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Morale Hits Bottom At Forest Agency

Trouble on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests sounds like this:

“Day by day, morale slips and very scary thoughts are expressed,” one employee wrote this summer.

“Purchase metal detectors” was one answer to a question asking what employees would do if put in charge of the forests.

“I was just dumped out the window and tossed away. The reorganization was crap,” yet another replied.

So go the results of a July survey of Panhandle Forests employees, obtained by The Spokesman-Review. The survey sought employee reaction to extensive cuts and reorganization of Forest Service employees. Workers have not yet been given the results of the poll, which slams Forest Supervisor Dave Wright’s management style and his rearrangement of one of the largest national forests in the nation.

Wright and his top staff began the changes in late 1992 because of declining timber harvests and in anticipation of budget cuts. It’s part of a major reshuffling of the Forest Service across the country.

Wright contends that many of the survey results are positive.

But staff accuse Wright and other top forest administrators of crushing the esprit d’corps and cutting field positions while expanding the bureaucratic ranks at the supervisor’s office. There are fewer field employees now, and they’re spending more time driving from one end of the forest to another, instead of getting out on the ground, managing the land, they say.

The results will be accidents, disastrous accounting errors, and forests ignored in deference to paperwork, they say. Under these conditions, timber sales can’t be adequately prepared and watersheds can’t be properly repaired.

They also complain that the survey results have been bottled up for 2-1/2 months so they can be sanitized.

Morale is clearly at rock bottom, and the storm is far from over.

Since 1992, Wright’s reorganization has sliced 155 people from a payroll of 583. That includes about 60 people who took a cash settlement to leave.

More than 70 percent of the cuts came from jobs in the ranger districts. Seven people were added in the supervisor’s office to deal with administrative work that 28 people had once done in places like Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint, Panhandle officials said.

The forest will see another 20 percent budget cut in the next three years. Another 70 to 80 people on the Panhandle alone could lose their jobs, be transferred or retired.

Some workers believe the Panhandle is leading the national movement to trim the Forest Service because Wright is trying to move up the career ladder. Others believe the forest’s size - 2.2 million acres and once carrying 600 staffers - makes it a logical place to start.

In either case, Wright puts a happy face on the survey results. “I feel very positive with the new changes … quite a few folks concur,” Wright said.

“When you take one question here and one question there, you are not going to get an accurate picture,” he said. “We can’t put our arm around everybody.”

The survey results are not being sanitized, added Lupe Renteria, the forest administrative officer who helped create the survey. The delay allows deleting the names of people who were the targets of personal attacks, he said. That should be completed sometime next week.

About 250 people - 55 percent of the staff - responded to the survey - an unusually high number, everyone agrees. It was conducted by North Idaho College and cost about $5,000.

The raw returns contain little evidence for Wright’s optimistic evaluation. Where people are allowed to express themselves the most freely, they offer little praise for the man who has been forest supervisor for the past four years.

Among other things, employees urge Wright to “resign in disgrace,” “eliminate the supervisor’s office,” and “admit that (the reorganization) may not be working.”

There are almost no positive res ponses. One exception reads: “Reorganization has allowed me to work in other fields which I enjoy. It has helped me see the larger scheme of things.”

Plenty of takers

Interviews with current and former employees mirror the negative flavor of the poll. It’s no accident that the Panhandle led the nation in the number of Forest Service workers who accepted a buyout, they say.

“That doesn’t count the number that went to private industry” soon after Wright arrived, one employee said.

“I honestly believe he (Wright) was hired as a hatchet man, and he loves his work,” said Barry Coles, a silviculturist who took a buyout last March.

Wright refused to consider employee suggestions, Coles and others said.

“If (Wright) decides to do something, God and all of the Apostles can’t change his mind,” Coles said.

Some who still work on the Pan handle, and are afraid to be named, say Wright’s mission is busting the four local chapters of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “Dave Wright said ‘This forest did not need a union and by the time he was done, this forest would no longer need a union,”’ said an employee who overheard the conversation.

Wright disputes the union-busting label. “There is absolutely no truth to that at all,” he said.That change won’t come easily or quietly. “You are never going to have everybody completely heal - they need to learn to cope with it,” Wright said.

U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, also was slipped an advance copy of the unfiltered survey results. She says it mirrors what Forest Service employees across the country are saying.

“People are not sure where they should focus their energy, they spend three or four months on a plan and it’s shelved … people don’t feel they are contributing,” Chenoweth said. “If it was a poll that came out of private industry, you would see a rolling of administrative heads.”

But heads should start rolling in Washington, D.C., not necessarily on the Panhandle, Chenoweth said.

While Wright says he’s marching to congressional cutting orders, Chenoweth says that’s not true.

Still, Chenoweth doesn’t fault Wright. Forest Service workers are in a tug-of-war between environmentalists and industry and as a result are no longer able to manage the forests, she maintains.

“It’s got to be as frustrating for him as the people who work for him,” she said.

No quick answers

The largest unanswered question is what the Panhandle is doing about the rampant unhappiness. Administrator Renteria agrees with people who say the survey results aren’t pretty. “I think the positive thing is that (people) responded,” he said.

Renteria also says that things like the “metal-detector” comments have been going around for some time.

Top brass have been visiting districts and trying to defuse that sort of thing, he said. His office is developing an “action plan” to address the results of the survey and hopes to deliver it to employees within a week.

Meanwhile, the unrest is happening everywhere, Renteria says.

“You want to see morale problems, try the Washington, D.C., office where they are trying to cut 25 percent from the staff this year,” he said.

Employees here say they are pinning their hopes on a review of the reorganization from the regional office in Missoula. Meanwhile, it will take much more than another administrative plan to heal the wounds.

“We need honest communication, long enough for us to believe we are getting the truth,” one worker said. “It would help for the supervisor’s office to work with the districts so we don’t feel like adversaries.”

, DataTimes


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