VICTORIA CHRISTIANSEN: INTERIM CHIEF, U.S. FOREST SERVICE
In our interview Christiansen addresses some tough questions on harassment, fire borrowing, staffing, fire management, wildfire and safety, forest management, collaboration, the budget, sawmill infrastructure, pace and scale, performance standards and reviews, and more
19 MINUTE READ
Evergreen Magazine was fortunate enough to interview our interim Chief of the Forest Service. The interview was done by Jim Petersen via email due to schedule and time constraints. This interview builds on Chief Christiansen’s remarks from early April in Moscow, Idaho - at the Idaho Forest Landowners Association annual meeting. In our interview Christiansen addresses some tough questions on harassment, fire borrowing, staffing, fire management, wildfire and safety, forest management, collaboration, the budget, sawmill infrastructure, pace and scale, performance standards and reviews, and more.
Measures are being taken to actively address harassment and disciplinary measures for those who engage in such behavior. Christiansen’s response to the recent public reports of harassment, has been swift and decisive - and hopefully, will result in some long-needed changes.
The agency needs a fresh start and Vicki Christiansen may well get it done. She has stepped into a role with challenges - not of her own making - and set to work with a solution-based approach. Christiansen is not afraid of hard questions and seems to understand the underlying source of the some of the public’s frustration and distrust. The woman has grace. Chief of the Forest Service would suit her and this country - just fine. Julia Petersen - Resource Director, Evergreen Magazine
EVERGREEN: Let’s begin with five questions related to Chief Tony Tooke’s resignation:
- How great is the damage done to Forest Service morale and credibility by the PBS sexual harassment reports?
- During your years in the Forest Service, have you ever harassed, or were you aware of any incidents of sexual harassment. If yes, what did you do about it, and how was the harasser disciplined?
- Rumor has it that the cultural climate in the Washington office discourages aggressive action against reports of sexual harassment. We find this hard to believe. What’s your assessment, and, as the new Chief, what actions are you taking to end the harassment of female employees?
- 35,000 men and women work for the Forest Service. Do you have a numerical sense for how widespread sexual harassment has become?
- Might sexual harassment be rooted in the fact that the Forest Service hired mostly men following World War II, or are there subtleties here that are tied to the Consent Decree, which ordered the agency to hire more women, sometimes at the expense of better qualified men?
CHRISTIANSEN: One of my first actions as Interim Chief was to announce a focus on our work place as a top priority for the USDA Forest Service. Employees at all levels of the agency are joining together to create and maintain a workplace that is safe for everyone, where all are respected, valued and supported for who they are and what they do. We know only strong and unambiguous action will get us to where we want to be. We’ve taken five steps nationally:
- Publishing amended anti-harassment policy
- Adding misconduct investigations capacity
- Opening an Harassment Reporting Center
- Launching an Anti-Harassment Program intranet page
- Applying accountability and continuous learning
- Creating a senior advisor in the Chief’s Office
In March we launched several initiatives to produce a safe, harassment-free, resilient work environment. During the first step, agency leaders are holding listening sessions with all employees to better understand from our employees’ perspectives how we can better support and protect them.
We acknowledge the importance of this work for the Forest Service. We are devoting the time, energy and focus that this movement demands. Our 30,000 employees and the American public deserve nothing less.
EVERGREEN: Turning to more routine matters involving the Forest Service, the so called “fire-funding fix” doesn’t kick in for two more fire seasons. Does this mean that forest restoration work that would reduce the risk of wildfire will be shelved for another two years?
CHRISTIANSEN: I am very appreciative of Congress’s efforts to address this issue. I know that it came through after the tireless efforts of many members and a broad coalition of partner groups who recognized that solving fire borrowing was critical to our ability to actively manage our National forests to improve conditions on our forests.
