Associate Chief Lenise Lago and I had an opportunity this week to touch base with you through a Forest Service all-employee call. I especially welcomed the opportunity to hear some of your questions and concerns.
The effects of the 35-day government furlough are still with us, yet I see great work happening across the agency. I really admire the extent to which we have regained our momentum despite the challenges. You have every reason to be proud!
This month, I testified at budget hearings before Congress, and I was proud to talk about our accomplishments. We are getting more work done on the ground than ever before, with record levels of acres treated and the highest levels of timber sold in 20 years, along with other tremendous accomplishments.
In shared stewardship, 2018 was a banner year for volunteerism and service. Forest Service units reported 5.2 million hours contributed by thousands of volunteers and service participants, a 21-percent increase over the previous year. We have agreements now under our Shared Stewardship Initiative with six states—I will soon attend a ceremony with the state of Washington. Shared stewardship was a prominent theme at our recent Chief’s Review of the Rocky Mountain Region.
Another prominent theme at the Chief’s Review was our work environment. As you know, our first priority at the Forest Service is inspiring and empowering our employees through a safe and respectful work environment. In 2017, we opened a Harassment Reporting Center (internal link) to help improve the work environment for Forest Service employees.
Based on what we have learned, we are changing the process for the Harassment Reporting Center. Having reported incidents automatically trigger an official inquiry or investigation might keep employees from finding a less formal resolution to their concerns. Accordingly, we expanded the staff of the Harassment Reporting Center, and callers are now able to make choices on how best to resolve their concerns. More details will be coming.
Our new procedure aligns with how we show up for each other and for the people we serve—as caring, respectful and responsive. It aligns with our Code and Commitments to protect one another and to treat everyone with respect. Living our core values takes work every bit as important as the work we do to improve conditions across America’s forests and grasslands.
In recent weeks, I have shared my leader’s intent for the 2019 fire year. Let me again be clear: we will deploy our people when and where we understand the risks, we can succeed, and important values are at risk. We will make sound risk-based decisions using the right tools at the right time while also maintaining relationships with the communities we serve. Each of us must remain committed to “stop, think and talk” before acting.
Until the fire funding fix begins in fiscal year 2020, fire borrowing will remain an issue. Last year, we transferred $720 million from our non-fire funds to pay a fire bill of $2.6 billion. Congress has expressed bipartisan support for repaying last year’s funds, but it hasn’t happened yet. Because trust funds and work plans are affected, we have decided to relax our regional targets. More will come on that soon.
Most Forest Service employees work with partners, so grants and agreements are fundamental to our work. A new requirement to get all grants and agreements cleared through a departmental process brought a lot of our work with partners to a standstill. We were able to work with the Department to delegate authority for most grants and agreements back to the Forest Service. We just issued the corresponding direction.
Hiring is on many people’s minds because we’re in a slowdown period for hiring. After the furlough, our Human Resources staff came back to about 1,000 retirements and 9,000 performance awards that needed processing while also needing to conduct fire hires and temporary hires for the upcoming field season. We are pushing resources to HR to get hiring back up to speed. Meanwhile, we encourage you to use alternatives like non-competitive hiring and open and continuous registers to save time.
As we continue to gain momentum in getting work done across the Forest Service, please remember to stay grounded in our core values of service, interdependence, conservation, diversity and safety. Help create a safe, respectful work environment where everyone is valued for their contributions. Every one of us deserves a workplace where we can thrive in our work, free from harassment and safe from harm.
And whatever you do, please remember to look out for yourselves and for each other. No target is more important than your own health and well-being—and the health and well-being of the people you work with and the people you serve.
Below, you can listen to the most recent all-employee call in its entirety.