Becoming More Accountable as Public Land Managers

Victoria Christiansen, Forest Service Interim Chief
Annual Meeting, CWSF/WFLC
Denver, CO
— May 15, 2018

It’s a pleasure to be here today. Thank you for inviting me.

Longstanding Partnership

As you know, the USDA Forest Service has a long and storied partnership with the states. Our partnership goes back at least to the Great Fires of 1910 in the Northern Rockies. In the wake of those fires, we formed cooperative agreements with the states for fire protection. Later, we developed more cooperation thru the Weeks Act and Clark-McNary Act.

You are more than a partner; you are a critical part in implementing our collective mission: To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forest for the benefit of current and future generations.

My story in implementing that mission: I’ve spent the last 35 years implementing it but only worked for the Forest Service for the past 7 years.

Since 1910, we have come a long way working with states for sustainable forest management across shared landscapes.

The western states in particular are critical partners for the Forest Service. About 84 percent of the land area of the National Forest System lies in the western United States. Over 112 million people live in the western states, and they depend on all forests for a range of values and benefits … jobs, clean water, forest products, livestock forage, outdoor recreation, and more. We are keenly aware that rural counties and communities often depend on the national forests and grasslands for their economic livelihoods and social well-being.

So we at the Forest Service share with all of you a responsibility for managing these landscapes. My own personal passion is connecting people with their natural resources, whether as partners, as volunteers, as homeowners, or just as citizens. Collaborating across boundaries to connect people to the land … leveraging our mutual strengths, resources, and opportunities … goes to the core of our history together. It goes to the core of GNA … of the forest health collaboratives we work through … of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.

Today, I will outline opportunities I see for working across shared landscapes. I will frame these opportunities in terms of our five national priorities at the Forest Service, which set the sideboards for our work. Next, I will discuss the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress for 2018 and the opportunities it gives us. Finally, I will talk about the implications for our work at the Forest Service.

First, I will set a little context:

  • Under laws and cooperative agreements going back to the 1890s, the Forest Service has various authorities to work with partners to fill fulfill every part of our mission. We are organized accordingly in three separate mission areas: National Forest System, State and Private Forestry, and Research and Development.
  • Each of our deputy areas is well aligned with the USDA’s strategic goals.
    • One strategic goal is to “Ensure USDA programs are delivered efficiently, effectively, and with integrity and a focus on customer service.” Our deputy area for Business Operations is fully engaged in ensuring that staffs throughout our agency meet that goal.
    • Another strategic goals is to “Facilitate rural prosperity and economic development.” Our State and Private Forestry deputy area has programs for doing just that, and our National Forest System programs are aligned with the need for jobs and economic opportunities in rural areas.
    • Another USDA strategic goal is to “Strengthen the stewardship of private lands through technology and research.” Our Research and Development deputy area has made breakthroughs over the years in forest management and forest products utilization that help private landowners keep their forests working and sustainably managed.
    • One USDA strategic goal is to “Foster productive and sustainable use of our National Forest System Lands.” Our National Forest System deputy area, supported by Research and Development, does just that.


Five National Priorities

Tiered to our strategic goals are five national priorities at the Forest Service. We set those national priorities with a couple of purposes in mind:

  • They help us focus on critical needs, including the kind of work environment we want for our employees.
  • They also help us set expectations for the manner in which we work with partners and citizens.
  • In short, they set national sideboards for our work.

Our first priority is a safe and respectful working environment for everyone … and that includes partners and volunteers as well as our own employees. This is the foundation for everything we do. Without it, we simply cannot fulfill our mission.

I will be the first to admit that we face challenges in this area, and we have a number of efforts underway to improve our work environment. Again, this is the absolute bottom line. Every Forest Service employee … every partner, every volunteer … has the right to work in an environment that is safe … where everyone is recognized and valued for their contributions … where everyone is free from harassment and retaliation … where everyone is free to report the barriers that get in their way. Only then can we be truly effective in doing our work.

We have committed to each other as colleagues—and to the American people—that we will not rest until the Forest Service is a safe, rewarding, and inclusive workplace for everyone.

