a cloistered environment has to be trying. Working with politically correct slot fillers has to be doubly troubling.

After the 1996 flood, which blew out a long standing revetment on an abandoned railroad right of way, which in turn allowed the stream to take out a two chain wide strip of a blueberry planting and all the top soil down to subsoiler ripper marks, it became apparent we would have a small island at every high water, and we went to the NRCS for what help might be available. There were cost share programs, but the new revetment had to be engineered, and the building of it supervised by FEMA people. The person who designed and guided our project was a USFS engineer from the South. He took a 6 months Federal inter-agency transfer to FEMA from his job with the USFS. He was not happy with the USFS.

He had been a Vietnam combat veteran who came back and got a civil engineering degree, and because of his vet points got on with the USFS quickly after getting his engineer ticket. And things went okay until the Region 5 discrimination consent decree, at which point he was frozen in his job for 12 years. He had been passed over for District and Forest engineer placement by females and people of color who were not board certified engineers. He had to work for bosses who couldn’t read a blueprint or run a CAD program. When he took the FEMA job, he was the only person on the Forest in the Carolinas who could sign off on a bridge, culvert, or engineered fill design. Three people who had been affirmative action promoted past him held the higher paying administrative jobs but were not qualified to originate or sign off on an engineering plan. There were no people left on the Forest to do his job when he left. And he was going to stay as long as he could, and he hoped a buyout would come along soon so he could retire with full benefits.

My point is that if people were that unhappy, that vindictive, in 1996, how could you expect it to have gotten better? Hard work, quality work, bright ideas, innovation, all were out the door, and your job qualifications were based on your sex, your color, your sexual identity, your minority status. The man was in his element working the FEMA job. He was engineering repairs, doing good works, and getting to use his knowledge, and there were no office politics to run the day to day program.

The revetment is still there, withstood its highest water ever early last winter, and still works as planned. It is a designed leaker, and by the time the water goes over the top, the field has been filled with water and the current and debris don’t tear out plants and erode soil. A very smart design done with great supervision. FEMA could have used a guy like him in New Orleans, before and after. Instead, he was a white male submerged in USFS social engineering and demeaned and never promoted due to his gender and color. How in the hell can that be a happy work place?

19 Jun 2009, 9:34am
by Mike

Having read all the testimonies from the hearing, and from my personal experience of 35 years in this business, I still maintain and argue that the key to job satisfaction in the USFS is accomplishing the mission of forest stewardship. And that is NOT happening.

No matter who is hired, no matter what they are paid, if our National Forests are destroyed by the Outfit instead of protected, maintained, and perpetuated, then there is a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and no amount of cheerleading will make it go away.

I make it a point to walk the wastelands when I get the chance, to observe the charred remains of once magnificent forests. I see the handiwork of an agency without a conscience, without a clue, mired in failure.

We can wash brains, we can glad hand, we can be sensitive to social demography, but if the forest gets wrecked, what’s the point?

Symbolism trumps substance, unless you visit that substance frequently and see it up close and personal. There can be no job satisfaction in taking something wonderful and trashing it completely.

19 Jun 2009, 9:59am
by Larry H.

I’ve seen where quality employees have decided not to even apply for promotions because they have very little chance of being selected ahead of a more “culturally-desirable” applicant. When District Rangers made the selections, they commonly would decide to hire the “culturally-diverse” candidate, since that issue is one of their evaluation criteria for getting a raise or promotion. Currently, in some Regions, the hiring decision is now made in the Regional Offices.

Also figuring into the problem is the truth that, after successfully competing against women and minorities, then you have to compete against all those other highly-qualified white males, some of which are the preferred local candidates. Skills, education and experience are definitely the last things considered. Jobs are very commonly “wired”, and the highest qualified applicant rarely is the one selected.

19 Jun 2009, 10:21am
by Mike

I acknowledge and agree that the USFS is lousy with unqualified employees at all levels. However, those incompetents are also dissatisfied, not just the qualified people passed over, who are thoroughly disgusted. Somewhere in the minds of the promoted culls is the nagging realization that they don’t know what they are doing and catastrophic destruction is the result.

29 Jun 2009, 9:38pm
by anon

Check the folks in Albuquerque. They are more biased than anyone. It starts with support. They are treated poorly and no promotion potential.



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