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June 02, 2005

Pragmatic or Corrupt?

Maybe my rumor mill is faulty. If not, there seem to be more cases recently of Forest Service people cutting legal and ethical corners to clear the way for what they perceive to be “good projects on the ground.”

I hope this is not happening. If it is, is this the latest manifestation of professional arrogance? Is the Forest Service falling into a place where the first order of business is to find creative ways to “categorically exclude” internally blessed projects from public review and due process? Should the first order fail, is the second order of business to try to hide projects from due process? Is this our organization’s response to process predicament, analysis paralysis, process gridlock?

Consider Doug Parker’s allegations in Region 3; as reported May 27th at Azcentral.com

...officials have taken shortcuts when trying to complete projects. For example, they are accused of not preparing environmental risk assessments and failing to get approval from agency officials who have the authority to make decisions about pesticides.

In his complaint, Parker cited an incident on the Cibola National Forest in central New Mexico last year in which a district ranger approved the aerial application of a herbicide to fight salt cedar but did not have the authority to do so.

Could this be the case too in the recent flap over the Biscuit fire recovery project? The May 24th Seattle Times reports,

An environmental group wants a judge to halt further sales of timber burned by the 2002 Biscuit fire unless the U.S. Forest Service restores extra buffer zones along streams intended to protect threatened coho salmon.

The Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics sent out a formal notice yesterday to the Forest Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries. The group warned that it would file a lawsuit after 60 days, seeking a halt to further timber sales unless the Forest Service consults NOAA Fisheries over the effect that changes in the logging plan will have on salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act. …

The proposed logging plan the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest showed to NOAA Fisheries called for 348 feet of buffer zones on each side of perennial and intermittent streams outside areas considered critical habitat for coho, the notice said.

No trees could be cut in the first 174 feet. Only trees smaller than 24 inches could be cut in the second 174 feet.

After NOAA Fisheries found that the proposed logging plan was not likely to harm coho, the final logging plan dropped the second 174-foot buffer, the notice said.

I hope I’m wrong and we are not seeing an upwelling of a long-standing problem with professional arrogance in the Forest Service.

Posted by Dave on June 2, 2005 at 09:51 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: Jerry Ingersoll

I don't know, Dave. I don't think the question is as simple as you make out.

I'm sure most folks would agree that a public agency that routinely flouts the law to advance its own agenda is out of control. On the other hand, a public agency that loses sight of its mission and principles in slavish adherence to process requirements is everyone's image of bureaucracy.

People -- legitimately -- want it both ways. We demand public agencies that obey the law. And we demand public agencies that "do the right thing" regardless of the technicalities.

Balance is in order. John Adams called a republic a "government of laws and not of men." And yet some would say that today's practice has carried this principle to an extreme in which common sense is lost.

I personally care more that my public servants are people of integrity working to serve me as best they can -- that I can trust their motives --than I care that they've followed every process rule. I'd sometimes like them to make an exception, if it's for pure motives (Mr. Incredible in the Claims Department). Of course, I wouldn't want to carry that principle too far either -- zealots have pure motives, and they're more dangerous than bureaucrats.

I believe that one of the greatest strengths of the FS has always been that FS employees believe in what they're doing and try to get it done. The level of personal corruption -- a public official flouting the law to advance his or her own financial interests -- has always been very low.

Our challenge is of course that people, internally and externally, disagree over who and what public land ought to be managed for. In that environment, any even inadvertent violation of any process rule is seen as evidence of bad faith and corruption. I know nothing of the specific cases you reference, but wonder whether this would apply.

So...I think real life in the FS is governed by constant weighing of risk and rigor, letter and spirit. I think very very few FS employees would knowingly break the law or lie to the public. But some might occasionally ask whether dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" is the best way to meet the spirit of the law they're implementing.

I'm reminded of a time, roughly 15 years ago, when I was serving as a forest NEPA coordinator. A district employee called to say that a local resident wanted to buy a couple of boulders to use as building stone. The district had inspected the boulders -- they were in a boulder field, next to the road, and there were no particular environmental or public issues or concerns. The employee had figured out how to sell the boulders (permit forms, fees, etc.), but wanted to know the NEPA process. I had to answer that none of the categorical exclusions really seemed to fit the situation exactly, and the book answer might well be to write an EA. I also said they might want to use their own judgment about whether this was really a question that they wanted the book answer to. I don't know, but my guess is that they just sold him the boulders. And I'm ok with that -- it's what I would have done.

Had the same district tried to cut the same corner to cut down trees inhabited by red-cockaded woodpeckers (not that they would have), I'd have been first in line to nail them to the wall. I'd distinguish the two cases by saying that the first is a case of doing the right thing (selling the boulders without unreasonable expense and delay), in keeping with the spirit of NEPA, with no risk, at the cost of potentially technically bending the rule. The second would be a case of doing the wrong thing (cutting the RCW trees), violating both the letter and spirit of NEPA, with high risk. How do you know the difference? Is it arrogant to make these kinds of choices? I think the answer has to depend on integrity.

