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July 01, 2005

Boots on the Ground
John Rupe

Recently I've heard a number of Forest Service leaders comment on a trend that they find disturbing - that when they visit district offices, they aren't finding employees spending as much time in the forest as they used to.  They would prefer employees to get their "boots on the ground" to increase visibility with the public, increase our awareness of what's going on, and generally do what we assume Forest Service employees are paid to do.  When pressed to explain why Forest Service field employees aren't in the field, the usual excuses are mentioned - too much paperwork, not enough technical support, too many meetings, etc.   

Much attention has recently focused on the trend in the Forest Service for employees to do their own administrative work on the computer - timesheets, travel reservations, training scheduling, budgeting. etc.  There are stories of employees taking an hour to make a travel reservation when they were told it should only take five minutes. 

Other employees cite planning processes as a culprit - that employees take too much time planning things and not enough time doing things. Taken to an extreme, this attitude may lead to a philosophy of shooting before we aim, but the point is that the execution of a plan needs a greater focus than its original development.

One can also wonder if what we're seeing is a reflection of a Forest Service organization that is in decline, where the biggest cuts are occurring at the field level.

I expect we'll be hearing more about this perceived problem in the future.  It will be important to ask the question why we want a greater field presence, because we certainly don't need employees just driving around looking at the scenery.  If all we want is to survey what's going on, we could always think about technological solutions (how about a camera along the main roads entering a forest?)   But if the Forest Service really wants a customer-focus, the field-presence of its employees is probably an area that needs attention.

Posted by John Rupe on July 1, 2005 at 03:11 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Jul 6, 2005 12:22:25 PM


Posted by: Independent Forester

“It will be important to ask the question why we want a greater field presence, because we certainly don't need employees just driving around looking at the scenery.”

Why not? The current set of USFS employees are indeed office paper-pushers compared to 30 years ago. In those days it was difficult to find anybody in the office, because everybody was out in the field. You had to show up at 6:30 AM if you wanted to talk to someone. Back then USFS'ers knew the forests backwards and forwards: every nook and cranny, every road, tree, and bush. The woods were their offices.

In those days, many employees spent their whole careers on a single ranger district and were long term members of the local community. Today the staff turns over every month. Field trips are adventures of discovery The new faces get lost in the forest, too. More than once I’ve found disoriented newbies out in the brush, and had to point them home.

I recall a project I did for a NF, where they assigned me a “compliance” gal who was thrilled to have her first opportunity to wear her “field uniform” after 15 years in the USFS.

I did contract stand exams in SW Oregon a few years ago. The staffer assigned to inspect my work arranged to meet me in the field. As we were walking around the project area, she asked me if that tree over there was a sugar pine. I was taken aback. I didn’t know if she was kidding or not, and somewhat suspiciously answered yes it was. Then she asked if that other tree was a Douglas-fir. I looked at her intently. “Don’t you know?” I asked. It turned out she was from Missouri, and had never seen a western forest. “On what basis can you possibly evaluate my work?” was my next question.

Current Forest Service personnel are disconnected from the forest. They have confused the map with the territory, the symbol for the substance. They have no “feeling for the organism”. That’s one of the reasons current staff do not champion the forest, and have no remorse, no sense of personal loss, when vast tracts of public forest are annihilated by catastrophic fires.

Go out there. Look at the scenery. Get to know it. Develop a relationship with the forest. Connect. Feel the organism. Whatever it is you’re doing in the office isn’t useful, anyway. Our forests are dying of neglect and disinterest. Go see them before they’re just memories in the minds of us oldtimers.

Independent Forester | Jul 10, 2005 12:55:44 AM

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