Toxic Morale Grips Forest Service Law Enforcement
Survey Reflects Leadership Void, Loss of Direction and Widespread Fear of Reprisal
Washington, DC — The law enforcement arm of the U.S. Forest Service is stumbling backward beset by incompetent leadership, a poisonous culture and scant resources that are often misdirected, according to a new employee survey released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
These overwhelmingly negative survey results parallel surveys the agency itself has commissioned as well as internal reviews confirming employee complaints of mismanagement, favoritism and interference.
In February PEER sent surveys to staff at all levels within the Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations (LE&I) branch. Of the 730 surveys delivered 430 were completed for a return rate of roughly three in five of all employees. The survey asked direct questions about perceptions of leadership:
- Three out of four (74%) doubt the professionalism of top LE&I leadership while a clear majority (60%) do not find them to be “generally honest and trustworthy”;
- Nearly four out of five (78%) rate LE&I Director David Ferrell as ineffective – while fewer than one in ten (9%) see him as effective; and
- Two in three (66%) think hiring and promotion is made on the basis of “personal relationships with senior managers rather than merit.”
In essays responding to the question “How could LE&I best be improved?” one supervisor wrote “Worst agency I have ever worked for by far! I will be leaving the agency because of the extreme mismanagement … .Until cancerous managers are removed nothing will change.”
“The unmistakable message from law enforcement of all ranks is that they need a new leadership team. The current leadership team has lower approval ratings than the U.S. Congress,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Director Ferrell has plunged LE&I into a tailspin with calamitous budget moves compounded by embarrassing equipment purchases, such as drones and clip-on cameras. “The Forest Service should demand its top managers be at least minimally competent.”
Employee assessments of the LE&I program’s effectiveness were similarly grim:
- Nearly two in three (63%) believe LE&I is weaker today than five years ago. Fewer than one in six (13%) feel the program is headed in the right direction;
- Nearly 4 out of five (79%) do not think “LE&I has adequate resources to perform its mission” yet nearly two out of three (62%) see these scant resources “misdirected”; and
- A strong majority (56%) say the “emphasis that LE&I places on investigating serious resource-related crime has declined” during the past five years.
One Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) wrote “I patrol 2.3 million acres by myself, 2 ranger districts. That is unacceptable!” Another wrote “Management has just ordered law enforcement officers to stay in their office and NOT PATROL one day a week to cut down on mileage costs. Tax payers are not paying the gov’t to have their law enforcement officers sit in their offices!!!” [Emphases in original]
Perhaps not surprisingly, four out of five respondents (80%) say morale is bad. Disturbingly, most (58%) personally fear retaliation for reporting concerns and fewer than one in three (33%) of LEOs would recommend LE&I as a career. In one essay a LEO explained “People in LE&I are ‘working scared’ and are making decisions based on what leadership may think of the decisions. It puts officers in a very dangerous situation when faced with a split-second decision.”
“These survey results are not just a cry for help; they are a howl of pain,” Ruch concluded, pointing out that protecting the national forests from resource crimes such as timber theft appears in jeopardy due to LE&I dysfunction. “PEER has been conducting employee surveys for nearly 20 years but I have never seen results as organizationally bleak as this LE&I survey.”