Leadership Corner

Creating a modern approach to forest products delivery

July 19th, 2019 at 1:32PM
Portrait phot: Chris French
Chris French, deputy chief of the National Forest System Deputy Area

My guess is that most us look at our work and think of how to improve or change the way we do it. It’s important to evaluate why and how we do things. It’s important to support innovation and invest in strategies that help us do our work more effectively. It’s important to try new things that might fail but lead to better understanding. It’s how we got the Pulaski, GPS, PayCheck 8, white trucks, Good Neighbor Agreements, Stewardship Contracting and our emerging work in conservation finance.

I believe our best ideas come from our learning and questioning the status quo - especially when conditions have changed. And as we know, we have great challenges right now because our conditions have changed: We have an imperative to change our workplace, we don’t have enough capacity to do everything that we want to do, we have aging infrastructure, backlogs of expired permits, needed monitoring, staffing challenges, actings and leadership transitions, and, finally (although this list is not meant to be exhaustive),  enormous forest health, watershed, fire risk and restoration challenges that drive our agency priorities.  

Meeting this last challenge is tough. Right now, of the 80 million National Forest and Grassland acres that are in need of restoration, at least 51 million acres are at high risk due to insects, disease, wildfire, and stress from climate change. Looking at the broader landscape of America’s forests, of which we are a part, forest health issues cross boundaries which compounds social, ecologic and economic risks to our forest dependent communities and tribes. Innovative approaches are key to help us address this challenge. Suppression of wildfire and addressing our at-risk forests consume enormous agency resources and capacity. Any changes to help us address this challenge more effectively or efficiently directly benefits our ability to delivery on our entire mission. This goal has been the primary driver of the Fire Funding Fix, Shared Stewardship, Good Neighbor, and EADM reform.  All of these efforts bring additional capacity through budget, partnership, shared prioritization and efficiency to our work. It is also the driver of another change effort called Forest Products Modernization.  

If you have not heard of Forest Products Modernization, the goal is simple: listen to what the agency needs and create simpler, less bureaucratic, more flexible and modern approaches to our forest management work.

Two years ago, a small team in the Washington Office Forest Management program was tasked with conducting a comprehensive review of our entire forest products delivery system. Employees and partners in every region provided over 1,000 comments and more than 130 concrete ideas and solutions for how we can modernize and strengthen our forest products program. The result is the Forest Products Modernization Strategic Framework for Long-Term Action: FY2019-2023 document. This is our roadmap for the agency to become more efficient in managing forests, delivering forest products, executing forest restoration treatments, and carrying out timber sales. This is how we are going to improve forest conditions and create more resilient landscapes.

Forest Products Modernization takes a four-pronged approach:

  • Investing in people by improving recruitment and retention strategies and increasing training and education opportunities for employees
  • Expanding the use of new technology to increase efficiency
  • Improving business practices to be more responsive to employee and customer needs
  • Updating policy to support modernized practices and processes

A lot of great work is already underway. Employees in every region are taking advantage of new tools and authorities and finding innovative ways to work with partners. We’ve updated and expanded forest management training programs. In the last two years we’ve hired over 300 recent graduates and interns as foresters and forest technicians. We are distributing digital equipment for timber cruising to all regions. We are simplifying out appraisal process, and we are updating our timber management directives on the use of new tools and authorities. A wealth of additional information, tools and resources are now on the internal national FPM site.

But modernization is about much more than updates in technology and policies. It is also about recognizing that the pace of our work has changed; how we do our work has changed. This strategy is about embracing innovation, using every tool at our disposal to get the job done. It recognizes that we can deliver benefits to people and communities who depend on the forest for their livelihood in ways that improve the health of the forest. It acknowledges that while our employees work hard to get the job done, we cannot do it alone; and we cannot sacrifice our workplace or work/life balance. The Forest Products Modernization strategy embraces shared stewardship and working with industry, states and tribes to tackle the challenges before us. Finally, the strategy seeks to create consistency in our work across the agency, but give employees the discretion and flexibility to make decisions based on what they know about the places and communities where they work.

I encourage employees to think about how they can help modernization efforts succeed by trying new practices and engaging with partners to find innovative solutions to the challenges you tackle in your day-to-day work. More importantly, I encourage supervisors to empower their employees to try new tools and methods. Modernization demands tolerance for reasonable risk and failure for the sake of learning.

As we move out on implementation of the Forest Products Modernization Strategic Framework, I hope you will continue to share ideas, lessons learned, and best practices so that together we can continue to grow, learn, and improve. Our progress to date is a reflection of employees rising to the occasion to meet serious challenges and their commitment to our agency core values. I thank you for your hard work and dedication.