Five Priorities for the Forest Service

Tony Tooke, Chief
Society of American Foresters, Breakfast With the Chief
Albuquerque, NM
— November 18, 2017

Good morning! It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here with all of you this morning.

I was honored and humbled when Secretary Perdue asked me to serve as Chief of the Forest Service. It was never something that I had thought about doing. I realize how important it is, and I’ve stepped in right away and rolled up my sleeves with our partners and our employees to work hard and give it my all.


Common Heritage

I’m also proud to be a forester and proud to be a member of SAF. I spent many years in the field practicing forestry on the National Forest System, and I still put on my boots on the ground on my own land, managing my own forest. I really enjoy it. There’s nothing like delivering conservation and taking care of the land.

I got my start on our family farm, which we still own. From there, I took my work ethic to Mississippi State University, which gave me the opportunity for an outstanding education, for which I am very grateful. I also had the opportunity to work for the Forest Service as a GS-2 cooperative education student, where I began marking timber, firefighting, maintaining trails, and planting trees in South Mississippi. I fell in love with forestry and conservation, and it’s been that way ever since.

I’m also really proud of the common heritage of the Forest Service and the Society of American Foresters. We have common roots in the early conservation movement under the leadership of Gifford Pinchot. We have a rich history of working together. We’ve had common success in helping to establish sustainable forests across the nation.

We’ve been working together for several years now to reach out to, recruit, and hire students and others, drawing new employees into conservation, forestry, and the Forest Service. I’m proud to say that this year’s hiring event has been enormously successful—I’ll talk more about that later on.

Today, I believe that the Forest Service is still the same great organization it was when I joined almost 38 years ago. I expect us to remain the premier land management agency in sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.

But the challenges facing conservation have changed. With the rise of extreme events like wildfires, floods, drought, insect and disease outbreaks, and invasive species, our nation’s forests and grasslands demand constant attention to improve their condition. At the same time, we are seeing increasing needs for benefits from forests, rangelands, and natural resources. We must increase results and outcomes on the ground to improve the condition of forests and grasslands and to make them healthier, more resilient, and more sustainable—better able to meet public needs.


Forest Service Priorities

As I stepped into the Chief’s job, I did an assessment and took a look into the future. I asked myself about the sustainability of our Forest Service mission—about our ability to continue working with our partners and cooperators to deliver conservation and serve people and communities.

I immediately outlined five national priorities for the Forest Service that do three things:

  1. First, they help us focus on critical needs.
  2. Second, they help foster the work environment we want for our employees, partners, volunteers, and customers.
  3. Third, they set expectations for the manner in which we accomplish our work with citizens, partners, cooperators, volunteers, and each other.

Our first priority is to uplift and empower employees. As Forest Service Chief, I am committed to ensuring a safe, rewarding, respectful work environment that is resilient and free from harassment. Every employee has the right to work in an environment that is safe and where everyone is valued and respected for the jobs they do. Every partner, every volunteer, every customer, and every citizen deserves the same.

This standard is the only way to accomplish our mission in the most effective way possible. Unneeded processes and barriers must also be removed to give our employees more capacity and resources to work with others to increase results and outcomes. All of this is foundational for everything else we do.  

Another priority is being good neighbors and excelling at customer service. Our motto at the Forest Service is “Caring for the land and serving people,” and service has always been a central part of our culture. As Chief, I want to reemphasize that part of who we are.

We will work with efficiency and integrity with a focus on the people we serve. I envision a broad, diverse coalition for conservation. I envision us working across boundaries, leveraging resources with our partners, and using all tools and authorities available to us. We have a backlog of special use permits, range allotment work, and deferred maintenance and other needs to address, along with a backlog of work on the national forests and grasslands.

Understanding customer requirements is a must if we are to improve customer service. We will expand our use of best practices, apply innovative tools, and address barriers that get in the way of doing good work.

Each and every American deserves our very best service. That includes each and every visitor, forest or grassland user, contractor, partner, cooperator, permittee, volunteer, and citizen. And yes—it includes our own employees.

A third priority for the Forest Service is promoting shared stewardship by increasing partnerships and volunteerism. We can’t succeed alone, and we can’t succeed at all if all we do is focus on National Forest System lands. It takes others to help us make a difference across the whole landscape. We will work with partners and volunteers to accomplish work on the nation’s forests, both public and private, in the spirit of shared stewardship.

As we pursue our conservation goals, we will work with anyone interested—with all citizens, from rural and urban communities alike. We will strengthen and expand our partner and volunteer programs. Coming together with all citizens across shared landscapes and around shared values is critical for the future of conservation.

A fourth priority for the Forest Service is improving the condition of forests and grasslands. The risks and threats are at an all-time high. For example, about 80 million acres of the National Forest System are at risk from insects, disease, and wildfire. About one-third of these lands are at high risk.

What’s at stake? Drinking water, homes and communities in the wildland/urban interface, wildlife habitat, historic places, sacred sites, recreation opportunities, and scenic vistas are among the many values at risk, along with environmental security and green infrastructure that protects communities.

The condition of forests and rangelands is at the very core of conservation and our Forest Service mission. The status quo is not okay. I intend for us to use every tool and every authority available to us to make a difference for healthy, resilient forests and grasslands, including prescribed burning, timber sales, stewardship contracts, managed natural wildfire ignitions, herbicides, and noncommercial mechanical fuel treatments. The challenge at hand demands a bold response. A lot is at stake and the status quo is not sustainable.

