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Partnership: The Cornerstone of National Forest Management

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Volunteer Recognition Event
Washington, DC — May 18, 2012

Good afternoon! It’s a pleasure to be here today to recognize the service of our partners and volunteers.

Central Role of Partnerships

The Forest Service was created more than a century ago, partly to manage the national forests and grasslands. These lands were entrusted to our care, but they are not government lands. They were—and they are—lands belonging to the American people.

Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief, took that very seriously. Here’s how he put it in his book The Use of the National Forests:

National forests are made for and owned by the people. They should also be managed by the people.

What did he mean by that? He envisioned a partnership between Forest Service line officers on the ground—district rangers and forest supervisors—and the people they serve. He expected ordinary Americans, the owners and users of the national forests, to take an active part in their management. He knew that managing the vast resources of the National Forest System would be difficult and that mistakes would be made. He expected the users themselves to be, and I quote, “of chief assistance in doing away with bad methods.”

So right from the start, partnership was the cornerstone of national forest management. We are here today to celebrate 40 years of partnership and volunteering on the national forests, but it’s really more than a hundred years. Partnership was a foundational principle for the National Forest System more than a century ago, and it still is today. The Forest Service has always relied on people who love their national forests to step up and help manage them—to care for these resources of theirs—to help serve the people who use them.

Volunteers Act

Forty years ago, on May 18, 1972, President Richard Nixon formalized that foundational partnership principle by signing the Volunteers in the National Forests Act. This act authorized the Forest Service to enter into voluntary agreements with people and organizations to help care for the national forests and grasslands and to serve the visitors and others who use these lands.

Since then, we’ve had over 2.5 million volunteers. I have personally met many of these wonderful people. I have worked with them for more than 30 years on my Forest Service assignments around the country. I have seen them doing all kinds of work—from building trails, to restoring habitat, to interpreting wildlife, to manning lookout towers, to serving as campground hosts, to transporting supplies to wilderness areas, to introducing kids to the beauty and majesty of America’s Great Outdoors. They do practically everything our employees do, and more. Often, they have knowledge and expertise that are lacking on our own local staffs.

And in the process, our volunteers have made a critical contribution to our mission of caring for the land and serving people. We literally couldn’t do it without them. They have given more than 100 million hours of their time. Their service has been valued at over $1.2 billion in funds that we wouldn’t otherwise have.

And the importance of their contributions is only going to grow, partly because traditional funding sources are becoming increasingly scarce … even as demands on the national forests and grasslands are growing. So are the challenges we face … like regional drought … invasive species … uncharacteristically severe wildfires … uncharacteristically severe outbreaks of insects and disease … all made worse by the overarching challenge of climate change.

So we are fortunate to live in a country with a strong tradition of volunteerism. America’s voluntary spirit is rooted in civic pride, compassion, a sense of individual responsibility, and a commitment to improving our lives and ensuring a good future for our children. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks the rate of volunteering, and it is high. During the year ending in September 2011, more than 64 million people volunteered. That’s roughly one in every five Americans.

A lot of those people are Forest Service volunteers. We get almost 100,000 volunteers per year. Last year, we got more than 96,000 volunteers, who generously contributed more than 4 million hours of their time. Our volunteers include children, young people, retirees, couples, and families. They are ordinary people with a passion for the land who want to make a difference for the future of conservation … for the benefit of the land, for the benefit of generations to come.

Our partners and volunteers help us connect with Americans—and they help Americans connect to the land. Eighty percent of our population now lives in metropolitan areas, and 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 reach out to urban and underserved communities to give people opportunities to get outdoors, up close and personal with nature. Our volunteers are uniquely positioned to help us do that.

We also want to look more like the face of America, to benefit from the skills and abilities, the talents and contributions of all Americans. We want to broaden the circle of conservation, and our partners and volunteers give us unique opportunities to do that, too—to reconnect ordinary Americans to nature while building diversity and inclusiveness into our organization. 

Our volunteers typically come from local communities, and they give us an opportunity to strengthen our community connections. From our very beginnings, our forest supervisors and district rangers have lived and worked in the communities we serve. We are still set up that way—as a decentralized, community-based organization. Our job is to work with local communities for social, economic, and ecological sustainability.

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. Our job is to encourage that local passion for place-based conservation, and a great way of doing that is through partnerships and volunteers.

