Five Focal Points for the Future

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Forest Service Orientation, Presidential Management Fellows
Washington, DC
— January 27, 2012

Good morning, and welcome to the Forest Service!

Forest Service Legacy

The Forest Service was founded in 1905, and we have a conservation legacy second to none. Our roots lie in the first conservation movement in America, led by visionaries such as President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief. Our early ranks included such legendary figures as Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, and Arthur Carhart. You can see their photos and read a little about them right outside in the hall here.

For more than a century, we have carried on their great work. Our mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands for the benefit of present and future generations.

  • That includes managing the national forests and grasslands—193 million acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico. That’s an area almost twice the size of California, more than 8 percent of our nation’s land area. As I’m sure you know, it’s a great national treasure.
  • Less well known is the fact that we work with the State Foresters in all 56 states and territories to help private forest landowners manage their lands sustainably—and to address issues like habitat continuity and conservation of open space.
  • We also have the world’s largest research organization dedicated solely to conservation, with 7 research stations and 77 research labs and other offices nationwide. We also have 81 experimental forests and ranges—and decades of data on forest cover, water, wildlife, wilderness, grasslands, and other resources.
  • In addition, we work with other countries to share conservation knowledge—to help forest landowners and managers around the world manage their lands sustainably. Over the years, we’ve had programs in 89 countries on 5 different continents.

Whatever mission area you work for, whether it’s National Forest System, State and Private Forestry, Research and Development, or International Programs—whatever your job, you stand on the shoulders of giants. You can help us build on our conservation legacy by focusing on five areas in particular: safety, inclusiveness, restoration, fire, and community.


At the Forest Service, safety is more than our first priority. A constant, relentless focus on safety is the only way we work. Our jobs sometimes take us into high-risk environments; many of us are involved in managing incidents, particularly wildfires. Our first fire-related fatalities occurred more than a century ago, in the great fires of 1910. You might have heard of Ranger Ed Pulaski, who saved his crew of firefighters from a firestorm by leading them into an old abandoned mine and making them stay there at gunpoint. It’s a great story.

Since then, our fire organization has come a long way. We now work through the interagency Incident Command System. Our ICS is renowned and emulated worldwide for its effectiveness in safely managing all kinds of incidents. Safety is the basis for everything we do, not just in our fire organization, but in every part of the Forest Service. Safety and health are the foundations for a positive work environment.

Unfortunately, our safety record has not improved in recent years. Over the last 20 years, the number of fatalities in the federal fire community has gone up and down from year to year, but it has always stayed roughly the same. We average about 17 fatalities per year from various causes, ranging from vehicle accidents to falling trees and rocks. We have got to do better, and that is why we place so much emphasis on safety. Our goal is to become a zero-fatality organization.

How do we get there? Risk is inherent in our daily lives; even just crossing the street can be risky. Safety means recognizing the risk and managing it, for example by using seatbelts whenever we are in a vehicle. At the Forest Service, we expect everyone to take responsibility for their own safety, and we give you the means to effectively manage risk. For example, each of you is individually empowered to call off an operation that is unsafe.

For several years now, our leadership has been making a learning journey to become a safer organization. We have been exploring our culture and history, comparing ourselves to high-reliability organizations that also work in high-risk environments, and working to change our safety culture accordingly. Now we are taking our entire workforce on that same learning journey. You can help by playing an active role—by enrolling in safety sessions—by working with your staffs to take appropriate safety measures. Stay tuned—you will hear more.


Our second focus area is inclusiveness—both in our workforce and in the communities we serve. I mentioned Aldo Leopold, who started his career with the Forest Service and went on to found the science of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin. As you might know, Leopold bought degraded farmland in the Sand Hills of Wisconsin, then worked to restore it to health. He said, and I quote, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”

What did he mean by that? At a time when 80 percent of our population lives in metropolitan areas, you can actually find children who don’t get the connection between a cow and milk … between a chicken and an egg … or between a tree and a home. Part of our job at the Forest Service is to help counter that trend by reaching out to urban and underserved communities to give people opportunities to get outdoors, up close and personal with nature. In particular, we are focusing on kids. We have hundreds of projects and programs for conservation education around the country. Last year alone, we reached more than 4 million people, mostly kids.

