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Sinking New Roots: How Is Forest Service Culture Changing?
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
All Cultures Event
Cradle of Forestry, NC—May 9, 2007


It’s a pleasure to be here in the Cradle of Forestry. There’s so much Forest Service history associated with this place that every time I come here I am in awe.


I commend the Southern Research Station and the national forests in North Carolina for hosting this event on “cultures and milestones in the Forest Service.” I think it’s critically important for all of us to understand the various cultural threads woven into the fabric of forestry today. I am more than happy to make any contribution I can, so I am grateful to have this opportunity.


I have the good fortune of joining Jamie—and Ellie—who are such superb speakers. Jamie and Ellie can cover the cultural milestones in forestry and the Forest Service better than anyone. I will leave the history mostly to them and focus instead on the following question: Fifty years from now—under the clear assumption that there still is a Forest Service—what will the Forest Service look like in terms of its culture?


In order to begin to answer that question, I need to start with some of the trends and challenges we currently face, and they come out of our history.


A Changing World
As you know, the Forest Service was historically staffed by men … men with rural backgrounds … men who were predominately white. Of course, there is nothing intrinsically white or male or even rural about caring for the land. For example—

  • American Indian ties to the land go back for thousands of years. Many landscapes were cultivated and farmed when Europeans first arrived.

  • Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the Southwest was settled by Spanish people with a rich tradition of ranching.

  • The South has a rich tradition of black forestry.

  • In the early Forest Service, women—the wives of employees—were often key to running ranger districts and fire dispatch.

  • Many of our partner organizations in 1905—and today—were and are based in urban areas and supported by urban memberships.


But it’s still a historical fact that the early Forest Service in the field was dominated by rural white men. All or almost all of the early employees were white. Most were male—women tended to have clerical positions. And most were rural—the ones who were not, like Gifford Pinchot or Aldo Leopold, had strong affinities for rural areas and wildlands. The agency was deliberately decentralized to make it more effective to work with rural communities, often seen as the most important constituents of the Forest Service.


None of this is terribly surprising, given the historical context:

  • In 1910, National Forest System lands were predominately in remote areas just then being settled—certainly more pioneer in character than Philadelphia, Chicago, or Washington, DC.

  • In 1910, 54 percent of all Americans lived in rural areas; today, it is about 20 percent.

  • In 1910, except in parts of the South and Southwest, rural Americans were mostly white; today, that is changing, as we shall see.

  • In 1910, there were few roads into backwoods areas; today, the National Forest System has 77,000 miles of arterial roads.

  • In 1910, very few women held jobs outside their homes, even in the cities—let alone in remote rural areas; in 2005, 59 percent of all American women were in the labor force (compared to 73 percent of all men). Today, 38 percent of our own employees are women.

  • In 1910, women couldn’t vote and many people of color were practically disenfranchised through poll taxes and other dirty tricks; today, a woman and a person of color are among the leading contenders for the presidency of the United States.


The world we live in has changed. The Forest Service has accordingly begun to sink new cultural roots, and that’s fortunate, because the same trends that have rendered the old roots irrelevant are continuing and deepening. Let me discuss a few of those trends. (By the way, most of the figures I will cite come from research led by Ken Cordell of the Southern Research Station.)


Demographic Trends
One trend is population growth. In this century alone, we will nearly double the number of Americans; our population will grow from 300 million today to around 570 million by 2100. Those additional 270 million people are three times the size of our entirepopulation in 1910. That’s how fast we are growing.


That raises a question: Where will all those additional people come from?


Birth rates are higher than death rates in the United States, so most of the increase will be what is called “natural.” But a large percentage of the increase—maybe even up to half—will come from immigration. In the last 30 years, we have reached immigration rates comparable to some of the highest in our history. In one scenario, immigration will continue at the rate of 880,000 people per year through the middle of the century, mostly from Latin America and Asia.


Immigrants and minorities account for the highest birth rates. That, plus immigration, is changing the face of America. Our largest state, California, already has a nonwhite majority. The country as a whole will follow suit by about the middle of the century. By 2050, one in five Americans will be Hispanic; one in seven will be black; and one in ten will be Asian, American Indian, or from some other nonwhite group.


That raises another question: Whether white or nonwhite, where will all these new Americans live?


Probably not in rural counties that are already depressed, particularly on the Great Plains. Those counties are expected to continue losing population. Growth is likely to be concentrated in metropolitan areas and corridors, such as from Washington to New York, Denver to Fort Collins, or Portland to Seattle.


Many of these areas are served by the so-called urban national forests. In the first 20 years of this century alone, populations within a 1-hour drive of urban national forests are expected to have grown by up to 50 percent. That will put more strain on forests that are already near the breaking point, particularly in terms of recreational use.


But the human footprint will also grow near national forests that are relatively remote. There are already signs that the outmigration of college-educated rural youth has slowed or even reversed. The advent of e-technology has made it easier for people to find good jobs in remote locations—or even to work from home, which could be almost anywhere in some cases.


And many rural counties with amenities are also retirement magnets, especially if they have national forest land. From 1990 to 2020, retiree growth in states with retirement destinations is expected to range from 33 percent—for South Carolina—to a whopping 447 percent—for Arkansas.


We’re already seeing the results. The character of rural areas near national forest land is changing. The demand for housing is leading to more homes in the woods—by 2030, we expect housing density to grow on about 44 million acres of forestland, an area the size of New England. Forest- and rangeland is also being converted outright into housing developments and shopping malls—from 1997 to 2050, we expect to lose about 23 million acres of forestland to developed land, an area the size of Maine.


And most of the people moving into these new houses will not be like the rural families that have lived there for generations. They will tend to have more urban or suburban lifestyles and values. And many will be minorities.


