Sunday, July 18, 2010

Book Review: Jack Ward Thomas: The Journals of Forest Service Chief

This book was a surprise.  I had low expectations going into it -- it wasn't a work I had much interest in reading prior to 'winning' it at the Forest History Society breakfast meeting in Portland back in March.  There were some really good books given away at that breakfast, and what did I get stuck with?  A tome that I fully expected to be laced with a lot of self-serving revisionist history.  I had never heard anything bad about Chief Thomas, but like most federal employees I'm pretty skeptical about the folks in the Washington offices.  After all, who in their right mind would actually want  to manage any federal agency? 

Turns out the answer to that question is not Jack Ward Thomas, at least according to him.  He had been the lead agency scientist dealing with the spotted owl controversy in the Pacific Northwest so had plenty of first-hand experience with Congressional committees and the mess politics can make of what to the professionals in the field look like pretty straightforward issues. He had even spent most of his career deliberately avoiding the training that would make him eligible for the Senior Executive Service (a prerequiste for anyone aspiring to the Chief's seat in DC; by tradition it was strictly a civil service position, not a political appointment).  All the previous chiefs had been foresters, a term that means a lot more within the Forest Service than it does to the general public because, among other things, it implies management responsibilities, and had along the way served as a forest supervisor or regional forester.  Thomas came from the wildlife research side of the agency, a dramatic switch for an agency that worships the memory of Gifford Pinchot.  Although Thomas doesn't dwell on it, by coming from wildlife rather than from forestry, he had to know there a huge old boy network within the agency that he had never been and never would be part of.  He was also the first Chief to be a political appointtee, and that he does dwell on -- he wasn't happy about it, and reiterates numerous times that he really wanted whoever succeeded him to be a return to the old tradition.

Thomas also doesn't speculate much about why he got tapped in 1992 by the Clinton administration to replace Chief Dale Robertson, but given his background -- wildlife management, not forestry -- and his involvement with the spotted owl study it seems like a fairly obvious signal to the environmental activist community that the new administration wasn't going to let the 'timber shop' drive the agency any longer.  Unfortunately, as Thomas makes clear, if there was any relationship that personified the dilemma of your friends causing more problems than your enemies, it might be that between environmental activists and the Clinton administration.  Thomas's descriptions of well-designed plans being stymied by the group they had been designed to help reminded me of a quote attributed to President Warren G. Harding -- Harding reportedly said he could deal with his enemies, but "Lord, save me from my friends."  Invariably, at least from Thomas's perspective, the result of environmental activism was to create more long-term problems than it solved.

It didn't help that the perception within the Forest Service, a perception that contributed a great deal to damaging employee morale, was that the Clinton administration was bending over backwards to cater to the environmentalists in an effort to gain the support of urban voters in Portland, Seattle, and other west coast cities.  There's no doubt a great deal of truth in that.  The problem was (and still is) that the environmental movement is extremely diverse, it includes people holding a wide range of opinions, and an action that satisfies one segment of that movement is almost always guaranteed to anger another.  Industry, in contrast, could easily present a unified message.  End result?  Major headaches out in the field, as local staff had to cope with demonstrations and protests, and major headaches in Washington, as Thomas and others tried to satisfy Congress.

Of course, one thing that employees in the field could not know for sure, but that Thomas was seeing up close was the penchant of administration officials, political appointees like Leon Panetta, to ignore the advice coming from within the agency.  Field staff from the various agencies involved in natural resource management -- Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, and so on -- would spend many months working on Environmental Impact Statements, soliciting public comments, exploring various alternates -- and then just before a plan, after years of work, was finally going to be implemented,  the White House would get a phone call from someone with a lot of personal influence and almost no actual knowledge of the facts on the ground,  and that was that.  Thomas mentions several examples of being blindsided by Panetta or someone else in the administration.  It's actually moderately amazing he stayed on as Chief as long as he did -- the job sounds like one long exercise in frustration.

Whether or not the Clinton administration was any better or worse than any other at engaging in micromanaging and second guessing the professional civil service is, of course, debatable.  If anything, it was probably typical.  Every administration comes in totally convinced that the outgoing administration managed to staff the upper levels of every agency with party hacks, various lobbyists had undo influence, and that policy was being driven totally by political considerations.  They spend a huge amount of time trying to 'clean house,' and by the time they figure out that some of the agency professionals do actually know what they're doing, they're running out of time to accomplish anything worthwhile before the next election.  And then it starts all over again.

Thomas does seem to have a thoroughly low and essentially nonpartisan opinion of politicians in general.  The Republicans might be industry tools, but the Democrats are equally lazy and ill-informed.  Hearings are called, but Senators and Representatives put in only token appearances, with a typical  Congressman or Senator showing up just long enough to do a little posturing that will make a good sound bite for the news media back in his or her home state and then vanishing.  After sitting through numerous Congressional hearings and seeing how remarkably ignorant and lazy the typical Congress critter was, Thomas is quietly appalled by his growing realization that what was actually shaping U.S. environmental policy is litigation.  Where does the real power in the federal government lie?  The Department of Justice.  DOJ decides which rules to enforce through criminal prosecution or civil litigation, DOJ decides which cases need to work their way up through the appeals process and which they'll try to find fast out of court settlements for, and they'll do it all without bothering to consult with the technical experts in any of the natural resource management agencies.  The hearings, the discussions, the fact-finding efforts are all just theater -- it's DOJ that decides what's actually going to happen.

Thomas's descriptions of some of the Senators and Representatives he had to deal with make it obvious politicians do not get elected based on brains.  It's quite clear he's convinced that the late Helen Chenoweth made the proverbial box of rocks look sentient in comparison, and Larry Craig wasn't much better.  Maybe it was something in the water in Idaho?

Overall, this book proved to be much more interesting than I was anticipating.  It was also oddly reassuring.  We hear so much these days about the partisan bickering in Washington, the inability of Congress to work together, and the general gridlock when it comes to changing or implementing policy.  But as I was reading this book, it read as though Thomas could have been writing his journal entries last month, not almost 20 years ago.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Should I be comforted by the fact that politicians haven't changed much, that Cabinet secretaries still fight turf battles, and that sometimes the good stuff that comes out of a decision is the result of unintended consequences and not actual thought?  Probably not, but it was reassuring to see that no matter what weirdness happens in DC there are still career civil servants out in the field fighting the good fight and doing their best to hold back chaos.

[A minor side note:  as a civil servant myself, one of the things that amused me was Thomas grousing about his annual performance review.  He's the Chief of the Forest Service, and he's as unhappy as any GS-4 technician about getting dinged for being less than "exceptional" on one aspect of the review.  It's the one thing everyone in federal service has in common -- we're all convinced our supervisors don't have a clue when they're assessing how good we are at our jobs.]


  1. Whatever, but I sure don't want others moving here to my beautiful area.

    A man that has followed my blogs for a few years was here on vacation and we got together a few times but then he went home, and that is fine with me.

    I posted about him being here.

  2. His story validates much of my very grief experience in DC in the late 1970's. It is so sad that there are so many smart committed people working so hard to get it right and so few people in power to do the right thing who do it so infrequently.


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