Part of inclusiveness is making our workforce look more like the face of America. In the 1970s, when I started my career, the Forest Service was a different place. There weren’t many women or people of color in our ranks, and the overwhelming majority of our employees were professional foresters—more generalist than today. That was in response to the issues and opportunities of the time, but it turned out to be shortsighted. We were missing out on the skills and abilities, the talents and contributions of the vast majority of Americans. Diversity of thought is key to successful organizations, and it comes from hiring people from all different backgrounds—rural and urban … male and female … with ethnicities, professions, and perspectives of all kinds.

In the past 20 or 30 years, we have made some progress. Today, more than 35 percent of our top leadership comes from ethnic minorities, and almost 60 percent represents either racial or gender diversity. That’s way above parity for the U.S. workforce as a whole, and it’s something we can be proud of as an agency.  

But there are still areas of underrepresentation, both in our workforce and in the communities we serve. So we are deliberately transforming our culture to become an employer of choice for all Americans. We want to broaden the circle of conservation—to make a connection to underserved communities all across America, especially in our urban areas—to build a workforce that truly reflects the face of America. We are designing our programs accordingly, and we are tailoring our recruitment and retention policies to the needs of young Americans from every background.

In short, you are the face of the Forest Service. You are the ones the public will see and our partners will meet. We want our face to be like theirs. We want to reflect all the diversity of the American people—in culture, ethnicity, gender, experience, values, and ideas. Therefore, we are creating a work environment that fully supports inclusiveness and diversity. We want our agency to be free from barriers and discrimination, both for our employees and for the public we serve. Respect is the foundation for good working relationships and a positive work environment, and we want every Forest Service employee to actively embrace diversity and inclusiveness.

To that end, we are implementing a USDA initiative called Cultural Transformation. The idea is to transform our culture at the Forest Service in a way that makes us an employer of choice while broadening the circle of conservation. You can help by embracing Cultural Transformation. You can participate in staff discussions or sensing groups to help surface cultural and work-related barriers to the Forest Service becoming an employer of choice. You can help counter any negativity you might hear by recognizing the positive outcomes we are trying to achieve through Cultural Transformation and by doing what you can to achieve them. Our success depends on you.


Our third focal point is ecological restoration. Today, Americans have come to understand the full importance of their forests and grasslands. That wasn’t always the case. In the 19th century, most people thought of America’s forests as an inexhaustible resource or even an obstacle to development. Forests were cut down with no thought to regeneration, until conservationists finally put a stop to the waste and abuse, partly by setting aside the National Forest System.

For the first 70 years of our history, the Forest Service managed the national forests and grasslands to sustain a range of multiple uses for future generations, but our main focus was on commercial resource extraction—whether of timber, forage, or minerals. In the last 20 to 30 years, our focus has broadened to include a full range of the goods and services, benefits and values that people get from their forests and grasslands. Today, people understand that forests provide clean air and water, carbon sequestration, habitat for native fish and wildlife, erosion control and soil renewal, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and more. Our job is to sustain the ability of America’s forests and grasslands, both public and private, to deliver a full range of ecosystem services for generations to come.

That ability is now at risk. Drought, invasive species, loss of open space, uncharacteristically severe wildfires, uncharacteristically severe outbreaks of insects and disease—all these stresses and disturbances are affecting America’s forests and grasslands on an unprecedented scale. Partly, they are driven by the overarching challenge of climate change.

The Forest Service is responding by restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthy, resilient ecosystems. Restoration includes helping ecosystems adapt to the effects of a changing climate. We are striving to sustain and restore ecosystems that can deliver all the services that Americans want and need, even if they are not exactly the same systems as before.

