Leadership Corner

Forest Service Accomplishments in 2019

November 1st, 2019 at 2:14PM
Portrait of Chief Vicki Christiansen in uniform.
Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen

When I look back on the way we started in 2019, it is awe-inspiring to see how Forest Service employees responded to adversity this year. The work we were able to accomplish, the progress we made—despite our rough start and the many difficult challenges we faced—testify to your incredible commitment to our mission. Your commendable performance and just plain grit over the last year attests to the values-based, relationship-focused, purpose-driven workforce we are all becoming. We came together under arduous circumstances to successfully work with the communities we serve and answer the call of conservation.

Thank you.

As the year progressed and we braced for another intense fire year, nature gifted us with a summer reprieve. That has shifted in recent days, however, as our employees and communities in the Pacific Southwest face harrowing threats from California wildfires. The Santa Ana winds there have wreaked havoc on the state—leaving swaths of destruction—as electrical blackouts continue to further complicate the situation.

It’s a tough time for Californians, our employees included.

I have no doubt the resiliency that got us through this difficult year will sustain our employees during California’s fire crisis. Resiliency is simply in our DNA; it showed up in spades last year.

We invested tremendous effort to advance the work of our five national priorities this year. We made progress across the country. You did much to mitigate wildfire risks and other threats, improve people’s lives in the communities we serve and ensure the nation’s forests and grasslands are healthy and productive, and much, much more.

I am grateful for your leadership in improving forest conditions, using every new tool and leveraging new authorities to help get more work done on the ground. This year we sold 3.3 million board feet of timber, the highest volume in 22 years. However, that’s only one measure of the full suite of work that contributes to improving forests. Further, we increased our economic contributions to local economies by using the expanded authorities in the 2018 Farm Bill, as well as signing 216 Good Neighbor Agreements with 38 states. We advanced our shared stewardship model by signing eight shared stewardship agreements with states and one with the Western Governors’ Association.

We made significant progress on all sides of our mission delivery, from Research and Development to business functions.

This year we also launched “This Is Who We Are,” officially naming our agency core values of conservation, service, diversity, safety and interdependence. You lived our agency core values in how you showed up for our customers and each other. Building upon the framework provided in This is Who We Are, along with support and guidance from the Work Environment and Performance Office, we made great progress in our efforts to create the safe and respectful work environment we all want and deserve.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give props to our nationally beloved Smokey Bear. He celebrated his 75th birthday with a packed schedule of events throughout the year and across the country. We kicked off his anniversary with a wagon ride down the five-mile stretch of the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California. His presence, and the sight of our shield on the wagon’s side, inspired the many watchers and television viewers, and it gave us a much-needed morale boost as we waited to return to work in the early days of 2019. His steadfast presence remains a daily reminder of the worthwhile work we all do to conserve and sustain our nation’s natural resources.

Your accomplishments in fiscal year 2019 demonstrate your own steadfast commitment to stewarding these forests and grasslands. Thanks to you, the Forest Service continues to work with partners in caring for the land and serving people, today and for generations to come.

For a closer look at many of our achievements this year, read this document in its entirety. I look forward to building on our fiscal 2019 achievements in the coming year.

As we move into the new fiscal year, we will continue to strive for excellence in everything we do, serving the American people with an open heart and a kind disposition. Please continue to help us change our culture at the Forest Service by articulating our core purpose, our core values and our voice as an agency, all described in “This Is Who We Are.” We want people to experience us as trustworthy, caring, respectful, inclusive, curious and responsive. We want every employee to adopt the stance and habits of Forest Service leaders, and I expect everyone to live by our Code and Commitments in the workplace, treating everyone with the respect they deserve.

Please read my Fiscal Year 2020 Program Direction letter to see where we’re headed as an agency this year and tailor your priorities accordingly. We will continue to ground our work in our agency values. With these core values as a foundation for our work, we will continue to pursue our five national priorities in alignment with USDA and Forest Service strategic goals and objectives.

Thanks to you, the Forest Service will continue to work with partners in caring for the land and serving people for the benefit of generations to come. Meanwhile, please keep our friends and colleagues in your thoughts as they work together to overcome the wildfires that threaten their homes and livelihoods. You are ever in our thoughts. We stand ready to support you.

Again, thank each of you for everything you do! Please continue reading for a look back at what we accomplished together in 2019.

 

Chief Christiansen gives employees an overview of the This is Who We Are booklet

Partial List of Forest Service Accomplishments

The following Forest Service accomplishments in fiscal 2019 are grouped by our five national priorities. It’s a convenient way of summarizing some of what we achieved in fiscal 2019, and feel free to share!

