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Getting Outside the Echo Chamber
Challenges in Leadership
Associate Chief Sally Collins
WDNR – Division of Forestry 2008 Statewide Meeting
Wisconsin Dells, WI – January 29, 2008


Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here this afternoon with you all. I always enjoy coming to Wisconsin.  My husband and I have deep Midwestern roots, his very close to here with the Leopold family - Aldo was his great uncle, so the family came regularly to the shack as he was growing up.  And my mother’s family camped every year at Devil’s Lake, where she had some of her fondest childhood memories.  I really appreciate the opportunity to get out of the city and into the woods.  Besides that Paul DeLong is a hard person to say no to, as I am sure many of you have found.  But I owe him much more than he probably even knows. I’m not sure how much you know about how Wisconsin Forestry is viewed nationally – you’re seen as innovators and leaders, introducing ideas and challenging us and other states to step up on emerging issues, from certification to invasives, especially emerald ash borer. I am honored to be here with you and up here, speaking with him.

Stepping outside the echo chamber

Just a few weeks ago, Washington Post associate editor and writer Eugene Robinson started his regular column with this:   “People in Washington really should get out more.” It was just after the Iowa Caucus, and he seemed to be still processing his weekend visit to hear the candidates. By “Washington” he didn’t mean just the city but the city’s state-of-mind.  He reasoned if politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats, journalists, and everyone else trapped in the Washington “echo chamber” got out more, their perspective might bear more relation to what people who live outside the bubble think of as reality.

Echo chamber….wow, did that resonate with me. I’ve spent seven years in the heart of Washington DC – before that, more than two decades on my beloved Deschutes National Forest in Oregon. I know how easy it is to lose track of what might be happening outside the bubble – especially when it comes to DC. We can get so caught up in our world, particularly when we’re passionate about what we do.  We talk to people who reinforce our beliefs, validate our assumptions, and share our priorities.  We see the world through the same prism.

There is an enormous risk in doing this. To politicians, it can mean losing an election. To policy makers, legislative initiatives fail; programs designed to help, don’t.   For many of us, it might mean that what we’ve devoted our professional work to accomplish is no longer relevant or important.  By remaining in an echo chamber – by listening to only one another, by hearing only the chorus of our own demographic - we can completely miss what’s really going on.  And most importantly, miss the opportunity to have a positive impact.

The same can be said of most of us in the natural resources profession. We really do need to get out more – and by that I don’t just mean out in the field. We need to step out from our familiar conversations, our comfortable models, the scientific framework, and the forest practices we’ve arranged for our profession over the last century.  We need to step out of our culture, out of our country even, and certainly out of our beloved forests. We need to find our way out of our current state-of-mind, long enough to see what’s happening elsewhere and long enough to connect that experience, and apply it, to what we’re doing at home.

This, to me, is what being a leader is all about.

My story

Most of us can remember those important turning points in our lives and careers that cause huge shifts in perspective—that instigate movement outside our personal echo chamber.  For me, it was a trip to South Africa in 2002.  It was my first international trip with the Forest Service, and my first year as Associate Chief to Chief Dale Bosworth.  I was asked to attend the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. At the same time, I received an email invitation to attend a board meeting of a group I had never heard of, Forest Trends, in a little town in northern South Africa called Sabie. The story of how my staff accidentally got the invitation – and accepted it before Forest Trends realized they intended to send it to someone with a very similar name – is another one entirely. (And actually, an instructional one from a leadership perspective – sometimes the most incredible experiences are totally accidental!)

But this story begins with me realizing that an organization called Forest Trends exists, an organization that tracks trends in forestry worldwide, and that this organization is located less than a mile from the office of the chief forester of the U.S.  No one in my office knew anything about the organization.

The mystery deepened as I arrived in Sabie.  Many of the board members were from the U.S. but not all – they were incredibly diverse, coming from Greenpeace Russia, FSC International, Transparency International in Indonesia, World Wildlife Fund U.S., and some from closer to home, like Collins Pine from Oregon. These people were there in South Africa to visit a new U.S. timber operation that was recently acquired by a company called Global Forest Products - the owner was also a Forest Trends board member.  The tour consisted of a show-and-tell at a mill that was decade’s old, part of a large plantation forestry operation with two other similar mills.

We saw and learned a lot about the operation that day:

  • Most of the workers had to be bused in to the mills from several hours away. During the week they lived in company housing, and they returned to their townships on weekends to join their families.

