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Book Review - The US Forest Service: A Love Story
Al Sample

Toward a Natural Forest: The Forest Service in Transition
by Jim Furnish
Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2015. 213 pp.

There is a common tendency to perceive organizations as singular entities, and to presume that the public actions of an organization accurately reflect the values of all its members. This is especially true of organizations as rich in history and tradition as the US Forest Service. In truth, the views and values within an organization can be as varied and diverse as those in broader society, especially when society itself is uncertain or conflicted about whether the path forward needs to be different from the one in which we have been so comfortable for so long.

Toward a Natural ForestJim Furnish came into the US Forest Service in 1965, not long after the publication of Herbert Kaufman’s political science classic The Forest Ranger: A Study in Administrative Behavior (John Hopkins Press 1960). Kaufman’s book detailed the remarkable organizational systems by which the Forest Service, a large and highly-decentralized federal agency with many of its 35,000 employees in remote locations, ensured an extraordinary uniformity of action—and also of values, beliefs, opinions, and motivations. It also was not long after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which documented the subtle but potent destruction of the natural environment by organizations and institutions that many Americans trusted and even admired.

The US Forest Service was one of those trusted and admired institutions whose actions would soon be questioned and challenged by an increasingly distrustful public. In 1965 the Forest Service was an agency proud of its skills and accomplishments. Over the previous two decades it had responded successfully to the surge in post-war demand for housing by providing abundant supplies of high-quality old-growth timber from the public’s forests. Its people were largely those of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” who, having served in the military in their twenties, were now at the peak of their careers and influence. They eagerly embraced their mission as they understood it, and brought their “can do” enthusiasm to delivering on their promises to an adoring public. Uniquely for a federal agency at the time, the Forest Service logo was featured prominently in a popular prime-time television show about a courageous and principled forest ranger and his equally brave and noble collie. How much more of a public affirmation could any government agency want?

So much greater then was the shock when in the late 1960s ordinary citizens accused this proud conservation organization of willfully damaging the environment to serve the needs of special interests. Clearcutting was the central focus of controversy, but the public challenges ranged broadly from destroying wildlife and fish habitat, to driving out endangered species, to poisoning public water supplies with pesticides. In a nation with rapidly expanding suburban development and a rising concern about protecting the remaining wild places, the Forest Service was accused of punching miles of new roads into remote regions not because the timber there was of any great value, but simply to disqualify these areas from future consideration for wilderness designation.

Forest in Oregon Furnish’s memoir spans a pivotal era in the history of the Forest Service, from the first public skirmishes over clearcutting in the 60s, through new federal legislation and court decisions that forced changes in the National Forests, to the adoption of ecosystem management policies that have served as the agency’s de facto mission ever since.Throughout all of this, Furnish examines the evolution in his own thinking in response to changing social values about the environment. As supervisor of one of the most productive timber-producing National Forests in the country, he responded to public concerns about past impacts on salmon habitat by steering a different course meant to sustain a wider range of resources and values. As a senior official in the agency’s Washington headquarters, he continued to work to reinforce the new value system that was gradually taking the place of one that had guided the Forest Service for more than half a century.

This book reads in many ways like a love story. It starts with starry-eyed romance, evolves through the inevitable joys and disappointments of any committed relationship, and ends with a mature appreciation for a lifelong partner striving to do what is good and right in a rapidly changing world. Political scientist John W. Gardner once wrote, “Pity the leader caught between unloving critics and uncritical lovers.” Observing that this seemed to be the Forest Service’s predicament over most of his 40-year career, Furnish views himself instead as a “critical lover” who was as committed to the agency as any of his colleagues but saw perhaps more clearly the changes that were still needed for the Forest Service to live up to its full potential as a world-class exemplar of 21st century sustainable forest management.

Al Sample is president of the Pinchot Institute and co-author of Forest Conservation and Management in the Anthropocene, forthcoming from the University Press of Colorado.
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