Daina Dravnieks Apple

May 15, 2000  

            The Forest Service has been cited as one of the best managed agencies in the government.  The agency gained national respect during the Great Depression and emerged from World War II expanding its mission from primarily custodial management to supplier of natural resource commodities such as timber.  It was also a professional monoculture largely made up of white male foresters, and was soon to encounter strong socio-political pressures to accommodate environmental values and more open, democratic decision making.  This paper will explore how the structure and culture of the Forest Service contributed to development of an agency considered to be one of the best in the government; how these same strengths prevented the agency from learning and adjusting to social and political changes; and how these pressures led to both internal conflicts and external conflicts.

            As the country's largest, oldest, and most powerful land management agency, the Forest Service has often been praised for its professionalism, effectiveness, and esprit de corps (Kaufman, 1960).  In the 1950's and 1960's the Forest Service experienced relatively little public or Congressional criticism, and forest recreation users and environmentalists had not yet voiced their interests, and the agency had rarely been taken to court to defend its policies.  But its defense of its clearcuttng and other forest management controversies on National Forests, and the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969 signaled a change.

            The Forest Service since 1969 has been criticized for focusing too much on the management and development of the National Forests' commodity values, especially timber and grazing, and for insufficient attention to noncommodity values such as wildlife, wilderness, and recreation.  It has also been criticized for not responding to shifting societal demands concerning these values.   Nevertheless, a number of observers argued that the Forest Service had been changing (Brown and Harris, 1992; Kennedy, 1988).  They point to sustained pressure on the agency over the past several decades, from growing environmental awareness in the country and increased public attention to the National Forests and other public lands.  Significant new legislation emerged during this period, including the Wilderness Act of 1964, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the National Forest Management Act of 1976 (NFMA), and others.  Some argue that these laws, as well as a number of important court decisions, have made the Forest Service pay closer attention to the noncommodity and environmental values of the National Forests.  Such laws have also increased opportunities for the public to become involved in, and to hold the agency accountable for, National Forest planning decisions.  Very recently, several authors concluded that Forest Service planning decisions are now more strongly influenced by local "amenity coalitions" than even by hierarchical controls from Congress, or the Forest Service national office (Sabatier, Loomis, and McCarthy, 1995).

            These external pressures have, in turn, led to internal pressures.  Interdisciplinary planning and decision making required by NEPA and NFMA, as well as affirmative action decisions made by the courts, led the agency to hire and promote greater numbers of women, minorities, and nonforestry professionals.  Some argue that the increased presence of nontraditional employees has resulted in a greater diversity of ideas and perspectives, which is likely to affect the agency's world view and eventual management and policy decisions.

            Mahler defines organization learning as the capacity of organizations to change themselves in response to experience; to monitor their operations, their environment, and their clients for clues to the adequacy of their performance.  The culture of the organization guides learning.  Examination of the evolution of Forest Service culture will show how this strong culture interpreted and shaped the lessons employees learned, how they made decisions, and why resistance to change lasted so long and why change is still so difficult.

Evolution and impact of Forest Service Culture

            The Forest Service officially began as a land management agency in 1905.  In that year, the Transfer Act gave this small agency responsibility for 60 million acres of remote western land.  In the years since 1905, the agency has seen its land base more than triple to 191 million acres, and its personnel increase in number to rival that of many large federal departments.  It also developed a reputation for being a "superstar" agency (Clarke and McCool, 1985).

            In 1960, Kaufman sought to answer the question of how the Forest Service overcame the multitude of "centrifugal forces," including distance, variety of setting, and an ideology of decentralization, to function as a model of bureaucratic effectiveness.  He thought a high degree of unity was maintained because employees performed tasks with compliance and conformity.  Kaufman described the ranger as a pivotal player in national forest administration:  as executive planner and woodsman whose chief responsibility was to shape elaborate, detailed directions from above to meet the needs of the local situation.  In doing so, the rangers felt as though they were exercising large amounts of discretion, yet their actions were generally shaped by and approved of by the organization.