Jerry Ingersoll | Jun 2, 2005 3:29:40 PM

Posted by: Dave Iverson


In the main, I agree with you. Ethics always deals with difficult, gray-area choices. Ethics deals with trying to choose the better among good alternatives, or the less bad among bad, even sometimes tragic alternatives. Within the confines of law, we deal largely with ethics.

But I would enlarge your conclusion to say,"The answer depends on individual AND organizational integrity, both informed by public scrutiny to daylight dark deeds." Such dark deeds are sometimes done by unethical individuals, sometimes done by unethical organizational systems that trap good people into bad behavior. Often deeds that history will judge “dark” are done by well-meaning, but ill-advised individuals or organizations.

Consider, for example, retired forest supervior Orville Daniels’ remark in the recent Forest Service centennial-celebration film "The Greatest Good." Daniels said, in essence, “We did go over to the Dark Side,” during our time of excessive timber cutting. That was the era where the Forest Service motto was, according to internal folklore, “Get the cut out first, the cows in second, and all else a distant third.”

Few would argue that the Forest Service, an organization filled with mostly good people, did some very bad things during that era. What we don’t want to do is to allow such process-driven, politics-driven bad behavior to once-again destroy the integrity of the Forest Service organization and the individuals that work there.

What we need is more internal and external discussion and debate over organizational policy, organizational culture and more.

Dave Iverson | Jun 5, 2005 11:22:53 AM

Posted by: Jerry Ingersoll

I concur. Though I'm not so sure about the "Dark Side" bit. I continue to be struck by how much we're still fighting the last war (over timber harvest levels in the 70s and 80s). Orville was certainly there and can speak with some authority. I wasn't, even though I've been in the FS for 18 years. Which makes me wonder how much of what we say and do continues to be colored by our perceptions of that struggle (I'm reminded of a High School exchange student from eastern Germany -- when I asked her how unification had affected her, she replied that she was 4 years old at the time).

I've worked on NFs with a substantial and controversial timber program (the Ouachita and the last six years on the Tongass), and I've certainly worked with individuals with different values, styles, and points of view. I've seen the results of past practices gone wrong, and I've worked for 5 very different forest supervisors (Mike Curran, Jim Nelson, Bob Storch, Tom Puchlerz, Forrest Cole). Yet I've never been told by any of them to sacrifice the health of the land for timber, grazing, or commodity use, or to compromise my ethical principles.

Now that's not saying that hasn't happened anywhere. But it hasn't happened to me. Projects I've been involved in have been subject to strident attacks and extreme language, but my perception has been that the underlying practices always protected the health of the land. And I think that colors my perceptions of the agency. I understand the sentiments expressed in the "Dark Side" comments, but my personal experience has been different.

Did we lose our way? If we did, have we learned from the experience? In the end, I think maybe these questions are easier to answer as individuals than in a collective sense.

Consider the broader question of the relationship of the U.S. to the land over the past 200 years (or any other big political question). If we had it to do over again, we might do some things differently. But it's far more difficult, at least in my mind, to make moral judgments of most of the people of the time, without walking in their shoes. In the end, we're products of that history, and I think the glass is (more than) half full.

Jerry Ingersoll | Jun 6, 2005 3:32:34 PM

Posted by: Tom Mitchell

Dave, I wonder if there is another way to look at the problem you outlined.

Everyone I have ever worked with or known in the Forest Service has wanted "to do the right thing on the ground." But each person appears to have a different definition of what is "right." This is most apparent when working with "ID" teams ... which more often than not are more multidisciplinary than interdisciplinary teams.

Each discipline has its own language, its own parameters that it measures or examines when looking at/classifying a site, and its own prescriptions embedded in manual, handbook and textbooks. For example, measure the basal area of a 60 year old stand on site class one lands ... compare the measured basal area with the stocking guide ... if it is overstocked, then the prescription is to thin this stand.

These prescriptions were developed as an aid to those working on the ground. They are prepackaged answers to the question of "what is the right thing to do" in particular circumstances. They have a set of assumptions and a goal/purpose - in the case of stocking tables/silvicultural prescriptions, the vast majority have the assumed goal of maximizing saw timber production over successive rotations.

Resource specialists rely on prescriptions... and often can't talk about a particular situation without using the term "prescription." This appears to be a basis for so many heated discussions on ID teams, one specialist's prescription differs greatly fron another specialist's prescription and neither match "best management practices."

It could be, that reliance on prescriptions and the omnipresence of that concept and term hinders each specialist's ability to analyze a situation given the particular goals of a project - what the purpose of the project is, its context, short term and long term consequences, etc.. Each attempts to design a project to match her/his prescription as the solution to the perceived and perhaps not actual problem.