Priority 1: Inspiring and empowering our employees through a respectful, safe working environment.

In fiscal 2019, as in previous years, improving our work environment continued to be a mission-critical priority for the Forest Service. Every employee deserves a safe and respectful work environment as a necessary basis for fulfilling our mission. In addition to the release of “This Is Who We Are” as a foundation for leadership training and new employee orientation, we accomplished much more to advance our first national priority.

In fiscal 2019, we held three sessions to test ways of engaging employees in “This Is Who We Are.” We also started requiring contract workers to submit form OF-306, Declaration for Federal Employment, to screen out people with records of workplace harassment, indiscretions or criminal activity.

Over 5,000 employees participated in Bystander Intervention Training to learn how to safely intervene when they witness unacceptable behaviors. Additional courses on preventing bullying and violence, handling team conflict and empowering employees are available through webinars and in-person sessions.  

Anchored as we are in our core value of safety, we reduced work-related accidents, injuries and fatalities to the lowest rates in the past century. Our work-related 5-year running fatality rate fell to an all-time low of 0.8 fatalities per year, compared to 7.4 fatalities per year in 2009. New claims filed under the Workers’ Compensation Program dropped from 3,686 in 2009 to 2,150 in 2019, a 41-percent improvement.

We established a Casualty Assistance Program reflecting the Forest Service’s Code and Commitments by supporting employees, their families and the larger interagency community during incidents. The program helps to ensure the safety, health and vitality of each and every Forest Service employee.

We focused on increasing diversity in wildland firefighting, including hosting a panel for over 1,500 people at the national Women in Leadership Conference on recruiting and retaining women firefighters and natural resource professionals. We also hosted the 25th year of the “Explorer” program on the Angeles National Forest for about 150 inner-city high school students who join our agency as seasonal employees, and we cosponsored a panel featuring women wildland firefighters for over 100 attendees from across USDA to discuss strategies for helping women succeed in wildland firefighting. 

Priority 2: Providing excellent customer service.

It was a pivotal year for our 24 Jobs Corps Civilian Conservation Centers. Secretary Perdue set a new vision for Job Corps and we crafted a new strategy to better integrate Job Corps into the fabric of the Forest Service. The reforms will help Job Corps centers better meet local community needs while building the Forest Service workforce of the future.

We proposed several rules for improving customer service on the national forests and grasslands under the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, better known as the Farm Bill. One rule would streamline applications for constructing broadband infrastructure on the National Forest System, giving local communities better online service. Another rule would let operators of powerlines participate in a pilot program for vegetation management to reduce risks of power outages and wildfire ignitions from downed powerlines. A third rule would give the Forest Service more flexibility in resolving property conflicts with landowners while alleviating associated management burden and expense. The rule would apply to up to 40 acres of land that have lost their wildland character and that have a value of up to $500,000. The rule would also allow us to convey landfills, sewage treatment plants and cemeteries currently permitted to operate on lands managed by the Forest Service.

The 2018 Farm Bill authorized a new Water Source Protection Program for municipal watersheds through public-private partnerships with water owners and administrators. Additionally, we will update our Watershed Condition Framework for classifying watersheds on the National Forest System. This way we can focus on restoring the right watersheds at the right scales and ensure clean drinking water for the more than 60 million Americans who live downstream from our forest and grasslands.

Our Business Operations and Chief Financial Officer deputy areas also made significant contributions to our success this year. We adopted the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Centralized Receivables Service, which will consolidate and automate billing functions agency wide. The CRS will help us collect more than $87 million in delinquent debt, and it will give customers a central point of contact and a consistent billing process. 

We are very pleased to have obtained direct hire authority for eight different wildland firefighting occupations, receiving approval from the Office of Personnel Management to fill 3,082 fire positions through direct hire. Additionally, we obtained direct hire authority for resource assistants, and yesterday I had the privilege to swear in the first employee hired under this authority. And let’s not forget how our Human Resources Management staff made our paychecks a top priority post-furlough. We are grateful for their continued service to their fellow employees and their dedication to our mission.

The Business Operations and State and Private Forestry deputy areas continued the integration of national contract obligations for Fire and Aviation Management into the Integrated Acquisition System while approving invoices on the Invoice Processing Platform. Through IAS, we are improving the transparency of incident procurement expenditures by obligating incident orders in an approved procurement system, thereby meeting federal data management requirements and reducing risks identified by auditors.

Priority 3: Promoting shared stewardship by being a good neighbor and increasing partnerships and volunteerism.

