Speech

State of the Forest Service

Victoria Christiansen, Forest Service Interim Chief
Forest Service Reunion at the Cradle
Asheville, NC
— September 27, 2018

2010 as Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation Management. Since then, I have served as Associate Deputy Chief and then as Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry before being named as Interim Chief.

So there’s a lot of fire in my background. As a State Forester, I saw a lot of finger-pointing over the years as cross-boundary fires have grown larger and fire seasons longer in duration and severity. I wasn’t the only one to question all that finger-pointing, and some of us thought we needed to get together and take a more proactive approach.

As Warren Buffett once said, “In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”

We needed a new vessel, so thirteen of us in national fire leadership roles came together at the National Fire Academy in Emmetsburg, Maryland. Together, we built the initial footprint for the National Cohesive Strategy for Wildland Fire Management. Congress gave us a big push through the FLAME Act of 2009, and the Forest Service led the entire wildland fire community in fleshing out that original footprint … creating resilient landscapes, fire-adapted communities, and an effective, risk-based response to wildfire.

So I have firsthand knowledge of the fire challenges facing the Forest Service and direct experience in dealing with them. My personal passion is connecting people with their natural resources, whether it’s around problems and issues like fire or, even better, how we make connections to share solutions. And I am convinced that the Cohesive Strategy gives us a framework for shared solutions.

 

Five Priorities

So enough about me. Some of you might have been at the Retirees Reunion three years ago, when former Chief Tom Tidwell spoke. Much has changed since then, and I will focus on some of those changes, beginning with the five national priorities the Forest Service adopted last year. Those five priorities are woven into everything we do.

Our first national priority is inspiring and empowering our employees through a respectful, safe working environment. To fulfill our mission, we need a safe, rewarding, respectful work environment that is 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.

Our second national priority is being good neighbors and providing excellent customer service. Service is part of our name and a core value for the Forest Service because serving people is part of our mission. That includes serving our neighbors by working together through partnerships to improve forest conditions across shared landscapes.

A third national 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 work with partners and volunteers to accomplish work on the nation’s forests, both public and private, in the spirit of shared stewardship.

Our fourth national priority 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 National Forest System lands are at risk from insects, disease, and wildfire. We need to use every tool and authority we have to improve forest conditions. That includes both timber sales and stewardship contracts and both planned and unplanned wildfire ignitions. We will be getting more of the resources we need through the fire funding fix and process reform, and I will talk about that later on.

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. Outdoor recreation is by far the largest single use of the National Forest System … by far the largest source of jobs … by far the largest contributor to the national economy, on the order of $13 billion per year.

But the settings and visitor experiences we offer are increasingly at risk. Roads and recreation facilities are deteriorating … trails are eroding … user conflicts are on the rise. Again, we need to use every means we have to improve recreation opportunities, improve access, and improve infrastructure to better meet the needs of visitors, citizens, and users.

So those are our five national priorities. They guide everything we do, and I think you will see that in the remainder of my remarks, when I will talk about three major areas of opportunity for the Forest Service: our workplace environment; our wildland fire system; and changing the way we do business.

 

Workplace Environment

With respect to our workplace environment, you probably have a general idea of the situation we are in. There’s a lot of history behind it. Here’s my take.

The Forest Service has a long history of hiring women and minorities, but we traditionally reserved field work for white men. For example, here’s what an employment leaflet from about 1950 said:

“The field work of the Forest Service is strictly a man’s job because of the physical requirements, the arduous nature of the work, and the environment.”

That started to change with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and 70s, but we still feel it today. We feel it whenever we hear stories of bullying, harassment, and retaliation toward women and minorities, and we’ve just heard a rash of new stories.

You might say those are just salacious news reports—horrendous but isolated cases. You might say we are already integrated as an agency, and we have been ever since we began hiring large numbers of women and minorities for field work in the 1970s and 80s.

The truth is, we still lag behind the civilian work force in many ways, and we still have a lot of work to do.

