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Collaboration and Forest Service Values
Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins
Forest Service Annual Partnership Coordinators’ Meeting
South Lake Tahoe , CA— June 7, 2006

Good morning and welcome! I met many of you last night at the kickoff, and I have to say this: The Forest Service and its partnerships, as we look ahead to a whole new century, are in great hands. I see a lot of optimism, a commitment, and a great sense of public spirit in all of you. I cannot tell you how glad I am to be with you today.

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing a panel of mostly friends. People who use collaboration successfully are well known to us. The theme for this day of the workshop is collaboration; this panel will talk about how to create a climate where true collaboration with communities is the norm.

I have been asked to make a few comments before introducing the panel, but my intention is to keep them short enough to give everyone time to present their thoughts and answer your questions. I think we are all hoping for more of a dialogue with you here this morning.

I will start with two questions, and I will try to provide some answers—and perhaps raise more questions—and ask you to think about these as we proceed.

Focus on Restoration
First, what are we collaborating on today? Collaboration as a means to bring people together to solve problems means there are problems to solve. What are they and why do they lend themselves to this approach?

When we first started talking about collaboration with communities, we were locked in battles over roadbuilding, timber harvest, and wildlife protection. We were in the midst of a values shift in society, where clean air and water, abundant wildlife, and healthy watersheds were taking priority over commodity issues. It was a movement that mobilized activists and communities to participate in almost all that we do in natural resources.

For more than a decade, the Forest Service has been transitioning our management from long-term sustained yield of timber to sutainability of ecological function. We focus today on restoration of fire-adapted ecosystems … on recreation … on helping timber-dependent communities diversify to provide some social and economic stability. Therefore, the work we collaborate on is generally focused on restoration:

  • reducing the risk of catastrophic fire;

  • thinning stands and prescribed burning;

  • replacing culverts for fish passage;

  • updating recreation sites to accommodate uses to mitigate the effects on sensitive ecological areas;

  • enhancing wildlife habitat;

  • closing roads; and so on.

Most of the time, when we “touch” the land today, it is to improve it or restore it; and if products or services are taken from the land, it is clear that it is done in an ever more environmentally sensitive way.

Ray Vaughn—an environmental activist in the South for decades—noted in a recent article that the “best” project 10 years ago is the average project of today. I think this speaks to the significant shift in the work we are doing in the agency today.

My point is that we are doing different work today than when the environmentalist battles were hottest and trust was lowest. There is much more common ground to find today than just 15 years ago, and frankly it is tough times for the gladiator on any side of an issue. You know we will always find something to fight about, but the skirmishes are on the edges and they are just that—skirmishes.

It is within this environment that collaboration can really work. Divergent interests can and are coming together to solve problems because common ground is easier to find.

Need for a New Vocabulary
My second question relates to the first. If the focus of our work is restoration, do we have the vocabulary to talk to the public and partners effectively about it? I think not, and I think this significantly limits our collaboration. To describe a vegetation thinning to create wild turkey habitat, for instance, we use silvicultural terminology like precommercial thinning, timber harvest, or even clearcut—even though any wood resulting from the project is merely a byproduct and the land being treated is not allocated for commercial uses. This signals to everyone we are collaborating with that our “true” intentions are to harvest trees, not create wildlife habitat. We are into some interesting old habits with our language—our vocabulary needs to expand with our thinking.

Words we use reflect who we are as much as the books we read, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the societies and governance structures we build. Language usually is the most lingering aspect of any culture, the last to change, and often the way cultural anthropologists study the underpinnings of a social structure: What is important to this group? What do they value? Words can be great clues to understanding what makes a group tick.

However, words can also keep a culture from evolving when it needs to. Our problem in the Forest Service today is that we are using the language from the timber extraction era to describe the work of ecological restoration.

Our challenge in the Forest Service today is to evolve a language that truly reflects the newer focus on restoration and to reserve the vocabulary of resource extraction for that specific purpose. Let me use a great example of this from one of our newer ecosystem management projects in the Southwest.

The Bluewater Project’s purpose was to return vegetation composition and structure to values within the historical range of variation, initially by removing some of the trees, then by returning fire to its historical role. Instead of arbitrarily deciding what trees to remove, Bluewater managers let the landscape guide them: Based on a reference landscape—the open ponderosa pine woodland native to the area—they used residual evidence on the ground—old logs, stumps, and depressions—to decide where to cut trees and where to leave them. Fire scars were used to determine historical fire return intervals. Timber was profitably removed and utilized, but project purpose and design were driven entirely by ecological restoration.