Volunteer Opportunities

Our volunteer program is growing. We are doing our best to better serve our volunteers while increasing volunteer opportunities and partnerships. We recently reviewed our volunteer program, clarifying its mission, vision, and guiding principles. Our program is based on the recognition that volunteerism is integral to the Forest Service. It is based on our commitment to provide every volunteer with a safe, respectful, and meaningful experience … with the opportunity to create lasting memories and relationships.

In a small token of appreciation for our volunteers, the Forest Service has cut in half the number of hours a volunteer needs to serve to become eligible for a Volunteer Pass—from 500 hours to 250 hours. We are also considering a new award as part of our annual Chief’s Awards program, a new Citizen Stewardship and Public Engagement award.

We have also established a Volunteers and Service workgroup to help facilitate collaboration with volunteers … and recognition for volunteers across the Forest Service. Volunteers will have opportunities to participate in a series of upcoming events: National Get Outdoors Day … National Trails Day … and National Public Lands Day.

One final point I want to make in connection with all Forest Service activities, including all of our partnership and volunteer activities, is this: Safety comes first. A constant, relentless focus on safety is the only way we work.

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 everyone the means to effectively manage risk. Each of our employees is empowered to call off an operation that is unsafe. Our goal is to become a zero-fatality organization.


Now I’d like to acknowledge some of our partners, beginning with a key contributor to this event here today, the National Forest Foundation. The NFF is chartered by Congress to support our work through partnerships and collaboration. Over the last decade, the NFF has facilitated the participation of more than 76,000 volunteers, contributing more than 1.1 million volunteer hours.

The NFF has a Friends of the Forest Days volunteer program that was launched in the Pacific Northwest. It combines hands-on projects with educational presentations in the field.

The NFF also has a Treasured Landscapes campaign. The campaign supports place-based conservation, engaging hundreds of volunteers of all ages at forest and grassland restoration sites around the country.

Now I’d like to make some special presentations to honor the unique contributions of some of our volunteers.

  • Please join me in recognizing some very special volunteers:
    • First, to the family of Ms. Ella Williams. Following 24 years of government service, Ms. Ella, as she was fondly called, volunteered in Conservation Education. She answered letters for Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl for 16 years. I am sorry to say that she passed away on January 17. Her contributions will be remembered by thousands of children across the United States who knew her only as Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl.
    • Second, please join me in honoring Mr. Humberto Sanchez, a volunteer at the Yates Discovery Center. A retired structural engineer, Mr. Sanchez, has volunteered at the Discovery Center for 7 years and contributed more than 2,000 hours of his time. His caring and nurturing manner is ideal for interacting with people who want to learn more about the Forest Service. He also tutors students in math and Spanish. A skilled soccer player, he still kicks the soccer ball around with kids every time he can.
  • Our Volunteer Program Unit of the Year is the Heritage staff on the George Washington-Jefferson National Forest, including Richard Guercin, Holly Johanns, Michael Madden, and Michelle Rosado. The Heritage staff provided outstanding leadership in coordinating volunteers on Passport In Time projects. They sustained a partnership model based on an “all-lands, all-hands” approach, building a strong general program with broad public participation year after year.  
  • Finally, I’d like to recognize two new partners for their special contributions to advancing Forest Service priorities:
    • We just signed an MOU with the National Association of Retired and Senior Volunteer Program Directors. Betty Ruth, president and chief executive officer, is with us today.   This is a national membership organization that provides visibility and advocacy for retired and senior volunteer program directors. It taps the skills, talents, and interests of almost 300,000 volunteers ages 55 and older to meet a wide range of community needs. Volunteers serve in more than 60,000 community organizations. Last fiscal year, they donated more than 62 million hours of their time in service to their communities. Our new MOU will allow us to partner on local projects to expand opportunities for skilled baby boomer retirees to volunteer and mentor Youth Corps participants. Thank you, Betty, for all you do.
    • Another new partner is MobilizeGreen. Would Leah Allen please join me? She is founder and chief executive officer of MobilizeGreen, which works with communities to advance sustainability while jumpstarting green careers for students on a national scale. MobilizeGreen is helping the Forest Service expand volunteerism in every region while contributing to our Cultural Transformation goals and helping to establish a 21st Conservation Service Corps, one of the recommendations in the President’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative. In partnership with the Forest Service, MobilizeGreen has recruited 10 interns who are now working full time to build the capacity of our Volunteers and Service programs in regional offices and national forests. If all goes as planned, we will see an increase in volunteers this year and recruit talented new Forest Service employees. Thank you, Leah.


Gifford Pinchot, The Use of the National Forests (Washington, DC: GPO, 1907), p. 25.


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