            According to Kaufman, the Forest Service successfully used administrative procedures not only for their stated administrative purposes but also to reinforce a culture of voluntary conformity.  For example, he described the frequent movement of field personnel as designed to provide employees with a wide range of experience, and make rangers less subject to local pressure, in keeping with agency policy for advancement through the ranks.  Yet, he noted, this had the added effect of making the Forest Service the primary factor in an individual's life, the only continuity and structure in an otherwise always changing world.  To these he added standardized recruitment, selection and staffing, reporting requirements, training, and the use of language and symbols.  Yet, despite the picture of strong socialization efforts and numerous control mechanisms, Kaufman concluded that the organization remained flexible and open to new ideas.


            In "The Role of Institutionalization in Cultural Persistence" (1977), Zucker described institutionalization as an "establishment of relative permanence of a distinctly social sort," which has to do with cultural persistence, that is, becomes adopted as part of a mind map circumscribing behavior.  He found that the greater the degree of institutionalization, the greater the uniformity, maintenance, and resistance to change of cultural understandings.  The Forest Service and the forestry profession both involve commitment to a social establishment intended to do permanent things, and thus to be relatively permanent themselves.  The more than 90 years of forestry training and bureaucracy in this country derives from over a century and a quarter of professional and bureaucratic development in Prussia and Germany.  The subsequent training of the first U.S. professional staff using German instructors, texts, and technology was also influential in cultural development and maintenance of the organization.


            Over time, then, both through institutional patterning and through repetition of personnel practices noted by Kaufman, Forest Service cultural persistence and uniformity became well established.  The Forest Service developed into a well-run, effective agency, and continued relatively unchanged for most of its history.  Each of its first five decades was dedicated only to refining its self-concept of tree-farming, with little pressure to rethink its direction or goals.  Not until the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960's and 1970's did it face any serious challenges to its management or purpose.

What is Organizational Culture?

            James Q. Wilson states that every organization has a culture - a persistent way of thinking about the central tasks and human relations within an organization.  It is passed on from one generation to the next, and changes slowly, if at all.   (Wilson, 1989)  According to Wilson, a definition of organizational culture includes:  "the process of inculcating points of view,  fundamental attitudes, loyalties, to the organization...that will result in subordinating individual interests...to the good of the whole."  An organization acquires a distinctive competence (what it actually does better than any other) or sense of mission when it has not only answered the question "What shall we do?' but also the question "What shall we be?"  Wilson notes that this leads to the establishment of core tasks that are linked to distinctive competence of the organization.  It is the core of the organization's self-concept - of what it is there to do.  When an organization's goals are vague, different definitions of core tasks develop for different people.  This results in the development of different subunits, and organizations can have several cultures.  (While the goals of the Forest Service are clear, the priorities for achieving them often are not clear, thus leading to a similar dynamic described by Wilson, and resulting in internal conflicts between employees who hold dissonant beliefs and values.)

            Both Wilson and E.H.Shein (1988), discuss the powerful impact of strong founders in shaping organizational cultures.  They can instill a sense of mission in an organization which confers a feeling of special worth on the members, provides a basis for recruiting and socializing new members, and enables administrators to economize on the use of other incentives.  Wilson cites the creation of the Forest Service in 1905 as an example of how a leader successfully developed a sense of mission that persists to this day.

            Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the Forest Service, was a charismatic man, and a personal friend of President Theodore Roosevelt.  After returning from France where he received professional training in forestry, and subsequent exposure to German and Swiss forestry, he founded the Forest Service in 1905.  Pinchot recruited very selectively and considered it an elite service whose members were expected to conform to a strict code of conduct.  The organization was hierarchical and had strong management controls, and was able to manage millions of acres all across the United States without succumbing to local dominant political influence groups.  To this day Pinchot is revered by most Forest Service employees as the symbol of the Nation's land and natural resource ethic, exemplified in his vision that National Forests should be managed "For the greatest good for the greatest number, for the long term."

