WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is not known for workplace contentment, ranking
fourth from the bottom among 19 federal agencies as best places to work in an annual report last year.

Morale inside the USDA’s Forest Service branch is lower still.

In the areas of leadership, pay, teamwork and other measures of satisfaction, it ranked 261st out of 301 small federal divisions in the same survey, by Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that focuses on improving public-sector recruitment.

Now a survey released Monday of a subset of Forest Service workers — law-enforcement officers who patrol 155 national forests, including six in Washington — offers detailed reasons for their unhappiness.

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Rank-and-file members of the Forest Service’s Law Enforcement and Investigations arm show they’re distrustful of management, highly critical of their top leader and believe the agency is rife with favoritism and hampered by inadequate funding.

The survey was conducted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a professional association based in Washington, D.C.

The results depict a dysfunctional agency in need of a management overhaul, said Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director. “One overriding message from field officers is, ‘no one is listening to us.’ ”

Larry Chambers, a Forest Service spokesman in Washington, D.C., was provided some of the survey findings on Wednesday. Chambers said the agency was working on a response but had not provided one by Sunday.

Ruch said nearly 60 percent of the 730 surveys were returned.

Though his organization represents the interests of public workers, Ruch said the survey results can’t be dismissed because “the sheer numbers of respondents represents a frustrated majority.”

Many respondents directed their scorn at David Ferrell, the Forest Service’s director of law enforcement and investigations, and wrote comments calling for his ouster. Seventy-eight percent rated Ferrell ineffective and 66 percent believed personal relationships, not merit, determined hiring and promotions.

Uniformed Forest Service patrol officers deal with everything from unauthorized campfires to assaults, timber thefts and the dumping of methamphetamine chemicals.

Ruch accused Ferrell of bungling the agency’s budget request to Congress, resulting in a loss to the agency of $14.5 million for fiscal 2014.

Matthew Valenta, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 5300, a union representing 650 law-enforcement and investigation employees around the country, said the survey results reflect the feelings of his members, including those in Washington and Oregon.

“This is not a simple case of a few disgruntled employees,” said Valenta, who works at Colville National Forest in Eastern Washington. “The agency is clearly in denial and has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the reality of an entire workforce with a broken spirit.”

Last year, field officers reacted with outrage when they learned Ferrell had upgraded the pay grades for seven top law-enforcement supervisors. The rank-and-file workers were then under a three-year wage freeze and chafing under budget cuts.

The agency defended the promotions and said only four of the seven managers, called special agents in charge, got a pay bump because the others had already topped out on their salary scales. Raises for the four were modest, the agency said, totaling some $35,000 a year combined. Special agents in charge manage the patrol officers and their supervisors.

Ruch, of PEER, also contends a “boys with toys” mentality within the agency has led to purchases of Taser shock guns, rugged Toughbook computers and other equipment without input from officers in the field.

Chambers disputed that. He said the purchases were valuable tools, acquired after consulting with patrol officers.

In August 2012, the Forest Service spent more than $94,000 for 500 video recorders for officers to wear on their uniforms. Ruch claims the agency did not test the devices before purchase, train employees on their use or track whether officers were using them.

Valenta, the union leader, said the recorders are cumbersome to wear and can capture less than 30 minutes of video — far too little to get an officer through a shift. Officers are also confused, he said, about the privacy rights of people they might be recording.

Valenta said a few officers are wearing smaller recorders but said he knew of no one who is using the recorders purchased in bulk.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @KyungMSong