In addition to fixing fire borrowing, Omnibus budget legislation provides nearly $6 billion to the Forest Service, of which, $1.37 billion will go toward activities that directly improve forest conditions and decrease the risk of wildland fire. Fiscal year 2018 funding levels, combined with forest management reform efforts undertaken internally and via the fire funding fix, will only increase our efforts to address our landscape management goals.
Fiscal year 2019 is in the early stages of deliberation in Congress. In the coming weeks, I will have the opportunity to testify on behalf of the agency’s budget and articulate the value of our work to the American public and share examples of how our work influences outcomes across the landscape. We are grateful for the investments of new tools and support for our work. We are now working and planning to deliver.
EVERGREEN: It looks like this fix gives you a little leeway on the paperwork side. Some observers have characterized this as “environmental rollbacks.” How would you characterize the leeway Congress has granted the Forest Service?
CHRISTIANSEN: The wildland fire funding fix also came with bipartisan reforms that will help the agency be more effective addressing the millions of acres at risk to wildfire. The reforms require environmental analysis and collaborative approaches to use the authority.
The new 3,000-acre Categorical Exclusion is almost identical to the 2014 Insect and Disease Categorical Exclusion and essentially extends that authority to address Wildland Urban Interface [WUI] needs.
Any action authorized under this authority must comply with all laws and regulations, such as the Endangered Species Act, and each project will review the environmental effects of the action on a series of resource conditions.
We view these reforms as additional tools and provisions we can use to get more work done to improve the condition of America’s forests. They add other internal reforms we are undertaking to improve the processes for environmental analysis and decisions.
EVERGREEN: We have long favored moving the forest management decision-making process out of the Washington Office and back to the Forest Supervisor’s level. Do you agree or disagree, and if you disagree, please explain why?
CHRISTIANSEN: Our mission to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands has not changed, but the way we deliver it needs to evolve. We are more interconnected and interdependent than ever before. We share landscapes and we must share resources.
Forest Supervisors and local managers continue to maintain their authorities for local decision-making. That hasn’t changed. I expect leaders at all levels to share stewardship at the local, regional and national level to help us make a difference on the whole landscape.
The implications of local decisions are broader than in the past, especially in this information age and social networking. So isolated, local decisions just do not exist anymore. Today these decisions require local managers to think within a larger context. In addition, local decision making, informed by our communities, tribes, and states, are key to our being a good neighbor and a responsive member of our broader forest dependent landscapes.
EVERGREEN: We also believe the Chief’s office needs a staff of no more than 100, and that their primary job is to communicate with Congress and make certain field offices have the tools they need to manage our National Forests. Do you agree and, if not, please explain why?
CHRISTIANSEN; We certainly appreciate your interest in fostering local decision-making and reducing (or right sizing) the number of national level staff. We aim to push as many decisions to a local level, where the local and regional relationships are built and maintained.
We are also carefully evaluating our staffing at the national level to ensure efficiency and get more resources into our field offices. That said, there are many more requirements for coordination with different agencies and entities at the national scale than many people may realize, and we try to provide those services as efficiently as possible.
EVERGREEN: Give us a reality check. The Forest Service looks to us to be about 8,000 people short, and the losses appear to be mainly through attrition and retirements. This comes at a time when the “fire culture” in the Forest Service is growing rapidly, and the “forest management culture” is shrinking rapidly, meaning we are facing a shortage of people who know how to manage forests. Do we have this about right, and how will you, as Chief, work to reverse it?
CHRISTIANSEN: Our workforce rises and falls with changes in budget. Currently, our total permanent workforce totals roughly 27,100 employees. Within this total, however, our fire workforce has increased with a subsequent loss of personnel in all the non-fire program areas.
Frankly, forest management has decreased less than some other programs because of two things: First the relationship between managing fuels and managing forests and the steady increase in the fuels budget has enabled us to keep more forest management skills within the workforce.
Second, our ability to retain receipts from timber sales has helped fund forest management work. Programs like mining, grazing, recreation, special uses, among others, haven’t experienced these same mitigating factors.