Recent Challenges to Traditional Forest Service Culture and Management

            The last 20 years have been a time of transformation of the Forest Service.  The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), and the National Forest Management Act of 1976 (NFMA) coincided with the most significant period of change that the Forest Service has undergone since it was established at the turn of the century.  While many of the forces that have transformed the Forest Service are the same forces that led to the passage of NEPA, NFMA, and the Endangered Species Act, these three laws have accelerated and stimulated the Forest service to change.

            Although Kaufman described the management of the National Forests in the late 1950's as complex and guided by a multiple-use mission, legislation enacted in the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's made the challenge even more complex by expanding the agency's responsibilities.  The Multiple-Use-Sustained-Yield Act of 1906, the Wilderness act of 1964, the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the National Trails System Act of 1968, the Clean Air Amendments of 1970 and 1977, the Surface Mining and Minerals Act of 1971, the Clean Water Act Amendments of 1972 and 1977, and other less well-known pieces of legislation such as the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1989 all served to broaden the scope of activities and objectives for which land is to be managed.  They reflect public demands, especially from the urban sector.  No longer are timber, range, and fire the dominant resource concerns of the Forest Service.  Nor are uses of the National Forests for recreation and wildlife management merely secondary purposes, as they were into the late 1950's.  The result has been a broadening of the mission regarding National Forest management from multiple-use management of a few key commodity resources, to a much broader policy of management and protection of biologically diverse areas in the National Forests.  This expanded charge has greatly complicated the work of the organization.

            As the content areas of work have expanded, so have the processes by which the Forest Service is directed to manage them.  All the natural resource laws enacted since 1970 impose process requirements on the Forest Service that did not exist at the time of Kaufman's book.  For example, NEPA requires the Forest Service to conduct analyses of proposed actions to determine their environmental consequences and to do so in a way that involves the public.  Further, the Forest Service developed prescriptive management planning requirements through formal rule making and internal directives, all of which opened up the decision making process and made it more complex.

            Mahler (1997) notes that though culture has most often been seen as a source of resistance or source of defensive routines to learning and change, it also serves as a basis for the interpretation of conditions and experiences that prompt learning.  Because of the changes in mission and process, and because of external political and economic forces, the organizational culture of the Forest Service evolved to emphasize responsiveness and representativeness as well as efficiency and economy.  Field line officers, such as Forest Supervisors and Rangers, in the past interacted with the public in two primary ways:  First, through information and education programs, and second, during transactions of business that directly affected a member or group of the public (such as issuing grazing permits).  These forms of interaction were primarily one-way and tended to portray the Ranger as the expert, the local authority, and manager-in-charge.

            In today's post-NEPA, and NFMA era, the Ranger is being asked to play a larger role.  Although the Ranger is still a line manager overseeing and setting policy for projects on the ground, the District Ranger is also serving as facilitator of public dialogue about forest management policy within the local community.  Communications have become more two-way in this era of interdisciplinary planning and extensive public involvement.  Accordingly, these executives in the field must today have stronger skills in small group facilitation, negotiation, and dispute resolution than ever before.

Interdisciplinary Teams as Change Agents

            Specific requirements of new laws such as NEPA and NFMA pushed the Forest Service to make further organizational changes.  For example, NEPA requires a detailed statement of the environmental impact of proposed actions, and challenged the past policy of keeping Forest Service decision making totally internally controlled.  The environmental impact statement process opened agencies to the public, the press, interest groups, and the courts.  It changed planning from linear forecasting to multiple scenario strategy planning, a much more complex and open process.  It also mandated an interdisciplinary approach to ensure integrated use of natural and social sciences and the design arts (landscape architecture) in planning and decision making.  This resulted in the hiring of wildlife biologists, archaeologists, and economists who were not traditionally employed by the Forest Service.  These new and different professionals formed interdisciplinary teams that increased the diversity of values and skills in Forest Service planning and management, although initially few were decision makers.  These new professionals also reflected the variety of National Forest values in the urbanizing American culture of the 1970's, and became voices of challenge and confrontation inside the agency.  Agency values and conclusions were often challenged, both by employees and the public, which questioned the appropriateness of some Forest Service traditions and management practices. 