  • The mills were required by post-apartheid law to bring management under black leadership by a certain deadline, one that was fast approaching. The development of black managers was a great challenge, given education and experience levels, but the company was doing it aggressively with a huge training program;

  • and the workforce wasn’t stable. At least 30 percent of the workers were HIV positive and were expected to live less than three years, since drugs were few and living conditions were extremely poor. In this context, the company played an important social role, providing medical care and family and personal counseling.

You can imagine all of the costs and difficulties associated with all of this. But while the technology was old and the processing waste much higher than in modern mills, the product they were producing was excellent. All of the forests, and the operation itself, had been FSC-certified. The company was shipping the wood to the United States, and they were making money.

What was I missing? In the United States, with all of the advantages we have in terms of equipment and infrastructure, social conditions, and proximity to markets, so many mills have closed that there are few left in many parts of the country. As a Forest Supervisor in Oregon, just two years before, I had watched timber sale after timber sale on national forests get litigated, modified, and sometimes ultimately go without bids. I had watched mills close all around me, owners buy mills in places like Lithuania, and local timber brokers lament the cheap lumber coming in from Canada. Now, far away from home, I was seeing that it is actually cheaper to operate overseas and send the wood to the U.S. than it is to operate here in the U.S. and sell on our own markets. What I later learned was that when we buy softwood lumber in this country, four boards in ten now come from other countries. The answer had to be more complex than what I initially heard from colleagues, that our lack of competitiveness stems from overly-restrictive environmental laws.

This was a real eye-opener for me. Global economic trends had caught up with forestry. I’d heard vaguely about the certification of wood products, but it wasn’t something the Forest Service had seriously considered - if we had, it was dismissed at levels higher than me for reasons I did not at the time understand. We continued to do work as we’d always worked, applying the same standards to timber sales as always, laying out treatments as traditionally done - despite new global markets, new products and new price regimes…We were working hard and efficiently, but were we working on the right stuff?

For the first time, I realized that I had to pay attention to the global trends and forces that were affecting me locally, to understand how to best position my organization to respond. Not only that, but if we were to redeem ourselves as leaders in forestry worldwide, we needed to be able to speak with credibility on a whole range of emerging issues – forest certification, global market developments, ecosystem services and market-based conservation, carbon, biomass, climate change, global governance and land ownership, illegal logging, deforestation, the list goes on! The Forest Service was only minimally involved in important contemporary questions, and we certainly weren’t leaders in the dialogue.

So this was my lesson: If we’re too focused on the past, the process, or the business-as-usual, if we’re too engrossed in our own bubble, we miss important signals that can put us ahead. Good leaders can step out of the weeds to see the larger picture, and they can dig beneath the surface for underlying trends. In this global, fast-moving era, this is absolutely essential.

Global change and the loss of services

Not only is this important in leadership, but it’s absolutely critical to the advancement of forestry and natural resource management. The forestry profession is changing – we’ve come to realize that our management challenges are global in scope, even though they impact us on the ground. Pollution crosses boundaries, water crosses boundaries – the monarch butterfly flies from Canada to Mexico and back every year! Nature crosses boundaries, and so must we.

So began my journey to explore many of the larger global trends affecting Forestry.  It has been a rich five years, and I will only touch on a few of these, those that I think will define our course of action for all of us in natural resources over the next few decades.  I’ll begin with a global assessment that for many, really hit home.

Two years ago, the United Nations commissioned a study of the extent to which human activities have altered ecosystems around the globe. Many of you are aware of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. It catalogued and evaluated the status of a range of ecosystem services:

** The most basic services we obtain from nature, like the delivery of food, fresh water, wood, and medicine; and services that are less tangible and harder to measure but equally as critical -

** regulating services like air quality regulation, water purification, pollination, and flood and erosion control;

 ** supporting services like nutrient cycling and soil formation; and

** cultural services, such as recreation, ecotourism, and aesthetic values.

The Millennium Assessment scientists – a team of over 1300 international experts - found that 60 percent of the world’s ecosystem services are currently being degraded or used unsustainably. Seventy percent of the regulating and cultural services I mentioned are in decline, and 25 percent of global fresh water supplies. The scientists concluded that the loss of ecosystem services directly impacts human health and well-being – an effect we’re already seeing in so many parts of the world.

