Thursday, May 09, 2013

Don't Touch Our Tree

It almost seems that a ghostly hand reaches into the federal bureaucracy every now and then to resurrect an old, bad idea.

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 that Forest
Mr. Secretary, spare our tree.
Service people would put up a fight when their traditions and prerogatives were challenged. In a recent “High Country News” article, Miller said:

"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.” 

9 comments: said...

Civil servants for the most part are the good guys. Political appointees who always want to rearrange things (often for the worse) are generally dopes appointed by presidents who know little or nothing about the agencies they "execute."

I worked in an agency under three presidents during my career. Before that I was painfully aware of the stupidity of presidents.

For example, one president did away with the question which ilicited information about the homeless, judging it as too provocative and useless.

I could go on and on about the dopy decisions made by both Democrats and Republicans.

One that springs to mind occurred during Jimmy Carter's administration when a question that had been on the Census form since 1890 was summarily removed aat the ninth hour causing the Census Bureau to spend more money on a new questionnaire (they were already printed when he assumed office). The new pols needed room for another question, poliitcally expedient at the time.

The removed question asked "place of birth of mother and POB of father. Both were very useful for gauging the success of immigrant generations, which in 1980 were expanding again.

The new question asked about ethnicity, a nebulous question at best which produces answers which are neither valid or reliable. Most folks in the USA do not identify with a foreign ancestry, preferring to answer "American."

Until 2000 the answer American was not accepted (an order from on high) and "blanked and imputed, or edited (i.e. made up).

As for the pine tree. I think it must be the Long Leaf which once covered the East Coast and extended far into the hinterland. I recommend the book 'Long Leaf' if you love this tree. Dianne

PiedType said...

Political appointees are a big part of this nation's problems. So many positions that call for experienced, knowledgeable professionals go instead to a friend of a friend of someone's relative who is utterly clueless about the work of the department he or she administers.

I've loved the US Forest Service and its pine tree and everything it stands for since I was a little girl. For Pete's sake, Washington, if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

Mal Furniss said...

My Gawd, Klade, your FS repertoire is endless. At least I hope so.

To think that I have been contributing to this issue by affiliating people with USDA Forest Service in acknowledging them in my publications. Worse, I ‘m pretty certain that if I resort to “U.S.” some editor will correct me. Writers are powerless when it comes to editors, except for USDA Forest Service ones that I know.

Larry Lassen said...

Thanks for the Pine Tree shield blog, Dick.

Bob Wray said...

Shades of a similar issue eons ago when I was still with the NC Station:

Some directive or whatever came along proposing another addition to the Pine Tree Shield -- adding another circle around the shield with the words "Woods, Water, Wildlife" to the one that said "National Forests, Research, State & Private" or some such (I may have the words and the order wrong). I reacted rather strongly and asked my Director permission to write WO directly. (This was one of those periods when WO seemed obsessed with names.) Among other things I tried to point out that emblems are meant for identification not information. Back then, if you saw an airplane with a red tail you knew immediately it was Northwest. Whether I and/or many others prevailed, the change was never made. But recent evidence indicates they never give up.

Mike Hathaway said...

I really enjoyed your most recent post. It brought back many memories regarding our time in Milwaukee. The Earl Butz comment about four branches of the government had me choking on my morning coffee I laughed so hard.

Ron Lindmark said...

Bob . . . As an old (I joined your decade last week) Naval Aviation flyboy I just have to give you a hard time about red-tailed aircraft. Perhaps the most famous "Red Tails" were the P-51 Mustangs flown by the Tuskegee Airman during WW-II. Their nickname also was 'Red Tails". They have a very interesting history. They and their restored P-51 has appeared at the annual EAA Convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. For more on their history check Tuskegee Airmen in Wikipedia.

joared said...

New execs feel duty bound to make changes -- any change, for some who truly are lacking in knowledge about the organization they administer. Glad the tree survived.

Interesting to note Char Miller is at Pomona College which is one of our several Claremont Colleges and Universities.

Jhawk 23 said...

I guess it may be just a sign of my age that I still think of the agency as the "U.S. Forest Service" and cannot recollect ever hearing the term "USDA Forest Service." It just proves the point that you make, that when it comes to government agencies, the average citizen cares less about what it's named, than what it does.

In my own area of experience, foreign relations, we've had the US Agency for International Development and the US Information Agency going through the constantly revolving door that you describe, as Congress variously decided to meld one or both of them into the Department of State -- usually without much longterm success.

For the empire-builders and centralizers, t's worth remembering, too, that if an agency goes rogue, an alias may be a handy thing. I'm sure the Dept. of the Treasury these days is pretty happy that we don't call the IRS the "Department of the Treasury IRS!"