And the future is not about getting to the funding and staffing levels of the past. We have reached a place now where innovation and news tools also play an integral role. We have so many new tools in the box, such as Good Neighbor Authority, expanded authority for Stewardship Contracting and new categories for streamlined NEPA.
We are forging many more partnerships than in the past. All of these contribute as force multipliers for our performance. We don’t need to be the planner, the funder, and the actual doer of every task that needs to be done to maintain the health, resiliency and productivity of national forests. What we need to be are skilled collaborators, innovators, and adopters to ensure we can convene, develop allocate and anticipate tools and resources we need in the right places at the right time.
EVERGREEN: Serial litigators are still making life miserable for the Forest Service and the West’s forest restoration collaboratives. We favor baseball-style binding arbitration. Let the best management ideas prevail. Do you agree and, if not, what do you favor as a pathway for insulating collaboratives from serial litigators?
CHRISTIANSEN: As with previous Chiefs, I am open to piloting an arbitration approach if it can lead to more effective and efficient resolution of these disputes. We have supported several proposals developed by Congress, and we will continue to work members of Congress on these ideas.
EVERGREEN: NEPA, NFMA and ESA have become vast feeding grounds for serial litigators. The original laws WERE well -intended, but the growing body of rules that accompany these laws – survey and manage, for example – have become serious roadblocks in the path to better management. What can we done to unravel this regulatory quagmire?
CHRISTIANSEN: We are comprehensively looking at all the processes, policies, and regulations that we use to authorize our projects with the goal of reducing and simplifying them. Our intent is to increase boots on the ground and get more work done. Our decisions must be based on high quality science and collaboration or consultation.
We acknowledge public trust in us has eroded because of the time and money it takes to make those decisions. We recently announced that we are revising our implementing regulations for NEPA. We received more than 35,000 comments, completed ten public roundtables across the nation, and expect to propose that revision later this year.
EVERGREEN: The citizen-led forest collaboratives that have sprung up in the Intermountain West look to us to be the “get out of jail free” card Congress and the Forest Service have needed. Even federal judges seem to admire their work. As the new Chief, will you make cooperating with forest restoration collaboratives the official policy of the Forest Service, and, if not, what process for meaningfully engaging forest stakeholders do you favor?
CHRISTIANSEN: I strongly support collaboration and believe it is an essential to successfully and sustainably manage the National Forests. Collaboration helps us understand the wants, needs and priorities of the local communities and build durable decisions for management activities together. The agency will continue to expand and refine these efforts into the future.
Forest collaboratives, including those that are part of in the Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) have provided the means to achieve large scale goals that the agency could not achieve on their own. We have seen great accomplishments and benefits from the 23 CFLRP landscapes.
Since its inception, CFLR has provided over 2.5 billion board feet of timber, generated an estimated $219 million in local labor income, and supports an estimated average of 5,500 jobs per year. Local partners involved in several CFLRP projects rely on materials made available through CFLRP to support their economic well-being and provide employment in rural and underserved communities.
EVERGREEN: The Forest Service often reminds rural citizens that the National Forests belong to the nation, not rural counties. We agree that National Forests belong to all citizens, but we reject the often-repeated claim that rural citizens are biased in favor of timber harvesting. Our experience has been that rural citizens do know more about forestry, and do have much more at risk, both economically and environmentally. What’s your assessment?
CHRISTIANSEN: It is true National Forests belong to all Americans; it also holds true our National Forests and the Forest Service employees are integral parts of the rural communities where our forests are located. These communities have economies, traditions, and community resource needs, such as clean drinking water, that are directly linked to our management decisions.
I agree these communities have much at risk; and we must listen, engage, and work closely with our local towns, counties, tribes, and states. National Forests are part of a larger forest community and our management decisions need to reflect that reality. It is the key to our being a “Good Neighbor.”
EVERGREEN: We aren’t aware of a single forest stakeholder group that favors allowing the West’s National Forests to burn to the ground. Moreover, we think the man or woman on the street in Manhattan would be horrified if he or she knew about the damage these horrific wildfires are doing to our nation’s forest heritage. Do you agree, or have you met citizens who think these big fires are just natural events about which we can do nothing?