When the assessment was released it made the news, from the New York Times to a World Health Organization press clip - people all over the world paid attention. “Wake up call on the environment!” read a headline in the Trinidad Express. In short, the message was this: Humans are putting such a strain on the planet that its ability to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.

How can this be? What is causing this phenomenal decline in ecosystem services? We are. As population, income, and consumption levels increase, we put more and more pressure on our natural systems to deliver the benefits we depend on. In fact, we can name a whole host of interrelated factors and trends that are driving ecosystem change and the loss of services.

Some trends

Climate change is probably the most significant, the most far-reaching. We know that climate change may fundamentally alter the distribution of natural ecosystems in the U.S., their species diversity, their productivity, and their ability to supply ecosystem services. Regional climate changes and climate variations over the past century have already had a measurable impact on our ecosystems. Climate change cuts across virtually every major issue we face in land management – fire and fuels, pests and invasives, water resources, endangered species, outdoor recreation, markets, food security, sustainable development, and more.

  • Each year, climate variability is causing the fire season to begin earlier and last longer. Because of fuel buildup fires are larger; they’re more extensive. We’ve recently experienced the worst fire seasons in 50 years, and five states have had their largest fires in history. We’ve lost dozens of lives and a record number of homes. The social and economic costs to communities are enormous.

  • With warmer temperatures, insect disturbance is on the rise and entire ecosystems are changing. The massive outbreak of native bark beetles we’re seeing across coniferous forests in the western U.S. and in Canada is a perfect example of the threshold change to ecosystems – what will happen when the keystone species are removed from these systems?

  • Climate change is affecting our water supplies. The International Panel on Climate Change – the IPCC - predicts that warming in our western mountains will cause decreased snow pack, more winter flooding, and reduced summer flows, creating water scarcity and exacerbating competition for water resources.

Water shortages are already a prime concern throughout the country, as the droughts across the southeast just reminded us. Forty percent of the world may be living in water scarce regions by 2025.

At least 36 states in the country will face water shortages within the next five years, and U.S. population is expected to more than double by the end of the century. Our need to conserve water resources is more critical than ever.

Land use change is also an immediate issue throughout the United States. Every day, our nation loses thousands of acres of working farms, forests, and ranches to urban development. Urban land in the contiguous United States is expected to nearly triple over the next several decades, an increase in area larger than the state of Montana. Forest land conversion is a conservation challenge we face across the landscape, on private and public land. When forest land is developed or degraded we lose a range of goods and services provided, and we increase the pressure on our public and preserved areas to deliver the benefits lost.

One of our challenges in the Forest Service is communicating the importance of forests to an increasingly diverse public – a public that doesn’t necessarily appreciate the value of ecosystem services, which are considered free and limitless if considered at all. Over 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. Most people don’t know where their food comes from beyond the supermarket shelf, how much they depend on forests for clean air and clean water, or the economic and psychological benefits of street trees. How can we connect urban residents to nature - especially children, our youngest generation, and our future voters?  How can we engage urban America in conservation?

What I’m not talking about today, which are also huge trends affecting forests, nationally and globally, are invasive species, outdoor recreation pressures, and parcelization of private land.  I’m not talking about the effects on the U.S. and Canadian forest products industry when plantation forestry takes off in the southern hemisphere, when Russia imposes an export tax that shifts global markets again. Or massive sell-off of private industrial forest land to Real Estate Investment Trusts and the future impact that might have.  When you put all of these trends together, when you consider the Millennium Assessment together with other science out there and what we see in our own backyards, one thing is remarkably clear: As natural resource managers, we need to be aware of the trends impacting forests and forestry. We have to understand the context we live in - locally, regionally, and globally - and the people, the cultures, the values that altogether shape this context. In the words of our Washington Post columnist, we “should get out more.” This means opening our minds to new ideas and new approaches; involving new people, taking on a fresh perspective.

It isn’t easy.  I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a colleague several years ago.  The agenda for the meeting included topics like Ecosystem Services, Global Markets, and land-use trends. He was uncomfortable discussing all of these trends, insisting that houses were being built all around where he lived, and that he was sure that harvesting would pick up on the national forests soon. I know that foresters are by nature optimists, but I am also amazed at how persistent we can be in resisting ideas that challenge our experience and worldview.  It can cause us to spend an inordinate amount of time pining for the past, directing energy at a perceived enemy, and lamenting how misunderstood our profession is.

