We find complex systems theory chatter in every nook and cranny: ecosystem management, adaptive management, business management, physics, chemistry, weather forecasting. But what do we make of it? Dale Deiter, from the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, recently used complex systems theory as a backdrop in working up a vision statement for the IPNF. Perchance if we'd take time to explore this terrain we would find ourselves working in an adaptive and resilient organizational environment. But instead we seem to continue not to get it for the most part. So if you are inclined to want to think about the SO as "Support Organization" instead of "Supervisors Office" then take a look at Dale's 'little dose of real reality'. 3 pages. d.

A Little Dose of Real Reality
Dale Deiter*

Before summarizing my vision statement for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests I wanted to add a little scientific context to the discussion. This context is rooted in the sciences of Complexity and its cousin, Chaos. Complexity is an interdisciplinary science that examines fundamental patterns of behavior of complex adaptive systems. Complex adaptive systems are everything from neural networks in the brain, to you the person reading this, to the stock market, to ecosystems, to the weather, and even entities such as Districts and Forests in the Forest Service. An important feature of complex adaptive systems is that behavior of the system is better predicted by examining how the components of the system interact and function rather than focussing on what parts make up the system. The behavior patterns that have been identified with regards to complex adaptive systems appear to apply universally and there is no reason to expect that the Idaho Panhandle National Forests has been granted a special waiver.

It has been my understanding that with reorganization, which has turned out to be downsizing, centralization and zoning, we wanted an organization that can continually adapt to changing environments. I've included a couple of quotes from two books on Complexity that I think are germane to the reorganizing exercises that we have conducted in the past couple of years and I think that they predict rather accurately the dysfunctional behavior that most of us have observed and experienced.

Thus, in our reorganizing it would be desirable to maintain the characteristics of a complex adaptive system. These characteristics include:

In my opinion, the centralizing and zoning exercises that we have undertaken so far lead to top down systems that suffers the frailties described below.

A little dose of my version of reality

I have included this section to supply additional context to how my vision statement was developed. The IPNF Management Team successfully identified that one constant that we can anticipate is change. However, unless we can travel at speeds of near that of light, our space-time continuum will remain relatively constant and retain its current dimensions. Said in English, the land that we manage does not seem to be getting any smaller nor do we have any more time than we used to. This has the predictable outcome that it is not efficient to centralize and zone those functions that require interaction with the land or the customers that use the land. For those functions that are independent of the land (space) that we manage, centralizing and zoning may well be appropriate. Modern communications allow us to exchange information at near light speeds, but I have yet to see modern communications that could build a fish structure or mark a tree or find a goshawk nest. Last I checked we are still a LAND management agency. If land management is going to require some kind of interaction with the land then I do not believe that centralizing and zoning is a universally good "way to go". If land management is going to require us to infinitely plan on what to plan to plan, then our current organization is more than adequate.

On another line of thought, I mentioned previously that an important feature of complex adaptive systems is that behavior of the system is better predicted by examining how the components of the system interact and function rather than focussing on what parts make up the system. Now examine two of the decision rules used in the North Zone reorganization (1) get rid of 20 some positions and (2) retain only 6 staff. This exercise was clearly focussed on the parts of the system rather than on the functions and interactions that we wanted to maintain. As an example, if the downsizing team would have focussed on functions and interactions they would have realized that each District defines TSI differently. Instead, the team concensus was each District gets 2 people in TSI. In this regard I must side (only a little) with any cynical public that would wonder how we can sustainably maintain ecosystem functions when we cannot even maintain the function of our organization.

A Vision

I believe that a vision statement should be concise and easy to remember and it should be revolutionary. So I fasted for several days in a dark room high upon a remote table top in my house and came up with the vision that the Idaho Panhandle National Forests should "Care for the land and serve people!" This vision statement provides concise criteria against which to evaluate our actions. I feel that hierarchical functions and interactions need to be maintained to successfully achieve this vision at all scales, but I believe that successfully achieving this vision must be accomplished from the ground up.

Chaos has been bantered about as the desired state for the IPNF - trying to get across the idea that "change is good". By definition, "a chaotic system generates behavior giving the appearance of complete randomness by means of a purely deterministic rule." Casti 1994. Although this definition seems to match the behavior of the IPNF, I hardly think that this is a suitable behavior for an agency that must interact with and serve the public as we strive to manage our nations' resources sustainably over the long term. Rather than managing for the chaotic, I vote that we manage for the complex.

We can maintain the complex by having a truly empowered and integrated workforce that has a wide diversity of ideas and skills. The workforce must have an awareness that caring for the land and serving people is everyones' job - so you have engineers informing biologists of wildlife sightings and biologists cleaning a plugged culvert or throwing a few rocks off the road. Whatever the collective Forest Service finds necessary to "Care for the land and serve people" so should the individual find necessary and visa versa. It is all of our jobs to "Care for the land and serve people." My vision is that we reestablish our ties with the land and that we accomplish our mission in not only an inter-disciplinary fashion, but in a intra-disciplinary fashion as well.

With regards to the organization, my vision is that the Districts be at the top of the money food chain instead of at the bottom. Aside from a skeleton of programs that provide for the Forest Service mission at broader scales, I believe that the Districts should fund those services at the SO, RO, and WO levels that the Districts find useful and necessary to care for the land and serve people. If funding is not done from the bottom up then the overhead take should not exceed 20 percent to maximize funding at the level where the majority of our mission is accomplished. And before I wake up, it is my vision that SO should stand for (in the words of one real life Forest Supervisor) Support Organization rather than Supervisor's Office.

* Dale Deiter is a forester on the Bonners Ferry District of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests who refers to himself as a "Caretaker of the Northeast Section of the North Zone of the IPNF". Dale recently submitted this "vision statement" to the Forest Supervisor as a part of a visioning exercise for the IPNF.