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Five National Priorities build on legacy, guide agency forward

October 27, 2017 at 11:15am

A photo of forest service chief Tony Tooke

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke.

Since becoming Chief, I have frequently been asked about my vision for the Forest Service, as well as our immediate priorities. In this column, I’ll share my responses to these questions, then I will pose a couple of questions and ask for your feedback.

First, I want you to know that I expect us to remain the preeminent land management agency in sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The Forest Service today is the same great organization it was when I started my career as a GS-2 cooperative education student in south Mississippi. And, even though demands have changed with the times over the course of our 112-year history, the American public has always needed us to help provide clean water, clean air, forest and rangeland products, mineral and energy resources, jobs, quality habitat for fish and wildlife, exceptional recreational opportunities, and memorable experiences. As we have evolved, however, they also need us to serve those who depend on our knowledge and support, such as scientific communities, State agencies, and private forest owners. Citizens in local communities also need us to be good neighbors, offering our best service and contributing to their economic stability and quality of life. I wholeheartedly believe we can do the same for both today’s generations as well as those of the future.

With the rise of extreme events like wildfires, floods, drought, insect and disease outbreaks, and invasive species, the conditions of the Nation’s forests and grasslands demand pressing, consistent attention. At the same time, we are seeing increasing needs for benefits from forests, rangelands and natural resources. We must increase results and outcomes on the ground to improve the condition of forests and grasslands, to make them healthier and more resilient to extreme events, and to respond to these public needs. Our continued credibility and citizen support depends on our progress.

The five national priorities I name today align with both Secretary Perdue’s seven Strategic Goals for USDA for the next five years and the USDA Forest Service’s Strategic Plan: FY 2015-2020. Collectively, these priorities will guide essential work we must perform to respond to the needs and challenges faced by our forests and grasslands and demands from citizens. These priorities emerged from my conversations with employees in recent years, what I heard from citizens and stakeholder groups, and what I, personally, have observed. Most are not new—we are building on our progress and past efforts. But there is greater urgency around them, and we must redefine what equates to success within them.

Five Priorities for Our Work

These five national priorities do three things: They give urgency and focus to critical needs; help foster the work environment we want for our employees; and set expectations for the manner in which we accomplish our work with citizens, partners, volunteers, and each other.

1. Uplifting and empowering our employees through a respectful, safe working environment.

I have enormous respect and admiration for the work every employee does. I am committed to ensuring our work environment is safe, rewarding, respectful, free of harassment, and resilient—that every one of you works in an environment where you are recognized and valued for your contributions. I want every employee to be empowered to continuously improve our work.

2. Being good neighbors and providing excellent customer service.

We will work with efficiency and integrity with a focus on the people we serve. I envision a broad, diverse coalition for conservation, working across boundaries and using all authorities available to us. We have a backlog of special use permits, range allotment work and deferred maintenance and other needs to address. To increase customer service, we must understand customer requirements, expand our use of best practices, apply innovative tools, and address barriers that get in the way of doing good work. Each and every visitor, forest or grassland user, contractor, partner, cooperator, permittee, volunteer, and citizen deserves our very best service.

3. Promoting shared stewardship by increasing partnerships and volunteerism.

We can’t do this alone and only on National Forest System lands. It takes others to help us make a difference on the whole landscape. We will work with all citizens—from rural and urban communities—as we pursue the work in front of us. Strengthening and expanding partner and volunteer programs around shared values is critical for a sustainable future.

4. Improving the condition of forests and grasslands.

About 80 million acres of the National Forest System are at risk from insect disease and wildfire. About one-third of these lands are at very high risk. Drinking water, homes, communities, wildlife habitat, historic places, sacred sites, recreation opportunities, and scenic vistas are among many of the values at risk of loss. Having sustainable, healthy, resilient forests and grasslands in the future depends on our ability to increase work on the ground and get increased outcomes. We will use all management tools and authorities available to us to improve the condition of our forests and rangelands. Improving the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) environmental analysis and decision-making processes will help us increase our capacity and ability to improve the condition of forests and rangelands. This work will also restore ecosystem function, deliver dependable energy, provide jobs and economic benefits for rural communities, and be responsive to the American taxpayer.

5. Enhancing recreation opportunities, improving access, and sustaining infrastructure.

Most Americans experience the national forests and grasslands through recreation activities. Although these lands offer some of the most valued outdoor recreation settings in this country, the settings and visitor experiences are increasingly at risk. Deteriorating recreation facilities and roads, eroding trails, and increasing user conflicts pose numerous challenges and a decline in the quality of the visitor experience. Currently, we can only maintain to standard half of our roads, trails, facilities, and other components of our infrastructure. Access to the National Forest System is more limited. We will take steps to address these challenges and create more enhanced, sustainable recreation opportunities, access, and infrastructure to better meet the needs of visitors, citizens, and users.

NEPA environmental analysis and decision-making improvements can help us achieve goals and objectives for enhanced recreation, improved access, and a more sustainable infrastructure.

This is the work before us. Please understand, I am not asking you to do more with less. To achieve this work, we will focus on the highest priority assignments. We will learn to work differently to accomplish our goals and ease the pressures on our workforce. I frequently hear about multiple, changing demands that put a strain on employees. I am aware of unnecessary processes that block your ability to do priority work. My aim and commitment is to lift burdens that weigh on employees and remove barriers that get in the way. I will work to better equip you and empower you. This is more essential than ever when we must optimize the diverse talents and skills of every employee, avail ourselves of every resource and authority, and make the most of every dollar.

My questions for you are: What do you see standing in your way? What are you experiencing that we can collectively learn from?

In the coming weeks, I will ask you to share your thoughts and ideas. I look forward to hearing from you and addressing them in future columns. I will also be sharing more details about these five priorities and how we will measure and maintain progress.

In the meantime, thank you for all of your hard work and efforts to successfully deliver the agency’s mission. I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and working with you to increase our capacity to accomplish work on the ground, deliver customer service, and better respond to the pressing needs of our day.

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