Skills for the future

It is so important that we cultivate leaders in natural resources that can not just adapt to this changing world but can thrive on it. So it will take some special skills to lead us in this time of uncertainty and change. So what’s going to be especially important? I give you my short list of five:

  1. Self awareness. We’ll need people to really understand the impact of their actions on others – and can adapt their language/style and their approaches accordingly. This is especially important in cross-cultural communication, and relating to people outside our bubble!

  2. Intellectual curiosity. We’ll need people who continually seek out new ideas and knowledge and who expand what is known today.

  3. Self-responsibility. People who take responsibility for their successes and failures - who don’t wait for others to direct them, but act themselves; regardless of their jobs. People who take initiative, take risks, and take responsibility.

  4. Humility. If there is ever time when we need to admit what we don’t know, and approach our work in a spirit of learning and experimenting, it is now. What’s refreshing is that almost everyone is equally exploring issues like climate change and global markets – and no one as a lock on the answers. And finally,

  5. Quiet determination and an inclination to act. Not every idea is going to have a supporter, but we’re going to need people who remain focused and determined, over time, to make something happen. Maybe it’s your boss’ philosophy or budget cuts or a lack of partners – leaders keep building momentum for a time when an idea came move – this is why I call it quiet determination. You might say, Paul, our work in certification falls in this category, and markets for ecosystem services.


I’ll close by leaving you with some thoughts about how to stretch those boundaries we so often create. For me, these are some of the most important things we can be doing in the spirit of leadership and in the interest of conservation. Let’s make it a top ten.

10. Be up-to-date on issues in your field– know the issues, and be able to provide current and credible information. Take a seminar, a refresher class at a university, attend lectures, professional society meetings…pursue that topic you’re interested in but have postponed for hundreds of good reasons.

9. Invite a sense of community into your work. Connect your efforts with others to build bridges and a larger information network.  Commit to finding those people and groups—like Forest Trends—who can help in the pursuit of knowledge and execution of new policies.

8. Challenge yourself to reduce your environmental footprint – be the environmental leader you expect others to be.  Start something:  join the EPA’s climate leaders program, start a recycling program, whatever it takes…as the saying goes, real change starts with you, on a very personal level.

7. Support leadership development, like this session.  Attend, speak, mentor, coach - all of those actions that encourage others to expand their horizons and opportunities.

6. Surround yourself with people who don’t see things the way you do, that might test your thinking and your response. Seek out those you know share different opinions and have lunch with them. See if you can have a conversation without inserting one idea of your own, just by listening and clarifying the ideas of others.

5. Keep yourself open - to different ideas, to new approaches, and to uncertainty. Learn how to detect resistance in your voice, and turn it into interest and a willingness to try. Turn your immediate impulse to challenge an idea or point-of-view into a genuine and earnest question: “Tell me more about that, help me understand more about that…”

4. Experiment, test your ideas. Each of us, in our various jobs, have the ability to start something…a website, a training program, a seminar series, a book club, a project in the woods…try to incorporate new thinking and approaches in your work.

3. Refresh your language – choose words that resonate with your audience, words that are inclusive and reflect a broader set of values. Check out with others the relevance of some of our professional language…does the language of silviculture, for example, fit what we do in ecological restoration, does it communicate this to others? All too often language reinforces culture that my need to be updated.

2. Read, read, read as much as you can. Share what you read with others. Novels, plays, biographies, and pick up at least one non-fiction that introduces you to some new ideas—The Tipping Point, The End of Poverty, The World is Flat, The Omnivores Dilemma. Ask the person next to you the best book they read in the last year. 


1. As Eleanor Roosevelt said “Do something every day that scares you,” if even in a small way – challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone, your echo chamber, and see what you find. I carry a small saying with me everywhere. It reads: “If we don’t change, we don’t grow.  If we don’t grow, we are not really living. Growth demands a temporary surrender of security.”

And of course a lot of what causes this surrender of security isn’t something we create – it’s a result of something someone else does, or another force acting on us. So we don’t get a job or promotion we wanted; the grant we’d expected; or the even marriage we’d hoped for. Venturing into insecure places – as disconcerting and scary as they are – can lead to amazing new things, if you’re open to them. I think we all might just have a few insecure, scary moments ahead of us. That means we could also be entering a positive, creative, and enlightening time…for us personally, for us all professionally.

I wish you all an exciting journey. Thanks again for including me in this great program.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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