Climate change highlights the need for broad-scale approaches—for restoration on a landscape scale. Landscape-scale conservation is an approach to managing land at the level of watersheds, ecoregions, or broad geographic areas. The Forest Service is accordingly taking an all-lands approach. We are working with partners across boundaries and ownerships to address ecosystem issues on a landscape scale.

No one of us can do it alone, especially now. Our economy is only slowly recovering, and our national debt is high. Accordingly, government budgets are likely to be limited for some time to come. We need to get smarter about how we use our limited resources, and we need to leverage them by working with partners to achieve mutual goals.

If people continue to work in traditional ways—cut off from each other as private foresters on this piece of land, public servants on that piece of land—America will never fully tap its resources of knowledge, energy, and ideas to help meet the forestry challenges of the future. But if people come together to collaborate across landownerships and landscapes, then they will be able to address shared issues and concerns and to pursue common goals more effectively.

One initiative related to climate change and restoration is Sustainable Operations. The Forest Service has a substantial environmental footprint; each year, for example, we use about a billion gallons of water … we operate more than 18,000 vehicles … and we emit around 100,000 metric tons of carbon. Through our Sustainable Operations initiative, we are working to reduce our own environmental footprint. That’s a no-brainer for a conservation agency, and you can help by making sure that your own work practices and environment are as sustainable as possible.


One disturbance associated with climate change is wildland fire. In the West, climate change has contributed to drier soils and longer fire seasons, making fire danger worse; and invasives like cheatgrass have altered fire regimes in many areas. Past management practices have also contributed to worsening fuel conditions. A Forest Service study in 2002 found that almost 400 million acres in all ownerships were at moderate to high risk from uncharacteristically severe wildfires. That’s an area four times the size of California. Meanwhile, growth and development are exposing more homes and communities to wildland fire. Almost 70,000 communities are now at risk, and less than 10 percent have a community wildfire protection plan.

These trends—fuel buildups, worsening fire danger, and a growing wildland/urban interface—spell trouble. We no longer regard all fire as bad, but “acres burned” is still a metric for approximating the extent of unwanted fires, and that metric has been growing. Since 2000, at least 10 states have had record-breaking fires. In 2000 and 2002, for the first time since the 1950s, more than 7 million acres burned in a single year. In 2004 and 2005, more than 8 million acres burned; in 2006 and 2007, it was more than 9 million. Some experts estimate that future fire seasons could reach 12 to 15 million acres. From 2000 to 2009, almost 28,000 homes, businesses, and outbuildings burned in wildfires.

This was the context for the FLAME Act of 2009. Through the FLAME Act, Congress required federal fire managers to develop a more cohesive wildland fire management strategy. In developing our new strategy, we built on past efforts, involving the entire fire community. We brought together federal, state, tribal, local, municipal governments and nongovernmental organizations to develop a truly shared national approach—a national blueprint for addressing wildland fire management.

Our National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy has three main goals.

  • The first goal is to create fire-adapted natural communities. The key is ecological restoration—restoring healthy, resilient ecosystems capable of withstanding stresses and disturbances, including those associated with climate change.
  • An equally important goal is to create fire-adapted human communities by treating fuels in the wildland/urban interface and by helping people adopt planning and building practices that make homes and communities safer from wildfire.
  • Our third goal is to make safe, effective, risk-based wildfire management decisions. Many of America’s landscapes evolved with fire; sooner or later, they will burn. Fire protection requires an appropriate response to wildfire—not only suppression, but also, where safe and beneficial, the use of fire for management purposes. We need to learn to live with fire.

You can help by taking the role of fire into account in your work—and by engaging in our fire organization yourself. You don’t necessarily need to become a wildland firefighter; the Incident Command System has a wide array of positions, ranging from logistics to public affairs. Training is readily available. The future of our fire organization depends on folks like you.