Another priority is being good neighbors and providing excellent customer service. For us, being a good neighbor means working with others across entire landscapes to meet shared needs and goals. It means recognizing the rights, values, and needs of stakeholders across the board, including states, tribes, counties, communities, and private landowners. The gold standard is a broad, diverse coalition for conservation working across boundaries and using all authorities available to us, like GNA … like the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program … like our partnerships across the fire community under the Cohesive Strategy.

We also focus on the people we serve. We always have—it’s part of our motto of “Caring for the land and serving people.” Gifford Pinchot, who founded the Forest Service in 1905 and served as our first Chief, deliberately chose the name “Service.” He did so to emphasize that we are there to serve the people and not the other way around. Every visitor, forest or grassland user, contractor, partner, cooperator, permittee, volunteer, and citizen deserves our very best service.

A third priority for the Forest Service is promoting shared stewardship by increasing partnerships and volunteerism. We are absolutely committed to working with every partner and every community across the rural-to-urban gradient in pursuit of our common conservation goals. Coming together with all citizens across shared landscapes and around shared values is critical for the future of conservation.

Unfortunately, we face barriers to shared stewardship. Some of those barriers have to do with the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws and regulations. So we have set ourselves the goal of improving our processes for forest planning and for environmental analysis and decision making. Our goal is to increase the amount of work we accomplish by eliminating needless process and by increasing the number of acres covered by environmental analysis and decisions. This is a critical challenge before us, and I will come back to it later on.

Our fourth priority is improving the condition of forests and grasslands. With the rise of catastrophic wildfires, floods, drought, insect and disease outbreaks, and invasive species, our nation’s forests and grasslands are increasingly in trouble. About 80 million acres of the National Forest System alone are at risk, and about one-third of these lands are at very high risk.

We are absolutely committed to improving the condition of these lands through active management. That includes using tools such as mechanical treatments, grazing, prescribed burning, and managing natural ignitions from wildfires. We are using all these tools to make landscapes more resilient to stressors such as drought, insect and disease, and catastrophic wildfires.

The fire season last year illustrates the challenges we face in improving the condition of forests and grasslands. More than 10 million acres burned, an area larger than the state of Maryland, and more than 12,300 structures were destroyed. Dozens of Americans lost their lives, including 14 wildland firefighters. The federal government spent a record $2.9 billion on suppression, including $2.4 billion by the Forest Service alone. Yet again we ran out of suppression funds and had to borrow from nonfire programs.

But the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress gives us new opportunities, including a fire funding fix, and I will come back to that.

Our fifth priority at the Forest Service is enhancing recreation opportunities, improving access, and sustaining infrastructure. Most Americans experience the national forests and grasslands through recreation activities. These lands get about 148 million visits each year, with another 300 million visitors who drive by just to enjoy the scenery. But roads and recreation facilities are deteriorating … trails are eroding … user conflicts are on the rise. All this means a decline in the quality of the visitor experience.

We are absolutely committed to restoring premier recreation experiences, and we are taking steps to turn things around. We want to create more sustainable recreation opportunities, access, and infrastructure to better meet the needs of visitors, citizens, and users. Fortunately, we got help from Congress in this and other areas through the omnibus spending bill.


Omnibus Spending Bill: New Opportunities

The omnibus spending bill for 2018 gives us more of the means we need for active management … for being good neighbors … for sharing stewardship ... for restoring infrastructure … for improving access … for sustaining and restoring healthy, resilient forests and grasslands.

First, the fire funding fix. As fires and fire seasons have grown more severe, suppression has claimed a growing share of our national budget. In 2017, firefighting claimed 56 percent of the Forest Service’s budget—up from just 16 percent in 1995. At the rate we were going, fire would have taken up two-thirds of our budget by 2021. That would have meant less spending on everything else.

Moreover, as firefighting funds have run out, the Forest Service has had to cover the shortfall by taking funds from nonfire programs. This so-called “fire borrowing” has occurred almost every year since 2000. All of this was destabilizing, none of it sustainable.