But the vast majority of our employees are decent human beings who create a workplace that is free from harassment of any kind, where everyone is respected and appreciated for their work. I know this from personal experience, and we can extrapolate as much from a survey of our employees in Region 5 just last year. The survey asked employees about bullying and various kinds of harassment. The overwhelming majority of respondents reported nothing of the kind.

But at least 10 percent of our employees in Region 5 reported bullying and every form of harassment as problematic. More than 20 percent reported knowing someone who was sexually harassed in the workplace within the previous 3 years.

That, I submit, is a problem. It reflects a residual culture of harassment, bullying, and retaliation against women and minorities. It reflects a residual culture of “going along to get along”—of being forced to conform to traditional roles and behaviors just to be accepted as part of the team, even if it means being harassed, bullied, intimidated, humiliated—even assaulted and raped.

That is simply not acceptable, and we are making clear to our employees what is at stake. It is not just violations of the law, both in letter and in spirit, although I am ashamed to say it is that too. Nor is it just about fairness, workforce parity, or human decency, although it is about those too.

It is not even just about who we are as an agency, although that too is clearly at stake. As an agency, one of our core values is diversity. Diversity has been a Forest Service core value at least since 1991, when Chief Dale Robertson issued a milestone report called “Toward a Multicultural Organization.” Some of you might remember it.

But this issue goes beyond even who we are as an agency. This is about nothing less than our ability to fulfill our mission. We want our employees to understand that having a safe and respectful workforce environment is mission critical, because we need diversity to succeed.

Why? Because the way we deliver our mission has changed. The people we serve now have an important say in our land management through public input and engagement. Our mission delivery today includes a whole range of values and benefits that people get from their forests and grasslands.

Delivering diverse values and benefits takes employees from diverse professions. It takes employees with diverse skills and abilities to engage the public in our land management, because the people we serve have diverse and conflicting needs and interests. It takes “people skills,” negotiating skills, and “emotional intelligence.” It takes employees from diverse backgrounds, employees who bring different ideas, concepts, skills, and perspectives to our work.

Those new ideas and perspectives are not a weakness for the Forest Service. They are a core strength, and we need them to succeed. That’s why diversity goes to our very ability to deliver our mission. We want our employees to know that if someone doesn’t understand that … if they don’t accept it … then they have no place in the Forest Service.

And that is the core problem we face. We face a residual culture of hostility toward diversity—toward women and minorities in particular. So we are taking this opportunity to change our culture once and for all.

 

I will briefly describe what we are doing to meet the challenge.

Since 2014, a team of employees has been taking a hard look at our Forest Service culture, past and present. They came up with a set of core values for the agency based on what motivates us and guides us in our work. Our core values are service … conservation … interdependence … diversity … and safety. We also have qualities that govern how we show up for people. We are trustworthy … respectful … responsive … caring … inclusive … and curious.

Together, our core values and qualities constitute a code to live by and a set of personal commitments. For example, we commit as Forest Service employees to respect everyone and to protect one another. Our Code and Commitments set the parameters for our Forest Service culture. They leave no room for any residual culture of hostility toward anyone. Again, we want our employees to know that if our culture is not your culture, then it’s time for you to move on.

Since early this year, we have been in an agencywide process of having discussions of this kind with all employees. We learn from our discussions, then build on what we learn to move on to the next stage. The process is called Stand Up for Each Other, reminding everyone of our commitment to protect one another from bullying, harassment, and retaliation of any kind. Our goal is a work environment characterized by mutual trust, where employees value difference and inclusion, listen to understand, and learn from each other.

We want our employees to know that this is a mission-critical issue. As I’m sure you know, we have been struggling with this issue since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, if not before. Many of you were involved, and thanks to you we have certainly made all kinds of progress.

