Forest Service

Background The U.S. Forest Service, an agency within the Agriculture Department, manages 193 million acres of forests and grasslands, with 35,000 employees and a $5 billion budget.

The struggle In recent years, the agency has become notorious for poor employee morale. In a 2010 "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" survey, the Forest Service ranked 203 out of 224 agencies; on "effective leadership," it came in sixth from the bottom. Bush-era decisions to consolidate agency leadership in Albuquerque, N.M., and outsource various functions seem to have made morale worse.

Population growth, insect invasions, climate shifts and dwindling state budgets have burdened the Forest Service with seemingly insurmountable management problems. Firefighting consumes ever larger chunks of the agency's budget, leaving less money for land and resource management. In 1991, 13 percent of the budget went to fire management; in 2009, the figure had risen to 48 percent.

On the horizon Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's first big policy speech, in Seattle in August 2009, vowed to put more emphasis on "restoring forest ecosystems." Vilsack also embraced Clinton's roadless-forest rule, which is being challenged in court by Wyoming's government and various Western industries; Vilsack has declared that no development proposal in inventoried roadless forest can go forward without his personal approval.

Collaboration among environmentalists, loggers and other stakeholders seems to be the watchword more than ever. "No one of us can do it alone," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a November speech promoting his new Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which makes the point that people are part of the "mosaics of Forest ecosystems." It's hard to predict how any of the imagined fixes would really improve the Forest Service, the Solomon's baby of federal agencies. As Montana Sen. Jon Tester says, for the most part, forest management "has come to a halt."

by Judith Lewis Mernit