OF THE FOREST SERVICE TOWARD A LEARNING ORGANIZATION
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Brown, G. and C.C. Harris, 1992.
“The Forest Service: Changing
of the Guard." Natural
Resources Journal, 32.
C.M. and M. Overdorf. 2000.
“Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change.” Harvard Business Review,
J.N. and D. McCool. 1985. Staking
out the Terrain: Power
Differentials Among Natural Resource Management Agencies.
State University of New York Press, Albany.
H. 1960. The Forest Ranger:
A Study in Administrative Behavior.
Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
J.J. 1988. "Legislative
Confrontation of Groupthink in U.S. Natural Resource Agencies."
Environmental Conservation, 15(2).
D.F. 1994. "Managing on the
Frontiers of Knowledge: The Learning Organization." in New Paradigms for
Government: Issues for the Changing
Public Service. Jossey-Bass
Publishers, San Francisco.
"Influences of Organizational Culture on Learning in Public
Agencies." J. of Public
Administration Research and Theory, 4.
P.A., J. Loomis, and C. McCarthy. 1995.
"Hierarchical Controls, Professional Norms, Local Constituencies,
and Budget Maximization: An
Analysis of U.S. Forest Service Planning Decisions."
American J. of Political Science, 39(1).
Organizational Culture and Leadership.
Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
Bureaucracy: What Government
Agencies Do and Why they Do It. Basic
Books. New York.
"The Role of Institutionalization in Cultural Persistence." American Sociological Review, 42.
OTHER REFERENCES CONSULTED
C. 1991. "The Use of Knowledge
as a Test for Theory: The Case of
Public Administration." J. of
Public Administration Research and Theory, 3.
J.S. and P. Deguid. 1991. Organizational
Learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward
a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation."
Organization Science, 2(1).
B. and J.G. March. 1988. "Organizational
Learning." Ann. Reviews
J.R., S.B. Ehrlich, and J.M. Dukerich. 1985.
"The Romance of Leadership."
Administrative Science Quarterly, 30.
Senge, P.M. 1990. "The Leader's New Work: Building Learning Organizations." Sloan Management Review, 32(1).