            The Forest Service implementation of NEPA and NFMA produced not only a greater variety of professionals in the Forest Service with expertise beyond the traditional and limited forestry focus, but improved the information and analysis prepared for decisions.  This resulted in better documentation of decisions, and more thoughtful consideration of impacts.

            Also, by involving the public, as required by NEPA, communication across organizational boundaries occurred to a greater degree than it had before, which led to increased opportunities for organizational learning.  As Kettl (1994) points out, organizational boundaries are the crucial site for learning and effective learning requires organizations to examine what is happening in the broader environment to assess the implications of these events for the organization's mission, and to adapt to those new challenges.

            In response to increasing scrutiny given to Forest Service decisions and increasing legal requirements placed on agency decision making, the Forest Service consolidated authority at higher levels and standardized procedures.  The purpose was to better control variations in management that created increased vulnerability to challenges that the agency had inconsistent management practices that were applied subjectively.  As Federal legislation established more agency-wide standards, and as Forest Service decisions became more politicized, the Forest Service's Washington Office role increased correspondingly.  The agency now recognized that the key to its success was not just dealing with local interests, as in the past, but dealing with regional and national lobbying groups and pressures.

            In recognizing that many natural resource management issues cross administrative jurisdictions such as states, the Forest Service has begun to implement projects on a regional basis.  An example of such an approach is a recent set of 12 large scale watershed restoration projects across the country where the Forest Service is collaborating with states, local governments, other Federal agencies, and non-governmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited, to restore degraded watersheds.  The results of these projects are being monitored and will be evaluated for their potential to be expanded into even more watersheds across the country.  As a result of these successful efforts, the agency also recently began a major program to increase training and development of employees in collaborative stewardship to strengthen their skills in negotiation and collaboration with the public.

            In spite of the agency's progress, the fact that its priorities are still somewhat incongruent with what employees believe they should be suggests obstacles that constrain further change.  The agency and its employees are greatly influenced by Congressional mandates, executive orders, and court decisions.  Organizational customs, norms, and traditions also exert powerful influences on members at all levels of the organization.  Many of the challenges facing the agency are not likely to be easily solved. 


            In their recent article on managing disruptive change, Christiansen and Overdorf (2000) propose ways an organization can develop new capabilities to respond. They suggest three possible ways to do this:

            1) create new organizational structures within the existing boundaries in which new processes can be developed,

            2) spin out an independent organization from the existing organization and develop within it the processes and values required to solve the new problem,

            3) acquire a different organization whose processes and values closely meet the requirements of the new task. (Although this would appear to apply more to the private sector, contracting with outside groups might be adapted to meet this strategy).

            The Forest Service has been applying the first two concepts by setting up pilot projects throughout the country to try out new ways of doing business that can meet new challenges. Examples include using business plans as part of new project proposals, and having units compete for funding instead of distributing funds equally among units.

            The Forest Service is also encouraging entrepreneurial activities within the organization through Enterprise Teams where groups of employees with specialized skills (e.g. content analysis of public comments on environmental impact statements; expertise in hydrology and related water resource issues; editing skills) organize themselves into a virtual group (they are not usually located in the same geographical area), and offer their services to the rest of the organization.  These Enterprise Teams compete, and those that deliver high quality results efficiently get repeat business. This creates the unique situation where a federal employee can retain job security while having the freedom to innovate and compete. This helps the Forest Service to increase its capacity for being a learning organization.

            It will be important for the Forest Service to preserve its strengths while forming a new culture, as it learns to accommodate the ambiguity and complexity of a diverse and more open organizational culture to reflect the diversity in both the ecosystems it manages and the increasingly urban, post-industrial American society that it serves.


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