If this is the case, it could be why some hesitate to do environmental analysis or have a hard time doing it. Being trained to measure a site in a particular way, compare that with "guides" such as stocking guides, and come out with a prescription doesn't provide training or experience in broader problem solving ... in doing analysis. Having a team of specialists who are used to thinking in terms of prescriptions and where the prescriptions of each one differ greatly from the prescriptions of all the others creates an uncomfortable situation, one each would like to avoid and one where trying to find the "right thing to do" in terms of project design can become a very lengthy process because it means trying to meet incompatible prescription requirements of all of the specialists involved. Just plain problem solving/analysis based on the knowledge tied up in the prescriptions would be so much easier and faster, but teams rarely, if ever, have that expertise.

Said another way, if you have no/little experience/training in doing something - like general problem solving - and lots of experience/training on applying guides and using prepackaged prescriptions, then the tendancy would be to avoid the former and apply the latter.

Which goes back to many of the comments made on this topic... everyone wants to do the right thing on the ground ... but may avoid doing the required environmental analysis because doing analysis is unfamiliar and may result in a project designs that violate/differ from the "right thing" as defined by the "prescription."

In short, it may not be a case of Forest Service employees turning to the darkside or trying to hide things from the public... but more a case of avoiding required analyses by applying the familiar (prescriptions) in an effort to both "do the right thing" and be true to her/his profession as a timber specialist/range conservationist/wildlife biologist/hydrologist/etc/etc and etc.

Tom Mitchell | Jun 9, 2005 1:11:08 PM

Posted by: Dave Iverson


I agree that the problem you identify is real. As you conclude, "...it may not be a case of Forest Service employees turning to the darkside or trying to hide things from the public... but more a case of avoiding required analyses by applying the familiar (prescriptions) in an effort to both "do the right thing" and be true to her/his profession as a timber specialist/range conservationist/wildlife biologist/hydrologist/etc/etc and etc."

The problem is a variant of the often-mentioned "professional arrogance" problem.

We have another problem as well: people who dutifully work in the system of targets and budgets knowing that they are instruments of stupid bureaucracy that sometimes is corrupted into doing deeds that few individual members would do on their own. Many of these people compliment this "shameful side" with a "protective side" that looks out for special places to protect amid general sacrifice of other areas -- both to feed bureaucratic machinery and to provide social commercial "goods" like wood fiber, cattle and sheep forage, recreation, etc.

Then we have at least a perceived problem of those who, Darth Vader-like, have seemingly sold out to various Dark Sides, industrial, environmental, etc.

Personal disclosure: I have been accused, and may be guilty of such a sell-out to what some consider the environmental Dark Side. But I do try to keep that particular personal tendency at bay.

Dave Iverson | Jun 10, 2005 8:39:25 AM

Posted by: Forrest Fleischman

Tom's post raises the question of education. If resource specialists are speaking different languages, if IDT teams are more multidisciplinary than interdisciplinary, it implies that our resource professional schools are not properly preparing their students to work in today's complex, interdisciplinary environment.

I have been surprised, as I have met a number of young Forest Service employees, to discover how naive they are about the complexities of environmental controversies. That is not to say that they aren't intelligent or well meaning. Wildlife biologists do not study the law, or economics, or for that matter, silviculture. It is fairly obvious from reading the new planning regulations, that the planners in Washington have not studied much of the recent literature on institutional analysis and collective action. These different disciplines all have their own languages that do not convert easily.

That is not to say that there aren't programs designed to educate young environment/resource professionals in a truly interdisciplinary fashion. I am a recent graduate of one - the Earth Systems program at the Stanford School of Earth Sciences. The program explicitly aims to develop multidimensional, interdisciplinary complex problem solving skills among its students. The goal is to produce graduates who will be able to work as problem solvers and understand the multiple disciplinary lenses through which environmental problems are understood - students graduate with a background not only in ecology and geology, but also in economics, political science, anthropology, and computer science. Of course some depth is sacrificed to achieve this depth, and students do not generally graduate with an exhaustive knowledge of any "discipline," but rather with a broad set of problem solving tools and enough knowledge to delve deeper in graduate work (as I did) or in their professional work. The program draws on the teaching of numerous disciplinary specialists, some of whom are more comfortable crossing boundaries than others (I certainly remember classes where students' were taking broader and more complex perspectives than their professors.)

In short, I graduated from a program that was doing an excellent job of training exactly the sort of interdisciplinary thinkers that the Forest Service needs. Well... A couple years ago I applied for a Forest Service position working on an IDT team for a specific large EIS on a project near my parents' home. It sounded like a position where my broad perspective would be welcomed, but instead I was told that I did not have specific coursework that was necessary for the position (As I recall, I didn't have the right number of hydrology or forestry classes) - and that I would not even be considered for the position. In fact, of the dozens of graduates of the program who I know, none have gone to work for the Forest Service, and only one works for the federal government (EPA).

