Leadership Corner

Rethinking environmental analysis

October 13th, 2017 at 2:00PM

A photo of forest service chief Tony Tooke
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke.

The Forest Service is a learning agency. Any organization that values service is always looking for ways to better itself. This is not only a commitment to ourselves, but to the American people. We manage these 193 million acres for the benefit of the American people. We have an obligation to be the best agency we can possibly be. That commitment requires us to constantly look at ourselves with a critical eye and to ask ourselves if we can be better, more efficient and more effective.

For years, there has been agency-wide recognition that we need to reform how we perform environmental analysis and make decisions. We know that we are not fully meeting the expectations of our partners, the communities we serve, or ourselves. The work we do costs too much and it takes too long to see results.

We are taking steps in the right direction, but we now have an opportunity to expand our efforts. This is an opportunity to become better at improving the condition of forests, extend recreation opportunities, increase access, and more. Our non-fire workforce’s capacity is the lowest that it has been in decades—this means we must leverage the resources we have at hand to change this. And our agency has tremendous resources—namely, your collective strength and expertise. I plan on bringing this incredible set of skills, knowledge and experience to bear as we address this issue together.

Last month, the National Leadership Council and I convened a workshop of 150 agency leaders to examine how we perform environmental analysis and make decisions. This meeting was part of an overall goal to reform our agency culture around implementing laws and regulations through a comprehensive, national approach that embraces innovation and seizes upon opportunities as they present themselves. We all committed to finding a smart solution to this shared problem.

This is no small goal. Throughout this process we have the realities of current and future on-the-ground resource objectives to consider. Put simply, the reform we seek has to be identified and implemented while our agency’s wheels remain in motion. I am confident that our agency is up to the task.

This will not be a top-down effort. Our solution relies upon the skills and experience of our employees in the field. The setbacks that you have experienced, the lessons learned and the obstacles that you have overcome have been integral to identifying the areas where we need to improve. This will be instrumental in creating smart, effective and long-lasting solutions to these problems. We will be putting the full set of Good Neighbor and 2014 Farm Bill Insect and Disease authorities to use in this effort as well.

As part of this process we are investing in you, our employees, by developing new training opportunities for our line officers and other specialists about the policies, laws and regulations that guide our work. We will also be managing our regional and national contracts to promote increased capacity across multiple units.

As we consider vacancies within the agency, this effort will require us to prioritize positions that focus on these desired changes. We will review the way we perform our environmental analysis and decision-making work to identify any efficiencies, overlap or opportunities.

Technology will also be key in addressing our needs. That is why I have asked for the development of a standard, national template for environmental analysis in addition to a standard approach for Categorical Exclusions. This will include better electronic infrastructure to support public engagement needs. Two national task forces will be established as well: one to address Endangered Species Act regulations and another to address the National Historic Preservation Act and how the Forest Service works with State Historic Preservation Officers.

Most importantly, this effort is going to be accomplished while holding true to our commitment to deliver scientifically based, high-quality analysis that honors our stewardship responsibilities. These values are at the core of our mission as an agency. We will continue to hold to them as we develop better ways to do our work and create policy that alleviates burden on those that implement it.

When I was sworn in as Chief, I made a commitment to you that my mission was to ensure the Forest Service remained a relevant organization with a long-term vision of serving the American people. Part of that commitment is making certain that we follow through and hold ourselves accountable to the changes we set out to make. This means setting performance measures for everyone involved in this process, especially leaders, which will be crucial in effecting the change we want to see. That will be a critical part of this process.

We know that collaboration leads to more effective decision making. Any successful endeavor of this magnitude requires everyone to be on board. That means we will have to not only provide the support necessary to cultivate such change, but that we value thinking together—we cannot be afraid to speak our minds or to call out the hard truths. We must tackle any challenges, setbacks or disappointments head-on.

We must commit to not only having the courage to identify and overcome our mistakes, but to having the humility to learn from them and to grow. In doing so, we can transform difficulty into opportunity. This will require us all to be receptive to new ideas, no matter where they come from. It will also mean that we have to confront traditional team dynamics, rethink our working relationships, and shift our thinking to embrace creativity and innovation, and to set old conventions aside as we move forward together.

Chief Tony Tooke