Forest Service Admits Mistake; Thanks Environmentalist For Pointing Out Error

Everyone makes mistakes. When the federal government makes a mistake, it can be a big one. Here is one example. The test of the organization will be how it deals with the adversity it has brought upon itself.

Everyone makes mistakes. Unfortunately, when the Federal Government makes a mistake, it can be a big one with considerable consequences. The true test of any organization, its nature and its people is how it responds to mistakes and deals with adversity.

Take, for example, the mistake apparently made by one or more people in the Forest Service. According to various press reports and information from the agency, the Forest Service made a mistake in setting the boundaries for cutting timber in a botanical preserve in Southern Oregon. You can see the results of this big mistake in these photos.

The problem occurred in the Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area. The area was created by the Forest Service in 1963 to protect the largest remaining stand of Brewers Spruce. That action may have helped for the past 40+ years but it has been disastrous in the long run.

The botanical preserve has been logged. And, if that is not bad enough, the area appears to have been clearcut which will make the damage even more extensive.

After the damage was done, the agency was unaware of the problem and the environmental harm to the area it was supposed to protect. It was discovered by an environmentalist, Barbara Ullian, who is conservation director of the Siskiyou Project Group. She reported the problem to the Forest Service.

Ullian has been a hiker of this area for a number of years and noticed the cutting in areas that she thought should not have been touched by the logging operation. Upon returning with a GPS system along with colleagues, they verified the timber harvesting had been done in the wrong area.

The context of the error magnifies the problem for the agency. The Forest Service had restricted public access to the area earlier this year because of demonstrations or protests about logging in the area. Demonstrators were sitting in trees and blocking logging roads. Perhaps the agency saw that as the major problem to be resolved.

The Forest Service is often required to balance the competing interests of environmentalists, the timber industry, naturalists and the public. Its actions can help or harm the environment and local economies. The inherent conflict can be seen in the focus of one group called “Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics that describes itself as being made up of “present, retired and former Forest Service employees” and that the mission of the group is to “change the Forest Service’s basic land management philosophy.”

One can at least infer that some of the employees of the Forest Service think the agency has gone too far in one direction although the very existence of this group undoubtedly makes other interests skeptical of the agency’s objectivity.

With conflict and controversy involving competing philosophies within the agency, no doubt the Siskiyou disaster will make the agency’s job of balancing external competing interests harder than ever.

Ullian was quoted in the Eugene, Oregon Register-Guard as stating that she could not see how the professionals in the Forest Service could make such a mistake. “The botanical area boundaries are not obscure. They’re not marked on the ground but follow a prominent ridge line which is easy to see.”

It seems uncommon for a person or an organization to admit mistakes. When something bad happens and it gets publicized, such as what has happened in Siskiyou, we often expect to hear a carefully crafted statement followed by something along these lines. It wasn’t our fault because:

  • “We didn’t have enough staff.”
  • “We didn’t have enough money.”
  • “We didn’t have the right equipment.”
  • “We didn’t have the authority to do the job.”
  • “No one told us to do it.”
  • “There were too many deadlines and too much paperwork.”
  • “Send us more money and get off of our backs and we will make sure we do it right next time.”

To the credit of the Forest Service, it has not said or implied any of these things.

The agency has been candid about admitting a mistake in setting the boundaries for cutting timber in the Siskiyou National Forest area. According to the agency’s press release “The Forest Service made an error by harvesting timber in approximately 10 to 17 acres of the 352-acre Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area as part of the Fiddler Fire Salvage Sale.” The agency also said in a press release that it appreciates Ullian for bringing the error to their attention.

The agency says it will be working with interested parties to restore the area and to try and restore the Brewer Spruce trees that have been harmed.

The mission of the Forest Service is summed up by the agency as providing “greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.” Most of us probably don’t know the difference between a Pine Tree and a Brewer’s Spruce.

But we all pay taxes and place faith in the people hired to know the difference and to do a good job in protecting our natural resources. In this case, that didn’t happen. There was no “good” accomplished with logging a preserve of rare trees the agency was empowered to protect. We can only hope that the mistake doesn’t wipe out the rare trees altogether.

How the agency ultimately handles the situation will be a test of the organization’s nature and character and its people. It will be tempting to minimize the mistake and hope the publicity dies down and everything turns to normal within the bureaucracy.

There should be consequences for the error. It is easier for a large organization to effectively deny a mistake was anyone’s fault because there are too many people involved for anyone to take responsibility. Perhaps it was a low level federal employee who didn’t understand the importance of the job, or was bored or was thinking of other things that day. Perhaps the supervisor was not there when the boundaries were drawn. Perhaps when the area was closed and public scrutiny was gone, agency leaders considered the problem to have been solved and they could just go on about their business. But the mistake was made, the harm to the environment was significant and the agency has failed its obligation to the American public.

The agency is doing the right thing by investigating to determine who screwed up and why.

The agency has done a good job in laying out is mission and vision and its guiding principles. If the agency is serious about its mission, its vision and its obligation to the public, or if it has just been good at hiring effective writers who can tell the public what it wants to hear, we will know fairly quickly.

Presumably, the Forest Service will do more than investigate and then hide behind a bureaucratic shield and say, in carefully crafted and perfectly legal prose: no one person was really responsible;  it was just an innocent mistake and we shouldn’t judge anyone in the agency too harshly (and, by the way, increase our budget and our staffing and we promise to do better in the future).

Someone was in charge (or should have been); someone had responsibiltiy and someone should acknowledge responsibility for the mistake and the damage it has caused. The agency should definitively deal with it to assure the public it is capable of meeting its responsibilities and has the determination and ability to ensure this type of problem doesn’t happen. That is the best hope for the agency to be able to “provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47