Yet the Bluewater record of decision described the project in traditional silvicultural terms. The purpose, it suggested, was “reducing stand density” and “fuel loads.” It spoke of “stands [that] will … include broadcast burns as well as pile burns.” It called for applying “an uneven-aged silvicultural system … to create a multi-aged stand structure with the majority of trees retained in the larger diameter classes.” It did not project timber harvest volumes—perhaps one reason why the project escaped appeal—but it used the kind of silvicultural language traditionally associated with growing trees as crops.

With your help, I think we can explore these issues—helping people see that the work we are doing is restoration and that we have got to more accurately describe this work in our collaborations or people will not believe our intentions.

New Developments
Now we have some very recent successes to talk about, and I want to quickly go through these:

  • First and foremost, USDA has formally adopted a suite of leadership behaviors focused on partnership and collaboration for hiring, training, assessing performance, and rewarding senior-level managers. These behaviors were adopted as a result of the White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation. Our challenge in the Forest Service is to ensure that agency leaders exhibit these behaviors.
  • Second, our leadership team recently endorsed what we have called a “handover memo.” It was collaboratively conceived and proposed by the Collaboration Action Team, a group of NGOs and federal land management agencies. In this letter, an outgoing leader can share with their incoming leader both formal and informal agreements with committees and with partners. As you know, for years we’ve had a turnover problem as folks retire. It’s been a challenge for community collaboration.
  • Finally, both the House and the Senate are considering a new legislative proposal called the Forest Service Partnership Enhancement Act. This proposed legislation, which has the active support of the Administration, provides permanent authority for agreements with cooperators to carry out the mission of the Forest Service. It also expands our ability to work with interpretive associations, and it streamlines our partnership policies and processes. Getting this legislation enacted is critical to capturing the full potential of our collaborative focus.

Forest Service Values

In addition to this, we have been stressing a suite of organizational values with new employees at new employee orientation meetings every year—attended by top leadership—and in the new leadership development program called Leaders Growing Leaders. It’s a small set of values, but they all directly address the change in our culture toward collaboration that we’ve been discussing. I will share four of these values.

The first value is caring for people, both within and outside of the Forest Service. That means spending a lot of time engaging folks—those who work for you and those who don’t. It means giving encouragement and feedback, identifying potential, and talking about individual goals. It means knowing what people want and how you can help it. It also means giving helpful and constructive feedback.

Working with people is based on respect. We respect the land, we respect the people we serve, and we respect each other and ourselves. We will have differences of opinion—it’s healthy, so long as those opinions are shared in a climate of openness, respect, and trust. We are committed to a culture of fairness and respect for all in everything we do.

Along these lines, we want the Forest Service to be the employer of choice for all people. We honor and value diversity in our workforce. We want anyone to look at us and feel that they belong.

The second value we share is connecting with communities. I can’t stress enough how central it is to our future as an agency. Community forestry will be critically important in the coming century. Communities, large and small, will be involved in monitoring and caring for their nation’s forests.

For Forest Service employees, connecting with communities means more than just formal opportunities for public comment on what we propose to do. It means becoming part of your community—joining the local charity, Scouts, school board, or whatever else you can. It means engaging in the main issues facing communities in your area, including our tribal communities. It means using our authorities, people, and resources to help them solve their problems. It means sinking our tentacles into our communities so deeply that not a single issue comes up where people in the community don’t come to the Forest Service to ask our opinion. If we are there for our communities when times are tough, they will be there for us.

The third value we talk about is sharing leadership with our partners. The Forest Service doesn’t always have to be in the driver’s seat. When you think about it, leading and following are interrelated. We have got to be able to follow in order to be able to lead, and that takes humility. It takes the ability to sit down with partners and communities and truly listen. It takes the ability to acknowledge that others can take the lead and make the appropriate decisions.

Finally, we value getting results and being accountable for them. Our partners want and expect certain values from their forests and grasslands. They want clean water and air, naturalness and scenic beauty, habitat for wildlife, goods and services such as firewood and Christmas trees, opportunities for outdoor recreation, wilderness protection, and more. They want forests thinned around their communities to reduce fire hazards. Through their legislative representatives, we get financed to do the work it takes to deliver these values. In addition, when we commit to doing it in our annual work plans, our agency integrity depends on getting it done. We have to keep our commitments.

Leading From Where You Are
In our leadership program, we stress another value—leading from where you are. Again and again, the champions of collaboration have been out there on parks or resource districts, face to face with partners. Leading collaboration and learning about it can happen at all organizational levels.

I guess, as I yield the forum to others here today, that this should be your challenge: How do you lead collaboration from where you are in the organization? It is a lot easier to dream up things for others to do—forest supervisors, IDT leaders, and so on—than to figure out how you can personally lead from where you are. Is the notion of leading from where we are a cultural norm for us as an agency and for you personally?


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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