In fact, most rural counties are seeing an influx of minorities. Hispanic populations are growing faster in rural counties than other minority groups, particularly in the Interior West and parts of the East. But blacks are also moving into rural counties, particularly in parts of the Interior West and Pacific Northwest. So are Asians and other minorities. In historically white Missoula, Montana, for example, Saturday market now brings an interesting mix of cultures and languages to town, including Russian, Spanish, and Hmong.


Cultural Trends
Those are some of the demographic trends. Now let me turn to a couple of cultural trends.


As you know, most of the work done on national forest land is contracted. Contractors find some of their workers among immigrants and minorities, including the so-called pineros. Some of the pineros will return to their native countries, but some will stay, and—like other immigrants—they will raise their children as Americans. We’ve seen the same pattern over and over in our history: The children of immigrants are generally better educated and get better jobs than their parents, and their children do better yet.


Still, they retain a measure of their ethnic culture, and that culture often does not include the European nature traditions that to some degree underpin conservationism and environmentalism, such as the Romantic-era view of nature. Moreover, the hard work that immigrants did in the woods or fields carries a certain stigma: What is the point of their sacrifice if their children or grandchildren just go back to working in the woods, even if it’s for the Forest Service?


My point is that minority cultures tend to have a different relationship to the outdoors than mainstream white culture does. The challenge for the Forest Service is to tap the positive side of that relationship on behalf of conservation.


I’ll touch on one more cultural trend. This one affects all Americans, white and nonwhite—a gradual loss of touch with nature.


A hundred years ago, with so many Americans still living on farms, the connection to the land was immediate and obvious. People generally knew where their food came from and where the wood came from for their homes, because they often grew it, shot it, caught it, or cut and sawed it.


By 1970, however, seven out of ten Americans lived in metropolitan areas. Most Americans still loved the outdoors, partly because they grew up playing so much outside, with time and room to roam in nearby woods and fields. But the connection to the land had become more indirect—more recreational. For example, where their grandfathers might have fished for the table, they might fish for fun—catch and release.


Now we are seeing another cultural transition. Kids today have less time and room to explore the outdoors. There are several reasons for that, but one is the toys of the Information Age—they preoccupy children and keep them indoors. This might be partly why we are beginning to see a dropoff in interest in nature—a decline in the number of hunters and anglers … a leveling off or even a dip in outdoor recreational activity on national forest land and national park land … a heavy preponderance of national forest visitors in the older age brackets, with barely a third in the under-30 crowd.


Where past generations might have worked outside ‘til dusk … or been outside ‘til dusk hunting or enjoying the sunset … future generations might step outside for 5 minutes to film or photograph that sunset, then hurry back inside to their DVDs, i-Pods, e-mail, blogs, videogames, flatscreen TVs, or whatnot. As urban America grows and spreads into the countryside, this loss of a connection to nature seems only likely to grow.


Cultural Changes
Where does all this leave us? What will Forest Service culture look like in fifty years? That depends on how well we respond to these challenges. The Forest Service has always been pretty resilient, despite daunting challenges, so I will give you an upbeat assessment.


Part of our success lies in our “can-do” culture. If I am right, then part of that “can-do” culture, by the middle of the century, will be bringing others into the agency and cultivating their skills and leadership abilities, giving them experiences and opportunities they otherwise might never have. I think we have already succeeded in becoming an organization that rewards ability and achievement, regardless of gender or ethnicity. If we can make it part of our “can-do” culture to give people opportunities—to help everyone along and bring out the best in them—then we will truly be an equal-opportunity provider and employer.


But that alone won’t be enough. We must also overcome the cultural challenges. We must tap the positive side of every cultural relationship to nature, and we must overcome the nature deficit disorder in children. Accordingly, I foresee a growing role for conservation education in the Forest Service.


If we can overcome the cultural challenges while bringing out the best in our employees, then I am confident that our employee base … our various professions … and, yes, our leadership ranks will all reflect the face of America fifty years from now. No longer will we be particularly white—or particularly anything, other than American. We will have leaders at all levels who reflect the diversity of this great nation.


By mid-century, the work we do will also have changed. We will likely still be doing most of what we do now, but our focus will have broadened. Our programs and projects on National Forest System lands will be designed to serve more diverse communities and more urban and suburban visitors and users.


And beyond the National Forest System, we will also be working with other conservation organizations in taking conservation more to where people live. For example, I foresee a large and growing role for urban forestry. Urban forests are critical to energy savings and quality of life in urban areas, and the Forest Service will be involved in restoring and maintaining them.


A good model is Chicago Wilderness—225,000 acres of open space in the Chicago region. The Chicago Wilderness Consortium has 200 member organizations dedicated to restoring and protecting native species and ecosystems in the Chicago area. The Forest Service is just one of many. By mid-century, there will be initiatives of this sort all over the country.


All of this points again to the need to tap the way urban populations variously relate to nature. Partnerships in which the Forest Service will be a catalyst or facilitator will be key. This will fundamentally affect our culture. Our own employees, the focus of some of our work, and our culture of collaboration will become more urban in flavor and character than they have been historically—and than they are today.


Our Deepest Roots
Will we have lost our roots? I don’t think so—not our deepest roots. Among Gifford Pinchot’s maxims are these:

  • "A public official is there to serve the public and not run them."
  • "It is more trouble to consult the public than to ignore them, but that is what you are hired for."
  • "Encourage others to do things; you may accomplish many things through others that you can’t get done on your single initiative."


That spirit of service—of consulting the public we serve and working through partnerships—goes to our deepest roots. Fifty years from now, we might not be so white, male, and rural anymore, but if we proceed as I think we will … if we come to truly reflect the face of America … then—and only then—will we have been true to our deepest roots.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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