Well - what are the consequences of the Forest Service not seeking out graduates of truly interdisciplinary educational programs? Of course, one consequence is the sort of conflict that Tom describes. Another is that we end up working for the Forest Service's "adversaries." While the Forest Service did not want me because of my broad, non-specific training, a small NGO hired me (Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics) to critique FS plans. Although I don't know as much as a lawyer or a hydrologist might, there are few concepts in either of these disciplines that I can't understand with a day's reading.

Finally, specialists are trained to do things in their specialty to justify their specialty. Wildlife biologists make wildlife habitat, hydrologists make water, fisheries biologists make fish habitat, silviculturalists make trees, range cons make grass, economists make money, etc. Often times when you add up all of these specialties, you get nonsense. Truly interdisciplinary perspectives allow you to see that sometimes doing nothing can be better for just about all of the resources. The desire to be unhampered by laws in order to "get things done on the ground" implies that the resources will be better off if a specialist does just the right bit of tinkering. Each specialist's tinkering partially negates the others' tinkering, and you end up with a stalemate. But at least you are getting something done, right?

How do you make an incentive structure that rewards specialists for doing less?

Forrest Fleischman | Jun 13, 2005 5:36:34 PM

Posted by: Alex Dunn

I too have been trained in an interdisciplinary, problem-solving oriented educational track, and feel many of the same biases toward specialization that Forrest speaks of here in the FS. However my personal experience since my graduate work has been almost 180 degrees different. I was hired by the FS and opted to forgo the various and relatively few jobs with NGOs, partly because of the better career opportunities with FS but more importantly because of the lack of effectiveness (and other things) I observed while working for environmental non-profits in years past.

Now, there are serious issues with both the FS and NGOs as far as "incentives to do less tinkering". I trust I dont need to explain this idea any further. Both have folks within the ranks that 1) want to "do the right thing on the ground" and use the rules in whatever way they need to to accomplish that and 2)think that they are accomplishing that goal, and 3) believe that the right thing is nothing, which in some cases is truer than false.

Certainly there is a tendency for any organization (gov or 501c3) to maintain the inertia that sustains it. Along those lines, what does the FS or FSEEE 'do', really?

Much of my work indirectly focuses on bridging disciplinary chasms and negotiating cultural barriers that have been mentioned by others here. This work goes on both internally and externally and is long-term.

One cultural barrier of particular interest to me is this perceived analysis paralysis. There are voluminous amounts of data to support both sides of the argument. Both sides use the data to argue for less or more regulatory and public oversight and participation. This is where I think the argument gets very sticky.

In my Master's research, all sides said they both "want to do the right thing on the ground". And quickly follow up with the idea that "the other side isnt playing fair--they abuse the process". People on all sides of the issues believe that its not about what processes are legitimate (appeals, lawsuits, NEPA, Collaboration), but rather whether they feel that their version of good management is implemented(read: they get what they want). The rub is that our very much 'prescribed' process for planning does not allow for people who have wildly differing cultural and disciplinary viewpoints to collectively create a shared vision as to what should happen on the ground, which involves tradeoffs. We need new processes to sort these out and collectively perceive management actions as just and beneficial. It aint through NEPA (and associated dispute reolution processes) as we know it.

Perhaps part of the problem is explained by the description of what Forrest does for FSEE: 'critique FS plans'. This back-end, reactionary way of participating happens all the time, and probably results from a perception that the FS process of identifying purposes and needs is closed to the public. Many beleive that only when a proposed action' is unveiled does real participation start. This is often identified as a result of the FS knowing what they want the decision to look like before they scope the proposed action, in many cases. In fact, I have been recently trained to never create a 'purpose and need and proposed action that is half-baked' before going out for public scoping! This aint bad if youve worked with all interested parties prior to identify that project's purpose and need. This happens sometimes, and not sometimes. It is my belief that the problems we experience with post-decisional disputes stem form a lack of agreement on the basic building blocks of the NEPA analysis: purpose and need.

As far as tinkering, we have tinkered, and will continue to tinker as long as humans inhabit this planet in the numbers that we do. We all tinker by default everyday. Furthermore, the ecosystem we live in (including human communities) is a result of human induced disturbance on a massive scale, particularly on NF lands. What do we do in the face of this reality? Simply ignore our past actions in favor of the ephemeral 'nature's way'. We are nature, or at least natural. We have done an incredible job changing the landscape in a very short period of time, with less knowledge and technology than is available to us now. Why should we assume that we cannot 'manage' the ecosystem (remember, this includes humans) into a more sustainable state than exists now?

Alex Dunn | Jun 15, 2005 11:57:08 AM

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