Through the omnibus bill, Congress has resolved the dilemma beginning in 2020. First, our regular firefighting appropriation is frozen at the 2015 requested level so it no longer grows at the expense of everything else we do. Second, Congress has created a separate fund to cover firefighting costs during severe fire years so that we no longer have to raid our nonfire programs.

Of course, none of this kicks in until 2020. But the omnibus gives us an additional $500 million in emergency suppression funds for 2018, for a total of about $1.5 billion for suppression this year. For next year, Congress has indicated that it will do the same.

Overall, the fire funding fix will help us stabilize our nonfire programs. It will help us do more with partners, including the states, to share stewardship and be good neighbors. It will help us do more on the ground to improve the condition of the nation’s forests and grasslands.

But that’s not all.

The omnibus also represents new investments by Congress in the health of the federal lands. It gives us an additional $40 million for hazardous fuels reduction, for a total of $430 million this year, and it fully funds the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program at $40 million.

Together, our Hazardous Fuels program and the CFLRP are already reducing the risk of severe wildfires, especially in the West. In fiscal year 2017, we treated 3.2 million acres across the National Forest System to reduce fuels and improve ecological conditions. Partly as a result, we sold 2.9 billion board feet of timber, marking the highest two-year period in sales since the 1990s.

And there’s more!

The omnibus also invested an additional $86 million in infrastructure improvements, for a total of $434 million for our infrastructure programs. These funds will help us repair roads, trails, bridges, and facilities for better public access … for better visitor experiences … and for better administrative access to get more work done on the ground.

And there’s more still.

Through the omnibus bill, Congress has also given us several new tools to help us reduce wildfire risk by improving forest conditions.

  • One tool is expanded Good Neighbor Authority. Now we can use GNA funds to repair and rebuild forest roads. That will give us the ability to complete more projects together with the states.
  • The omnibus also expanded our ability to use stewardship contracts by extending their maximum duration from 10 years to 20 years. This will help us contract with more local firms. It will help us create more jobs and economic opportunities in rural communities and get more work done on the ground.
  • The omnibus also authorizes the use of new categorical exclusions for certain kinds of projects. That will let us treat more areas at risk from catastrophic wildfires to protect homes, communities, and wildland resources. It will also expand our ability to work with utilities to maintain rights-of-way for powerlines and other infrastructure.

By giving us new tools and more funds, along with a fire funding fix, the omnibus will help us stabilize our programs. It will also extend our ability to be good neighbors, to share stewardship, to improve access, to sustain infrastructure, and to improve the condition of forests and grasslands. All of this will create more jobs and economic benefits for rural communities.


Improving Our Processes

None of this was easy. The omnibus represents a huge step forward. The provisions in this bill took years of deliberation by Congress, working closely with the Secretary of Agriculture, the administration, and a broad coalition of partners. In passing the omnibus bill, Congress placed its faith in the Forest Service to deliver more of the benefits that Americans get from the nation’s forests and grasslands.

Now it is up to us to deliver. This is a huge new opportunity but also a huge new challenge to justify the faith placed in us by Congress on behalf of the people we serve. There are HIGH expectations!

o meet the challenge, we cannot just do business as usual. Yes, we will need to use the funds and authorities entrusted to our care with wisdom, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. But we will need to do even more. We will need to up our game. We will need to do everything we can to remove barriers to the effective and efficient use of our funds and tools, barriers that have been standing in our way for years. Doing what we can to reduce those barriers will be a key part of showing that we are fully accountable to the American people.

For that, we ARE laying tracks for reform. We have launched several reform initiatives to become more contemporary by taking better advantage of modern tools and technologies. In the remainder of my remarks, I will briefly describe what we are doing to improve the quantity and quality of the work we do.