But we need to do more. To elevate the importance of this issue, we are creating a special post on the Executive Leadership Team. I am pleased that Leslie Weldon, formerly Deputy Chief for National Forest System, has agreed to become our first Senior Executive for Work Environment and Performance. I am grateful to Leslie for leading this mission-critical work. Again, having a safe, diverse, and respectful work environment is absolutely critical to our success as an agency.

 

Wildland Fire System

As you know, our workplace environment extends to wildland fire management, and our fire environment has undergone tremendous changes in the last 20 years. As I mentioned, our Cohesive Strategy gives us opportunities to find solutions, but the solutions come in the context of a wildland fire system that is increasingly complex and difficult, with growing challenges.

To get to the solutions, we have to understand the wildland fire system we have today. It is more than fuels, weather, and topography. It is a suite of environmental, social, political, financial, and cultural factors that all drive outcomes in the wildland fire environment. With pieces connected to civil society, responders, communities, and landscapes, our wildland fire system is extremely complex. 

So is our operating environment, and we have little control over the way our fire environment has been changing. As you know, the effects are horrendous and getting worse: more large fires and megafires; more acres burned; more extreme fire behavior … I could go on. Fire season is now the entire fire year.

Take acres burned, for example. In 2015, more than ten million acres burned. That hadn’t happened since 1953, but it happened again just last year, and this year is turning out to be another severe fire year. Already, more than 7.3 million acres have burned.

Or take the number of megafires—fires over 100,000 acres in size. They were once so rare that we didn’t track them. Since 1997, however, we have had more than 180 megafires. Those fires can be like hurricanes, impossible to control; the best we can do is to evacuate the area and then steer the fire around points of value, like homes and communities.

Megafires have driven up our costs at the expense of everything else we do. Last year, the federal agencies spent a record $2.9 billion on suppression, including $2.4 billion by the Forest Service alone. As we ran out of suppression funds, we had to borrow from nonfire programs to cover the shortfall. That has happened almost every year since 2000, including this year.

Worse, our rising fire costs are eating up our budgets. In 1995, 16 percent of our budget went to fire; in 2017, it was 56 percent; by 2021, at the rate we were going, two-thirds of our budget was going to go to fire. As a result, our nonfire budgets have been in freefall, with disastrous effects on our management capacity. Just to take one example: from 1998 to 2015, our staff for National Forest System fell from 18,000 to less than 11,000. That’s a decline of 39 percent.

None of this is sustainable, so we proposed a fire funding fix. If a huge portion of our funding goes to fight megafires that are like unstoppable hurricanes, shouldn’t we take that part of our funding offline? No other agency is expected to fund a response to a natural disaster from its normal budget. So we proposed a fire funding fix with a commonsense solution: a separate fund to cover the expense of our response to the growing number of megafires.

With strong support from Secretary Perdue and the administration, Congress passed an omnibus bill earlier this year containing a fire funding fix. It works in two ways.

  • First, our regular firefighting appropriation will be frozen in 2020 at the 2015 requested level. That means it can no longer grow 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. Federal fire managers will have a new budget authority of more than $20 billion over 8 years for fighting some of the largest, most destructive wildfires our nation has ever seen.

 

But there’s more. Through the omnibus, Congress also gave us new tools to help us reduce wildfire risk by improving forest conditions.

  • One tool is amending the Good Neighbor Authority to help us work more efficiently with the states by allowing road maintenance and reconstruction in good neighbor agreements.  
  • Another tool is our expanded ability to use stewardship contracts by extending their maximum duration from 10 years to 20 years. This will allow industry to create additional markets for wood products in areas where mills are scarce. 
  • The omnibus also authorizes the use of new categorical exclusions for wildfire resilience projects on federal lands. We can start and complete hazardous fuels projects more quickly.

 

Overall, the omnibus represents a major improvement to the wildland fire system. By giving us new tools along with a fire funding fix, the omnibus will help us restore balance to our program delivery. It will extend our ability to work with neighbors and partners under the Cohesive Strategy to meet shared goals. The fire funding fix will let us get more work done on the ground, improve forest conditions, and create jobs and economic opportunities in rural areas—all while keeping wildfires from threatening so many lives, homes, and communities.