Our fifth and final focal point at the Forest Service is community engagement. From our very beginnings, our forest supervisors and district rangers have lived and worked in the communities we serve. Most decisions affecting local communities have been made not by some distant bureaucrat, but by our local supervisors and rangers themselves. Our local line officers have always known local conditions and worked with local communities to meet local needs. We are still set up that way—as a decentralized, community-based organization.

And that is as it should be, because conservation begins where people live. Local people are proud of the natural beauty that surrounds them; they feel a sense of belonging to the places where they live. They understand their reliance on local resources such as water, and they often depend on natural resources to sustain them, not only for their livelihoods, but also for such amenities as firewood, scenic beauty, and outdoor recreation. In fact, about a third of the visits to the National Forest System are local—from people who live less than 25 miles away.

Our job is to work with local communities for social and economic as well as ecological sustainability. Conservation is most effective when it meets local needs for prosperity and well-being by engaging people and communities in protecting and restoring the forests and grasslands around them. Accordingly, the Forest Service has longstanding traditions of providing jobs, training, and community support. We also recognize that healthy, resilient forests and grasslands are of immense social importance, enhancing quality of life and sustaining scenic and culturally important landscapes.

Restoration on a landscape scale, through partnerships and collaboration, dovetails with community-based conservation. A prime example is our Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Last year, Secretary Vilsack chose 10 projects in 9 states for long-term funding. All ten are cross-boundary collaborative projects for restoring forested landscapes by leveraging partnership funding. The Four Forest Restoration Initiative in Arizona, for example, is based on years of engaging local communities to come together behind a large-scale project to restore overgrown ponderosa pine woodlands on four different national forests. It’s a great example of community-based conservation.

A central part of community-based conservation involves outdoor recreation. Outdoor activities like hunting and fishing or camping and canoeing are part of our pioneer heritage as Americans. Outdoor recreation contributes to a healthy lifestyle while lowering health care costs nationwide. Recreational activities are often occasions for bonding with family and friends. They help kids learn about teamwork, about the outdoors, and about their own abilities. They provide a sense of personal accomplishment in meeting a challenge, such as catching a fish, climbing a cliff, or completing a hike. Communities also benefit from economic activity associated with outdoor recreation. By far the greatest use of the National Forest System is for outdoor recreation, with more than 170 million visits per year. In fact, the greatest contribution to GDP from the National Forest System comes not from timber, but from outdoor recreation—almost 44 percent. A study in 2006 found that the active outdoor industry on all lands nationwide contributed about $730 billion annually to the U.S. economy, supporting around 6.5 million jobs.

By working with partners to restore landscapes and protect working lands, the Forest Service provides social, economic, and ecological benefits. Our programs and projects are designed to help attract tourism, sustain green jobs, and generate forest products, food, and energy. We also engage urban communities in protecting and restoring America’s 100 million acres of urban forests. With over 80 percent of Americans living in metropolitan areas, we need to continue to expand our work with places like New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. Our goal is a continuous network of healthy forested landscapes, from remote wilderness areas to shady urban neighborhoods, parks, and greenways.

Place-based conservation is key. People want to protect the places where they live—the places that are special to them—and they want a say in managing the public lands that are part of their birthright as Americans. You can help encourage that local passion for place-based conservation by supporting partnerships and collaborative decisionmaking—by building strong relationships to protect those special places. Through place-based conservation, you can help us connect with the people we serve—and connect them to the land.

Looking Forward

In closing, America is unique. We still have our wide open spaces, our wild places where our identity as a people was forged. As part of the Forest Service, you are part of that legacy. You are a direct descendant of the early conservationists, who made it their goal, in the words of Gifford Pinchot, to manage our nation’s natural resources “for the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the longest time.”

Today, we continue in that same spirit, but the future belongs to you. It is up to you to make this your Forest Service. By focusing on safety, inclusiveness, restoration, fire, and community, you can equip the Forest Service to meet the challenges of the 21st century, for the benefit of generations to come.