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Brave New Forest : In the Changing Forest Service, Old-Time Rangers Are Giving Way to Computers That Plan the Wilderness in Terms of AUMs, VDs and 'Cavity Dwellers' (Squirrels).

October 19, 1986|JOHN MCKINNEY | John McKinney is a frequent contributor to this magazine.

The out-of-shape Forest Service mules sweat and snort as the trail switchbacks up and out of American Canyon and enters Machesna Mountain Wilderness, east of San Luis Obispo. Halting his train of six mules, Ranger Bob Stone savors a wondrous panorama, one like those that greeted Spanish vaqueros during the days of the great ranchos. Oaks dot rich, rolling grassland, a landscape painted in soft greens and golds and browns. A solitary bull keeps watch over a dozen cows. Above the trail is a ridge line where Coulter pines touch the sky. Below rise the headwaters of the Salinas, the south-to-north-flowing "upside-down" river, of which American Canyon Creek is a tributary.

"Now this," Stone declares, gesturing toward the magnificent view, "is excellence."

Excellence is something very much on Stone's mind. Los Padres National Forest management is on a "search for excellence," which means that employees are strongly urged to participate in seminars adapted from the best-selling book "In Search of Excellence" by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman. The Forest Service is trying to take on a new image, one more like that of a dynamic corporation than a sluggish bureaucracy. Motivational seminars are only part of its new look. In the Forest Service's search for excellence, the traditional managers of public land--the old-time rangers such as Bob Stone--are giving way to computer experts and planners schooled in the latest corporate techniques. The from-the-saddle surveys preferred by Stone are rarely made anymore; a ranger's seat-of-the-pants judgment is being replaced by a Forest Service computer program called Forplan, which calculates how public lands are to be used and allocates resources according to mathematical formulas. Cattle grazing, for example, is figured in AUMs (Animal Unit Months) and trees in terms of MMBF (Million Board Feet).

Even the language of the modern ranger is changing; today it is sprinkled with acronyms, computer jargon and catchwords. Values clarification is a term currently in vogue. A recent "Toward Excellence" session revealed that many Forest Service employees were uncertain about the exact nature and purpose of their jobs. So a "Values and Norms Workshop" has been scheduled. The trouble is that Stone, after nearly three decades with the Forest Service, figures that he has his values straight and is less than thrilled about cutting short his Pine Spring Camp cleanup expedition to rush back to Goleta to watch videotapes titled "Looking at Barriers" and "What You Are Is Where You See," or to participate in exercises called "Values I Seek in an Organization." "If the Forest Service doesn't know its values after 81 years, God help us," he grouses.

The pursuit of values clarification and the search for excellence are of more than academic interest. As the Forest Service seeks to change its image, it is also planning for its future. Hanging like a low cloud over Machesna Mountain and American Canyon--and over all 1.8 million acres of Los Padres National Forest--is the "Land and Resource Management Plan." That massive document--accompanied by an equally massive environmental-impact report and enough maps and charts to fill a saddlebag--establishes the management direction for Los Padres for the next half-century. Every national forest is undergoing the same process. In California, a quiet regiment of forest planners scattered in small-town offices is drafting the future for 20 million acres--a fifth of the entire state. The plans, now in draft or incomplete stages, eventually will spell out how every one of those 20 million acres is managed. The Los Padres plan, for example, lists seven detailed scenarios for how the land could be used. Whether the Forest Service chooses to fill the ridge tops with oil wells or set aside great tracts of wilderness depends a great deal on the kinds of values it chooses to embrace--those of fast-track young planners or off-the-beaten-track old rangers.

BOB STONE, A 27-YEAR VETERAN OF THE FOREST SERVICE, IS one of the last of the old-timers. A beard, slowly graying, covers half of a face that's been weathered by a lifetime outdoors. He's the kind of guy who sits tall in the saddle, who cusses mules and tips his hat to ladies. As a ranger, he knows a couple of hundred people and an equal number of horses on a first-name basis. He's fought fires and treed and tagged mountain lions and may be one of the last rangers who can tie a diamond hitch.

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