In 2018 we announced our Shared Stewardship strategy, and this year we signed agreements with seven states (Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah and Washington) as well as the Western Governors’ Association. We also designated a national team to support Shared Stewardship through such measures as making experts available to take questions from stakeholders, advancing scenario-planning capacity for priority setting, and working across jurisdictions to identify high-priority desired outcomes.

Under our ongoing commitment to improve the wildland fire system, we launched a new community-based risk mapping tool, the first of its kind at the community level. A prototype deployed for Washington allowed local, state and federal agencies to understand their joint profile for wildfire risk. Our goal is to deploy similar capabilities for the entire nation in fiscal 2020.

Our researchers and practitioners worked together on tools for active forest management with our federal, state and private partners. The tools include a library of more than 250 silvicultural prescriptions, a compendium of more than 400 adaptation approaches, and a new scenario planning tool that communities can use to set goals and priorities for shared landscapes.

The 2018 Farm Bill expanded our Good Neighbor Authority by authorizing the Forest Service to enter into GNA agreements with counties and tribes and by allowing states to apply funds from the sale of federal timber under a GNA agreement to future work under the agreement. We expanded the use of both GNA and stewardship contracting, engaging with 500 tribal, state and county partners and executing 216 GNA agreements in 38 states. We increased the amount of timber awarded under GNA from 22 million to 89 million board feet.

Under the Farm Bill, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue signed a charter for a federal advisory committee for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. The Farm Bill increased authorized spending under the program from $40 million to $80 million and allowed for projects approved in fiscal year 2012 to be extended for up to 10 years. In addition, the Farm Bill strengthened the Secure Rural Schools Resource Advisory Committee Program for better customer service and broader sharing of stewardship with states and counties.

We executed 12,500 grants-and-agreements actions with more than 3,000 partners. Federal obligations of $760 million leveraged cooperator contributions of $602 million, for an overall value of $1.36 billion.
Together with partners, we chose ten rural communities to receive technical assistance in bringing residents and stakeholders together to decide on strategies and an action plan for expanding the local outdoor recreation economy.

Priority 4: Improving the condition of forests and grasslands.

This year the Forest Service sold 3.3 billion board feet of timber, the most in 22 years. Your hard work on process improvements in environmental analysis and forest products management are paying off. Despite late return of fire borrowing repayment, fewer staff, narrower planning windows, level funding and hiring challenges, we still raised timber outputs.

We expanded digital technology to nearly 90 percent of our timber cruising operations. We also carried out the first major revision of the timber sale accounting software in nearly 40 years. These innovations increased data quality and reduced time spent in the field by about 30 percent while allowing timber purchasers to track payments in real time. Thank you for your continued innovations in our timber program.

For the first time since 2008, we proposed revisions to our regulations for carrying out the National Environmental Policy Act in order to streamline processes and get more work done on the ground. The proposed revisions include new categorical exclusions that will help us better mitigate risks to communities and forest health, including risks from wildfire.

We were able to conduct hazardous fuels treatments on 2.7 million acres. Although it didn’t quite meet the fiscal year target due to abnormally wet weather in the South and parts of the West, that’s still an impressive number. Despite annual fluctuations in the area of fuels treatments, the trend from 2001 (1.4 million acres) to 2018 (3.5 million acres) is upward overall.

The Farm Bill updated and strengthened our Landscape Scale Restoration Program for working with the states to support cross-jurisdictional priorities in the forest action plans written by all 52 states. We have revised the corresponding grants program for state and private projects to improve forest conditions, and we expect to post it in the Federal Register in January 2020.  

Research and Development collaborated with State and Private Forestry on projects to accelerate the adoption of cross-laminated timber technologies in the United States, such as demonstrating mass timber’s performance in a fire and under different moisture conditions. The results will encourage building code acceptance of mass timber, show its environmental advantage over other building materials, and educate builders and architects on building with cross-laminated timber. 

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

Most people experience the national forests and grasslands through their use and enjoyment of their public lands. That’s why it’s a priority for the Forest Service to expand recreational access through special use permitting. We proposed revisions to the Forest Service Manual to update and simplify processes for managing special uses of the National Forest System. The reforms will improve people’s experiences on public lands through the management of concession campgrounds, the issuance of outfitter and guide permits, and the collection and use of recreation fees. These

We introduced a mobile app for National Visitor Use Monitoring, expanded the National Forest and Grasslands Explorer app, and worked with Recreation.gov to adopt a Digital Pass app. All three tools improve public access to recreational experiences on National Forest System lands.

Through our ongoing partnership with the National Wild Turkey Federation under the “Save the Habitat Save the Hunt” initiative, we opened access to 559,833 acres on the National Forest System.

Thank you again for your part in everything we accomplished together this year. What an amazing year! I’m optimistic that 2020 will be even better.