Yesterday, we had another opportunity for engagement during our third all-employee call this year, which we are holding on a quarterly basis. Communication is central to who we are at the Forest Service. Grounded in mutual respect, dialogue lets us connect with each other so we understand where we’re coming from, what we care about, and why.
Listening is a key ingredient in any conversation, and as your Chief, I am committed to listening to you. I might not be the perfect listener yet, but I promise to learn, and I look forward to many more learning opportunities. Here’s a recap of our call from yesterday.
I know from personal experience that the vast majority of our employees are dedicated professionals who create a workplace every day that is free from harassment of any kind, where everyone is respected and appreciated for their work. But I also know from my own earlier career that this is not always the case. As your Chief, I am committed to eliminating bullying or harassment of any kind from our organization. Even one case is one too many!
I have heard from many of you that, despite our words of commitment and the actions we have taken so far, you do not yet see enough tangible change. For many of you, you do not yet trust that we will stay the course. I am listening to you.
When I recently testified before a House committee, I renewed my pledge to Congress that the Forest Service has zero tolerance for harassment of any kind. I am determined to lead permanent change in the Forest Service. We can only fulfill our mission in a work environment that is safe, respectful, and free from harassment and retaliation of any kind. This is our regular work—it is mission-critical work, the basis for everything we do.
We must create a work environment we are proud to hand off to the next generation. We must stand together—the onus cannot be on the members of the workforce who are on the receiving end of unacceptable behavior. The horrible experiences some of our employees have had—and that I had too in my own early career—cannot be allowed to persist. I will not stand for it.
As you know, each year the results of an employee survey are announced for the federal government. It’s called Best Places to Work in the Federal Government. The results for 2018 were just announced, and the Forest Service’s score fell from last year by 7.2 points to 52.9. It was our third worst showing since 2003, placing us again in the bottom quartile of large federal agencies for the first time since 2014.
The results reflect the ongoing challenges our employees face in the workplace. The results echo the concerns you shared during listening sessions and other engagements earlier this year. We have heard you, and we will learn from these results. We still have work to do to create and sustain a safe, respectful work environment for all—a rewarding work environment where you get the resources you need and have the opportunities for input, training, and advancement that you deserve.
We have made a commitment as an agency to join together on a journey toward a better future. This isn’t something we do on top of our regular work. This is our regular work—it is mission-critical work, the basis for everything else we do.
Improving the Conditions of America’s Forests and Grasslands
As you know, improving the condition of America’s forests and grasslands is a national priority for the Forest Service. Using all our tools and authorities, we improved conditions on more than 2.7 million acres of forest land in 2018. We sold almost 3.2 billion board feet, helping to improve forest conditions and to create jobs and economic opportunities in our local communities. We also expanded the use of Good Neighbor Authority with the states. We now have 166 good neighbor agreements on 56 national forests in 36 states.
Our Forest Products Modernization team continues to make good progress in improving the efficiency of our forest products delivery. The team plans to roll out a strategy in March 2019 that will include recommended actions for modernizing several aspects of forest products delivery, including training, recruitment, and retention; and streamlining contracting and appraisal processes.
We are continuing to reform our processes for environmental analysis under the National Environment Policy Act and other laws. This will ensure that we expedite work to improve forest conditions by reducing cumbersome processes while still meeting our environmental stewardship responsibilities. We’ve already had several successes in improving consultation processes under the National Historic Preservation and Endangered Species Acts, and we have developed better ways our incorporate environmental analysis, public input, and innovation in how we accomplish our mission. While still protecting environmental resources, we have cut our environmental analysis costs by $30 million and the time for conducting environmental analysis by 10 percent.
Shared Stewardship Strategy
Increasing fire severities for the past decade have meant rising firefighting costs. Almost every year, we have been forced to enact “fire borrowing” from non-fire programs. In March, Congress passed and the President signed an omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018 that authorizes a fire funding fix. Under the bill, USDA and the Department of the Interior will have a new joint budget authority of $2.25 billion to cover firefighting costs that exceed regular appropriations. This new funding will begin in fiscal year 2020 and will stop the erosion of our non-fire programs.
The bill also expanded our authorities for active forest management, including our Good Neighbor Authority and our authority for stewardship contracting. Following passage of the omnibus, Congress, the Administration and our partners challenged us to show how it will make a difference in our management on the ground. Secretary Perdue responded when he announced Toward Shared Stewardship Across Landscapes, a commitment to continuing to work across boundaries for the benefit of all. This approach is all about becoming more strategic about where we place our treatments based on desired outcomes across shared landscapes. It’s about using every tool and authority we have. It’s about continuing to streamline our own administrative processes and to work at a scale that matches the size of the problem. So far, this is just a framework—an opportunity for shared learning. We are sharing this concept with states and other partners to start the conversation. It is only by working with—and listening to—all viewpoints that the Forest Service can best improve the health and well-being of forests and communities.
My sympathies go out to everyone who lost their lives in fires and hurricanes this year. Please remember their families and friends in your thoughts and prayers. Thanks to all of you who provided support in the wake of these disasters, and who opened your offices to colleagues who lost their own. Thanks to you all, the Forest Service continues to be the premier conservation agency in caring for the land and serving people.
I want to touch on the potential government shutdown next week. I know this is an expensive time of year, and this is the last thing you deserve. Please know that it is not a reflection of the great work you do for the American people. It’s just political rhetoric, you don’t deserve it and it’s not your fault. Please know too that the vast majority of Americans value the work you do and the benefits you provide them.
Thinking back to last December, I could not have imagined that this is where I would be this year, serving as your Chief. You all embraced the changes we faced this year, and I feel a strong sense of connection to you and the work that we do together.
As we celebrate the holidays, it is time to reflect on the year gone by—the challenges we faced and the accomplishments we achieved. And we’ve accomplished a lot, thanks to you! You are the heart of the Forest Service, and I feel proud, privileged, and humbled to serve as your Chief.
Please have a safe and wonderful holiday season. I hope, like me, you will spend time with the people you love and come back rested and ready for another year. Thank you for all you do!
Let’s keep the discussion going! Please send questions or make comments in the Leadership Corner Forum.
Editor’s Note: Listen to an audio recording of the call by dialing (800) 475-6701, Access Code: 457700.