The Forest Service Chief

by Randal O'Toole

I do not usually make political prognostications, but I feel fairly safe in predicting that the U.S.D.A. Forest Service will not survive the next decade. I expect that the next Secretary of the Interior will propose to combine the Forest Service into the Department of the Interior and rename it the Department of Natural Resources. The plan will succeed, and soon after the Forest Service will be recombined with the Bureau of Land Management and other Interior agencies, completely losing its identity.

In the past, when similar proposals came from Interior secretaries such as Harold Ickes in the 1930s or Cecil Andrus in the 1970s, they were met with stiff opposition. Environmentalists, timber companies, ranchers, and other national forest users all saw the "independence" of the Forest Service as something that was valuable to them.

Gifford Pinchot founded the Forest Service with the idea that the forests should be managed by experts, not by politicians. Leaving the agency in the Department of Agriculture helped insulate the agency from meddling by the president because the Secretary of Agriculture, unlike the Secretary of the Interior, is not very interested in forest policy. When Ickes proposed merging the Forest Service into his department, he was effectively stopped by an aging Pinchot.

This insulation worked to a great degree. When presidents Nixon, Carter, and Reagan ordered the Forest Service to accelerate timber cutting, agency officials just laughed. The Forest Service wrote its own rules, set its own policy, and made its own decisions. If the agency was not as sensitive to environmental issues as environmentalists might like, it was much more responsive to environmental concerns than the BLM, Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, or even the Park Service.

Contributing to the insulation was the lifetime tenure of the chief. Between 1910, when President Taft fired Pinchot (and lost his reelection bid because of it), and 1993, when Clinton fired Dale Robertson, no chief was ever fired by a president. When chiefs retired, they played a major role in picking their replacement, who was almost invariably someone from with the agency.

Clinton effectively changed that tradition when he replaced Robertson with Jack Ward Thomas. Thomas was a lifetime Forest Service employee, but someone who lacked the rank and experience that would previously have been required of a Forest Service chief. As chief, he failed to provide effective leadership, partly because he was unable to prevent meddling by administration officials.

When the administration fired Robertson, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Jim Lyons claimed that it was not "politicizing" the office of the chief. In fact, they were taking the first step down the proverbial slippery slope. The next step has now been taken.

Jack Ward Thomas announced his resignation as chief of the Forest Service in October. Apparently, he had agreed to take the position of director of the Boone and Crockett Research Center in Missoula, Montana, as long ago as last spring. He did not want to announce this change until he could get the Clinton Administration to agree on an acceptable replacement.

But then he bought a house in Missoula, which was a matter of public record, and rumors began to fly. So he was forced to make it public. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman insisted on his right to pick a new chief without interference by the old one. "I get to pick the director of all my other agencies," he said. "Why not the Forest Service?"

Glickman picked Mike Dombeck, who had been acting director of the Bureau of Land Management. Although Dombeck had worked for the Forest Service between 1978 and 1989, his "defection" to the BLM would formerly have ruled him out as a potential chief. (As it turned out, Dombeck had Thomas' support, which may show how out of touch with reality Thomas is.)

Dombeck has a Ph.D. in fisheries biology, and his work for the Forest Service was in fisheries. But he also spent a year working as a legislative fellow for a U.S. senator. With the help of that experience, he is now more politician than a biologist. When he moved to the BLM, he worked not in fisheries but in lands and minerals management--in other words, as a bureaucrat who spent much of his time as a liaison to people on Capitol Hill.

As acting director of the BLM, he focused on providing that agency with a "vision" and with streamlining the Washington office. But he made almost no effort to improve on-the-ground management and no effort at all to change the incentives facing resource managers. Instead, he has allowed the agency to get bogged down with "advisory councils" and more planning.

Dombeck brags that "BLM lands generate more revenue than they cost to manage." But he doesn't say that virtually all of that "revenue" is earmarked to the BLM or some other agency. Actual returns to the Treasury are only a small fraction of the costs to the Treasury. This suggests that he will fit right in with the Forest Service, which is fond of using similar arithmetic.

The first step down the slippery slope of politicizing the Forest Service was in firing a chief. The next step is in appointing a chief who is more a politician than civil servant and who is not a lifetime Forest Service employee. The step after that will be to appoint someone who has never been in the agency. The final step will be to merge the Forest Service into the Interior Department.

That final step will take place in the next administration because there is no one left who cares enough about the Forest Service to defend it anymore. The agency itself is completely demoralized and user groups, including environmentalists, are so alienated by it that they won't fight a merger. After all, environmentalists supported and hardly anyone opposed the Robertson firing.

But politicizing the Forest Service will be bad for the national forests and all their users. The flaw in Pinchot's design was that he effectively insulated the Forest Service from the president, but did not insulate the national forests from Congress--in particular, from the appropriations committees. For at least the last fifty years, appropriators have made it plain that they funded the national forests for one purpose and one purpose only: pork, mainly timber pork.

Chiefs Thomas, Robertson, and others complained that, whenever they testified before the appropriations committees, the only question they were ever asked was why didn't they cut more timber. When Robertson's predecessor, Chief Max Peterson, told an Oregon congressman, Les AuCoin, that if they cut more they would run out by the year 2000, AuCoin replied, "But chief, neither you nor I are going to be here in the year 2000."

Assistant Agriculture Secretary Jim Lyons believed that by politicizing the agency--that is, appointing a new chief and other top officials and then micromanaging the forests from his DC office--he could effectively counter the political meddling by Congress. Even if Lyons were a true-green environmentalist, which he is not, this strategy is doomed to fail. For one thing, Congress has far more power over the agency than the secretary, as the salvage sale rider demonstrated. The reason for this is that Congress has a power that Lyons lacks: the power over the budget, which effectively shapes the agency's incentives.

Gifford Pinchot's idea of management by experts, rather than politicians, still makes sense--but only if the experts are given good incentives. Rewards for cutting timber at a loss or overgrazing at a loss are not good incentives. Neither are rewards for following the whim of whatever president happens to be in office. Those who want to fix the Forest Service should focus on incentives, not personalities.

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