None of this was easy. 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, Congress placed its faith in the Forest Service.

Now it is up to us to deliver. 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. We know that Congress will be watching.

 

Changing the Way We Do Business

To meet the challenge, we have to change the way we do business. We need to remove barriers to the efficient and effective use of our funds and tools. Reducing those barriers will help show that we are fully accountable to Congress and the American people.

So I will close my remarks by briefly describing some the initiatives we have launched to improve our processes and expand our partnerships.

  • One initiative is fire spending accountability. Congress will be watching our fire spending, so we have taken a close look at our fire spending systems, and we are introducing reforms to improve our accountability. Central to our success will be a system of key performance indicators to help us evaluate the cost-effectiveness of our asset use.
  • Another area ripe for improvement is environmental analysis and decision making, or EADM. In September 2017, we launched an initiative to improve our EADM so we can get more work done on the ground. The reforms involve six kinds of activities. For example, we are reforming our own policies and regulations 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. Thanks to the National Association of Forest Service Retirees for your input and guidance on this work. 
  • Another initiative is to bring our forest products work into the 21st century by aligning it with modern needs, opportunities, and technologies. We have a compelling national need to remove excess woody materials from overgrown forests. Scientific breakthroughs and new technologies are opening up areas of opportunity for biomass and smallwood utilization, such as biofuels, mass timber, and nanotechnology. We are looking for related improvements in several areas.
  • We badly need to improve the way we manage our special use permits. That’s partly because more of our visitors are using outfitters and guides. 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. So we have launched internal reforms to expand our services, improve our environmental analysis, and create a more predictable operating environment for business.

We have also found opportunities in other areas, such as infrastructure management, land exchanges, and oil and gas leases. We are always open to new ways of improving and streamlining our processes on behalf of the people we serve. So if you have ideas for improvements, please let us know!

 

Outcome-Based Investment Strategy

One final initiative I want to mention was announced by Secretary Perdue just last month. It involves working with partners to make strategic investments in treatments to improve forest conditions. It is based on a new scientific breakthrough by our researchers—a tool called scenario investment planning.

Our hazardous fuels treatments work, but they have been randomly scattered across landscapes because no one has been able to get their arms around the problem of fire risk—until now. Now we finally have the tools for understanding fire risk at its actual scale.

Based on that new level of understanding, we can assess fire risk across broad landscapes. We can also project scenarios for various management actions, along with the probable outcomes. Then, depending on the outcomes we desire, we can set priorities for investing in the right management activities at the right scale in the right places.  

And that gets to our national priority of shared stewardship. We need to work with the states, tribes, and other partners across shared landscapes to decide on the outcomes we desire. That kind of all-lands planning takes a tremendous capacity for partnerships. That too is something that is new—we think we finally have the needed synergies, thanks to many of you in this room.

So we think the stars are aligned. The states have forest action plans that can serve to coordinate fuels and forest health treatments across planning areas that span jurisdictional boundaries. The states are also uniquely positioned to convene stakeholders to evaluate the wildland fire environment and to set priorities for investments that will bring the most bang for the buck.

So far, an outcome-based investment strategy is just a concept—an opportunity for shared learning about the potential for shared stewardship. We are sharing the concept with partners and stakeholders across the nation as a starting point for dialogue. We know that this concept might resonate in some regions more than in others, and that’s okay. Above all, we welcome dialogue!

 

Becoming More Accountable

It all comes down to becoming more accountable. The 2018 omnibus 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 includes accountability to our own employees. That is why are doing everything we can to create a workplace environment that is free from bullying, harassment, and retaliation of any kind, where every employee is treated with the respect and appreciation he or she deserves. It is also why we are doing everything we can to use the capacities, authorities, and tools we have to improve our customer service … to improve our wildland fire environment … and to improve the condition of the nation’s forests and grasslands, for the benefit of people now and for generations to come.