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Struggling to Boost Forest Service Morale

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

When cowboys and school kids sing "Home, home on the range. . . . Where seldom is heard a discouraging word," they probably aren't thinking about employees of the U.S. Forest Service.

But on the nearly 200 million acres of forests and grasslands the service manages, there are plenty of discouraging words to be heard. The grumbling is so bad that the agency's low morale was the focus of a recent congressional hearing.

Prison guards "enjoy their jobs more than park rangers," Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said during a hearing of the House subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands. "We want to find out why."

While trying to figure that out, Grijalva wants to put more staffers into the national forests, parks and other public lands through legislation the House Natural Resources Committee will consider today. His Public Land Service Corps Act would train public land managers to fix trails, clean campgrounds, control erosion and restore marine systems along the oceans and Great Lakes.

Yesterday, Grijalva, who chairs the subcommittee, said morale among public lands workers has "markedly improved in the last few months" because of optimism that the Obama administration will change Bush administration policies that frustrated and angered some staff members.

But on the ground, that optimism hasn't morphed into reality yet.

Morale is "the lowest that I've ever seen in the forest service," Ron Thatcher, president of the Forest Service Council, a unit of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said yesterday.

Thatcher, based in Libby, Mont., home to Kootenai National Forest, has more than three decades of experience with the agency. A huge problem, he said, developed after the Bush administration centralized personnel operations. That led to staffers not getting paid on time or being compensated at a lower rate despite a promotion and the slow processing of personnel actions, he complained.

The Forest Service motto, "caring for the land and serving people," doesn't seem to apply to the people who work there.

"Service to the employees," Thatcher said, "it's just not happening."

When Hank Kashdan, the Forest Service's associate chief, testified before the subcommittee, he initially sounded like a cheerleader. "Forest Service employees are 'fired up and ready to go' in implementing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act," he told the panel.

But later, he grew more candid and acknowledged that the agency's centralized business operations "has had a strong effect on morale."

The blow to morale "is particularly notable for employees and managers accustomed to receiving advice and service from an employee with whom, in most cases, they had a personal relationship," Kashdan said. "Now, under the centralized model of business operations, that service person is not on the field or headquarters unit any more."

On consolidating human resources operations in Albuquerque, Kashdan said: "To be blunt, this implementation did not go well."

The Forest Service seldom draws much attention from an official Washington focused on bailouts, health care and war. Yet, the complaints of those who work in the woods provide lessons for managers in stately headquarters in agencies all across Washington.

"The issue of their professional integrity is really a big deal with the career people," Grijalva said of public land employees. "They feel their professional integrity was not taken into account" under Bush-era practices, he added.

While an image of Smokey the Bear might come to mind when we think of our national forests and parks, the Forest Service employs many scientists -- including geologists and botanists -- as well as engineers and technicians.

Mark Davis, the union's legislative chairman, blamed the low morale on "the general erosion of the ability of the employees to do the work they were hired to do." He cited "a particular loss of faith in the leadership of the agency."

That's borne out by the Best Places to Work report, published by the Partnership for Public Service and American University's Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation. Based on surveys last year of federal workers, the report ranks the Forest Service 206 out of 216 agencies.

Though the service can't get much worse than that, it managed to rank a pitiful 209 in the category that measures the level of respect employees have for senior leaders and staff perceptions about senior leaders' honesty, integrity and ability to motivate employees.

"I love this agency. I've worked for it for 30 years," Thatcher said. "I'd want my kids to work for this agency. But it has to turn around."

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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