The fire season this past year illustrates the challenges we face. Fire seasons have become 70-plus days longer. In October 2016, the Southern Appalachians experienced the worst fire season in decades. Significant fire activity then extended to the Southwest and later to the Northwest, Northern Rockies, and California.

Almost 9 million acres have burned so far this year. That’s about 40 percent more than the 10-year average. We had 80 large fires in late August and early September, a time of the year when we normally have 25 large fires. We have been at preparedness levels 4 and 5, the highest levels, for 70-plus days this year. How many homes burned is still being sorted out, but the best guess is well over 11,000. The most tragic was the loss of life, including 12 wildland fire management personnel.

I’m very proud of our firefighters and our interagency cooperators and how they continue to rise to every occasion.

Suppression costs are soaring. Around 56 percent of our budget went to fire suppression in 2017, with projections of about 67 percent by 2021. That is not sustainable. The agency’s mission is suffering—roads, outdoor recreation, law enforcement, State and Private Forestry programs, research, wildlife, fisheries, archeology—our ability to deliver all this and more is suffering, as is our ability to manage forests, thin forests, and reduce hazardous fuels.  

We are working very hard with Congress and the administration to find a solution. Secretary Perdue is working very hard, and we are very close. I am very optimistic. But my optimism alone won’t get it done.

While a fire funding fix will be an enormous help to us in delivering the agency mission, we must take other steps and measures to increase results and outcomes on the ground to restore healthy, resilient forests and grasslands. I mentioned that we will use every tool and authority. Also, priorities must be set and policies, systems, and approaches must be changed to take on the challenge at hand.

We have momentum. Over the past two years—in 2016 and 2017—we’ve seen more results than in any two-year period in well over two decades. For example, over 6 million acres were treated and 5.9 billion board feet of timber sold.

The Good Neighbor Authority has really taken root. Under GNA, we’ve signed over 131 agreements with 31 different states to do all kinds of things—wildlife work, monitoring, timber sales, and many other tasks. Stewardship is increasing. There are excellent examples where the Forest Service, other federal agencies, the states, NGOs, and tribes are working together to improve the condition of forests and rangelands.

Last year, the Idaho Department of Lands auctioned the first GNA timber sale on the Nez Perce–Clearwater National Forest. The sale will generate about 4.5 million board feet and $1.2 million dollars in revenue for restoration projects. There are many other examples of GNA projects in New Mexico, Montana, Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Wisconsin.

We have other examples of shared stewardship for accomplishing on-the-ground work. In Georgia, the Forest Service worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example; in Florida, we worked with The Nature Conservancy and the National Wild Turkey Federation to complete prescribed-burning projects on federal, state, and private lands.

Another effort is to modernize how we remove forest products and become more effective. Our priorities overlap. A little while ago, I spoke of overcoming barriers to customer service, and that includes barriers to shared stewardship across shared landscapes. Some of those barriers have to do with the way we implement NEPA, environmental analysis, and decision making.

To help overcome those barriers, we have launched an effort to improve our environmental analysis and decision making. Our goal is to increase the amount of work we accomplish by eliminating needless processes and steps and increasing the number of acres covered by environmental analysis and decisions. Key underpinnings will be to use sound science, good data, and collaboration. These will anchor our work.

We have put personnel in place whose responsibility is to help us get there. We held a national workshop in September to assess the issues and immediately commit teams of people to this effort.   

I also believe that we must use more fire on the landscape—at the right time, under the right conditions, and in the right place. That includes managed natural wildfire ignitions and prescribed burning. The same system that activates to respond to wildfire suppression and catastrophic events must activate for prescribed burning and land management to make a difference for the millions of acres at risk, restoring health, resilience, and ecological function.

Getting increased results and outcomes will also require strong markets, research and development, and working across boundaries in each and every way possible.

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 offer extraordinary recreational settings.

But the settings and visitor experiences are increasingly at risk. Roads and recreation facilities are deteriorating … trails are eroding … user conflicts are on the rise. Currently, we can maintain to standard only half of our roads, trails, facilities, and other components of our infrastructure. Access to the National Forest System is more limited. All this means a decline in the quality of the visitor experience.

The Forest Service is committed to restoring premier recreation experiences for visitors. We will take steps to address these challenges and create more sustainable recreation opportunities, improved access, and improved infrastructure to better meet the needs of visitors, citizens, and users. This may mean some hard choices to have a sustainable path forward.

Improved NEPA environmental analysis and decision making as well as improvements to the permitting process can help us achieve goals and objectives for enhanced recreation, improved access, and a more sustainable infrastructure.


Partnership for the Future

So those are five priorities for the Forest Service: uplifting and empowering employees; being good neighbors and providing excellent customer service; promoting shared stewardship; improving the condition of forests and grasslands; and enhancing recreation opportunities, improving access, and sustaining infrastructure.

We can’t do it alone. We will need help from our partners, including the Society of American Foresters. We have a long history of working together to promote conservation and sustainable forest management across our nation.

I know SAF can help us in outreach, recruiting, and hiring a highly skilled, diverse, and experienced workforce. For example, at this week’s hiring event here at SAF, we are filling 129 positions—86 recent graduate positions and 43 student interns. We had over 2,000 applications, including almost 200 onsite here at the SAF convention. Thank you!

SAF can help us bring together a broad, diverse coalition for conservation. SAF can help us with our communication and messaging. SAF can help us find resources to get more work done. SAF can help with technology transfer, R&D, and markets. These are just a few examples of how SAF can help.

So I look forward to any suggestions you might have on how we can work together to achieve our priorities. I would now like to hear any comments and questions you might have.