Environmental Analysis and Decision Making

One initiative, launched last September, is to improve our environmental analysis and decision making so we can get more work done on the ground. All Forest Service deputy areas and regions are engaged, and we are also looking for input from partners, including the states. The reforms involve six different kinds of activities:

  • First, training our employees to become more efficient in performing their work under NEPA and other environmental laws.
  • Second, reforming our own policies under NEPA and other environmental laws to gain efficiencies, coordinate better with other agencies, and allow for the full and appropriate use of categorical exclusions.
  • Third, taking full advantage of modern technology. We need sound standard approaches and electronic templates for categorical exclusions, environmental assessments, and administrative records.
  • We are also developing new performance standards to strengthen accountability for keeping abreast of change and for making any needed changes in how we operate.
  • Another area of activity is improving our consultation with other agencies. We are looking for ways to improve our processes for consulting under the Endangered Species Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.
  • Finally, we need to change the way we do business by strengthening project design and implementation. We are looking for better ways to incorporate environmental analysis, public input and engagement, and innovative ways to accomplish our mission.


Forest Products Modernization

Another initiative is to bring our forest products work into the 21st century by aligning it with modern needs, opportunities, and technologies. As you know, demand for special forest products is substantial and growing in some regions. We also have a compelling national need to remove excess woody materials from overgrown forests, especially in the West. Scientific breakthroughs and new technologies are opening up areas of opportunity for biomass and smallwood utilization, such as biofuels, mass timber, and nanotechnology.

Our Forest Products Modernization activities are designed to align our culture, policies, and procedures with current and future forest health needs as well as the needs of the people we serve. We are looking for improvements in such areas as staffing and training, timber sale layout, transportation and logging systems, and markets and forest products utilization. Our overarching goal is to improve forest conditions, create sustainable landscapes, and increase the amount of forest products coming from the National Forest System. WE are learning a great deal from many of you through our Good Neighbor Agreements. We expect to have a long-term national approach to modernizing the delivery of forest products in place by winter 2019.


Special Use Permits

As you know, the demand for facilitated outdoor recreation through outfitters and guides, among others, has risen in recent decades. Without guidance and specialized equipment, many people simply don’t take the opportunity to spend quality time outdoors.

Standing in the way is a huge backlog of special use permits on the National Forest System. It is up to us to overcome that hurdle if we are serious about giving more people access to their public lands.

So we have launched internal reforms to expand our services, improve our environmental analysis, and create a more predictable operating environment for business. For example:

  • We are simplifying our special uses processes while also updating our guidance to field personnel for better customer service.
  • We are introducing an ePermitting portal to make things easier for both our permittees and our administrators. A public-facing interface will let a customer get special use authorizations online.
  • We are also developing new categorical exclusions for outfitting and guiding on existing roads, trails, and facilities and for repairing and upgrading existing facilities like chairlifts and campgrounds.

All this and much more will make things easier for our partners in the recreational community while also improving public access to premier recreational experiences on the national forests and grasslands.


Fire Spending Accountability

The fire funding fix goes for eight years, from 2020 to 2028, but it comes with a caveat: no blank check. If we want a permanent fix, then we need to be accountable for our spending. Congress will be watching.

So we have taken a close look at our fire spending systems, and we are introducing reforms to improve our accountability. For example, a disproportionate amount of our spending is on large fires. We are integrating leaders at all levels of the Forest Service to increase accountability for our decision making on large fires. Central to our success will be a system of key performance indicators to help us evaluate the cost-effectiveness of our asset use. Measuring our cost-effectiveness will not only make us more accountable but also pinpoint areas where we might save costs.


Becoming More Accountable

The omnibus spending bill has created opportunities that have been years in the making by giving us a fire funding fix and new authorities. We now have more opportunities to pursue our national priorities at the Forest Service: being a good neighbor … serving our customers … sharing stewardship … improving the condition of forests and grasslands … repairing infrastructure and improving access. Our success in delivering all these things depends on having a safe and respectful work environment for employees, partners, and volunteers alike.

But with new opportunities comes the challenge of living up to the expectations of the people we serve. With trust comes accountability, and that is why we are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to improve our ability as an agency to improve the condition of forests and grasslands across the West … and to improve our customer service, including the quality of the recreational experience.

We ask you to join us in that endeavor. We cannot do this alone! I ask that you continue to work with us as partners and neighbors, sharing stewardship across boundaries based on our mutual conservation goals. Help us find ways to improve our systems, our processes, our procedures. Help us become more accountable to the people we serve.