Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s controversial secretary of Agriculture, was a profane man known for his hair-trigger temper and rough handling of subordinates. So when the chief of the Forest Service stood him up for a meeting, Butz unloaded in response: “There are four branches of government,” he reportedly snarled, “the executive, legislative, judicial and the Gawd-damn U.S. Forest Service.”
Although current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack might have worded it differently, he probably appreciates the sentiment now: He recently discovered how ornery the powerful Forest Service can be.
At issue was one of Vilsack’s pet projects -- an attempt to reshape the image of the entire $132 billion Agriculture Department, which oversees everything from plant and animal inspections, ensuring food safety, and ending hunger to the health and productivity of national forests. Dubbed “One Brand,” this graphic facelift has engaged Agriculture Department officials overseeing the agency’s 20 departments for the past three years. One Brand’s goal has been to strip each organization of its historic symbols and insignias, replacing them with a generic logo symbolizing the mother ship – the Agriculture Department. All that would remain visually would be the individual agencies’ initials set in much smaller type centered beneath the Agriculture Department’s dominant initials.
It was appropriate that this homogenizing directive was embedded last January in an innocuous-sounding document called the Visual Standards Guide. It detailed the items that One Brand would cover and announced the establishment of an oversight office within the Agriculture Department -- the delightfully named Brand, Events, Exhibits, and Editorial Review Division, acronym BEEERD. Its reach would be broad and deep, extending from the appearance of social media platforms such as Facebook sites, twitter feeds and websites, to all signage, vehicles, uniforms, letterheads and envelopes, decals, and Powerpoint presentations, right down to the “Hello, My Name Is…” adhesive nametags.
The directive, however, unleashed a firestorm of protest. But the outrage did not come from within the affected agencies, for few staffers knew anything about the impending airbrushing. Instead, it was Forest Service retirees who learned -- to their considerable dismay -- that longtime agency logos were being phased out and replaced with “a standardized signature model to be adopted by all USDA agencies." That meant that the Forest Service’s distinctive Pine Tree shield –– worn by men and women for well for over a century –– would cease to exist.
Infuriated but organized through the National Association of Forest Service Retirees, the critics bombarded the Agriculture secretary’s office with phone calls, emails and letters, sending copies to the beleaguered head of BEEERD as well. Protesters also reached out to their congressional delegations, called local talk radio shows, and contacted newspapers and other media.
Their opposition took on the air of a revival meeting. They talked about the emblematic power of the Pine Tree logo to bind them to one another and to the land they helped steward. The evocative shield and the uniform to which it was pinned testified to their devoted public service, they said. Shedding these symbols, and the emotional attachments they held, seemed like a deliberate attack on their collective history. These defenders proved a potent collective, and so overwhelming was their opposition that it forced the Agriculture Department’s hand.
In a one-sentence release April 4, the department granted the Forest Service an exemption to its One Brand directive. You could hear the hosannas from agency retirees and staffers a mile off.
Every other department in Agriculture, however, has had to submit to the exorcizing of their respective insignias, causing blows to their staff’s morale. In British Columbia, Canada, public-land managers in the provincial forest service, learning of their American counterparts’ successful pushback, regretted that they had not had generated as forceful a reaction when their home department obliterated their own century-old pine-tree emblem in favor of yet another bland, generic symbol.
What this Forest Service protest reveals is a deep uneasiness with the growing, corporate-style flattening of difference and identity within governmental bureaucracies. To their credit, Forest Service defenders showed an alert wariness toward lockstep representation and uniform thought.
Rebranding consultants, like the ones that the Agriculture Department hired to guide its efforts, probably promoted this strategy as a positive way to harness a company’s disparate personnel. But the Department of Agriculture is not a business, and its sub-agencies’ varied missions and different objectives cannot be, and should not have been, unilaterally reined in.
As the dustup with the Forest Service suggests, a proud institutional history is a sustaining source of workplace identity and individual satisfaction. That’s a core value even Earl Butz might have respected.
Char Miller is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He directs the environmental analysis program at California’s Pomona College and is the author of the just-released On the Edge: Water, Immigration and Politics in the Southwest.
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