Back in the 1970s, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, a Nixon appointee, sought to diminish the stature of the U.S. Forest Service as he took a reactionary stance in the face of growing environmental concerns. Butz made it clear that one of his under secretaries would be running the show, not the Chief of the Forest Service who traditionally had operated rather independently.
According to Char Miller, who directs the environmental analysis program at
Pomona College in California
and writes frequently on western resource management topics, Butz soon learned
Service people would put up a fight when their traditions and
prerogatives were challenged. In a recent “High Country News” article, Miller
|Mr. Secretary, spare our tree.|
"Earl Butz . . . was a profane man known for his hair-trigger temper and rough handling of subordinates. So when the Chief of the Forest Service stood him up for a meeting, Butz unloaded in response: 'There are four branches of government,' he reportedly snarled, 'the executive, legislative, judicial and the Gawd-damn U.S. Forest Service.'”
Butz wasn’t the only Secretary of Agriculture, Republican or Democrat, who sought to tighten control over the Forest Service. Although agency chiefs gradually were forced to yield considerable decision-making power to the parent department, they succeeded in maintaining a degree of distance from politics at the top of the Forest Service. To this day every chief has been a career natural resource professional, not an inexperienced political appointee.
Agriculture asserted its predominance in another way. This idea was to change the way people referred to the Forest Service and the other 19 agencies USDA supervised. That was done after a “study” by department design specialists resulted in publication of a “USDA Design Manual.”
The design manual mandated use of “USDA Forest Service” instead of the traditional “U.S. Forest Service” in publications and news releases and on exhibits, letterheads, and elsewhere. There was no choice.
Those of us who headed Forest Service publishing and public information units were told clearly at a national meeting that the new identification specs were mandatory, not just guidelines. There were a few veiled references to the ability of the Department of Agriculture to cause withdrawal of our regional authorities to publish if we did not comply.
We complied, but we didn't like it. Old hands grumbled and continued to privately proclaim they worked for the “U.S. Forest Service.” They thought the change was akin to the U.S. Marines suddenly becoming known as the USDOD Marines. Upon retirement, no longer in the clutches of the Secretary of Agriculture, I and a great many others immediately dropped the USDA label in our writings and public statements. The U.S. Forest Service lived on, although unofficially.
In the big scheme of things, small matters like agency labeling tend to escape media attention. The general public, understandably and rightly so, is interested in what government does or doesn't do, and cares very little about the precise identity of its agents. To federal workers, however, the name of the outfit they work for is an important morale factor. Most of those I've known share a desire to identify with a well-defined group known to do quality work, just as most private sector employees do.
Recently, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack dredged up the old name game as a pet project. Officials wasted gobs of time and money over three years developing “One Brand.” The idea was to cancel all traditional agency signs and symbols and replace them with one Department of Agriculture logo. Guess what? The change was made quietly by issuing a “Visual Standards Guide.” Sound familiar? Shades of the 70s!
The directive stripped the Forest Service of its pine tree emblem, in one form or another, the mark of the agency since 1910. Current employees had to gnash their teeth and quietly accept the order. Retirees didn’t have to conform, and they didn’t. They went on the attack, bombarding Vilsack, members of congress, and anyone else who would listen with objections. According to Char Miller:
“Their opposition took on the air of a revival meeting. They talked about the emblematic power of the Pine Tree logo to bind them to one another and to the land they helped steward. The evocative shield and the uniform to which it was pinned testified to their devoted public service, they said. Shedding these symbols, and the emotional attachments they held, seemed like a deliberate attack on their collective history. These defenders proved a potent collective, and so overwhelming was their opposition that it forced the Agriculture Department’s hand.”
“In a one-sentence release April 4, the department granted the Forest Service an exemption to its One Brand directive. You could hear the hosannas from agency retirees and staffers a mile off.”
Miller titled his commentary, “Don’t Mess with the Forest Service.”
Of course, the headline was designed merely as an attention getter. Miller ended his article with a more important statement:
“As the dustup with the Forest Service suggests, a proud institutional history is a sustaining source of workplace identity and individual satisfaction. That’s a core value even Earl Butz might have respected.”