CHRISTIANSEN: No, I’m not aware of a stakeholder that favors the destructive outcomes of catastrophic wildfires, just as they wouldn’t favor the outcomes of devastating hurricanes. We need to put wildfire into perspective. Historically, wildland fire fundamentally shaped much of the American landscape – and continues to do so today in a highly modified environment.
Forest, brush and range fires were common in “pre-settlement” times and Native Americans realized the important role fire played in revitalizing and invigorating landscapes. But today there are over one billion “burnable” acres of vegetated landscape in our nation and most of that vegetation is naturally adapted to periodic wildland fire.
As our nation has changed, so has our ability to “live with wildland fire.” The Forest Service and our firefighting partners have the capacity to suppress or manage 98 percent of fires, while 2 percent of the fires are catastrophic mega-fires that we are challenged to suppress, often create significant devastation and burns through the agencies resources: one to two percent of fires consume 30 percent or more of annual costs.
EVERGREEN: And then there are the safety-related issues created by the enormity of these “one to two percent” wildfires.
CHRISTIANSEN: Absolutely. These are the wildfires that are very difficult to control due to fuel loading levels, weather conditions and topography. It is impossible to immediately suppress all of them. We carefully evaluate responder exposure on all incidents and engage our fire resources when and where they have a reasonably high probability of success. Over the last few decades fire seasons have grown two and a half months longer and we have seen the frequency, size, and severity of wildfires increase.
EVERGREEN: There are lots of moving parts associated with battling these big wildfires, aren’t there?
CHRISTIANSEN: Yes, and more broadly, there has been a recognition that the wildfire problem required a new approach and Congress called for National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy in 2009. To effectively overcome these management challenges all stakeholders came together to develop a collaborative response to enhance our collective ability to manage risk of wildfire.
The Forest Service remains committed to the goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which seeks to create resilient landscapes, fire adapted communities and safe and effective wildfire response that bases decisions on risk analysis for all ownerships. The strategy’s vision is to safely and effectively extinguish fire when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and as a nation, live with wildland fire.
EVERGREEN: The Interior West’s National Forests are fire-adapted, not fire-dependent. This suggests to us that, while fire can’t be eliminated, its importance is being overblown. Likewise, that thinning and prescribed fire are a good one-two combination. Would you agree?
CHRISTIANSEN: The Forest Service position regarding the importance of fire is based on decades of research by agency, university, and other scientists. Most ecosystems in North America have co-evolved with fire. There are numerous examples of physiological adaptations to fire that help species survive and even to take advantage of fire. In some forest stands, thinning followed by prescribed fire has been shown to more effectively mitigate wildfire risk than thinning alone.
EVERGREEN: Forest landowner groups are well-informed as it concerns the increasing wildfire risks in western National Forests, but what is the average citizen response when you tell them that 90 million acres – an area nearly as large as Montana – are ready to burn or soon will be?
CHRISTIANSEN: Many citizens across the country are very concerned - as is the Forest Service - about the potential for severe wildfires. That is why the agency has put so much time and energy over the last few years into development and implementation of the Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, and it is why we are seeing so much active participation and engagement in cohesive management across the country.
The figure of 90 million acres may be derived from the 2014 Wildfire Hazard Potential map of areas of NFS lands with a moderate, high, or very high relative potential for a large wildfire to occur that would be difficult to contain provided in following link. https://www.firelab.org/project/wildfire-hazard-potential
The actual number is now about 94 million, but the map depicts a relative potential. The likelihood that any place will be impacted by wildfire in a given fire year is quite low. Often the impacts of wildfire are benign or even beneficial to resources. It is widely recognized that elimination of wildfire and wildfire risk is neither possible nor desirable.
EVERGREEN: There are many personal accounts of USFS personnel allowing fires to burn that could have been quickly extinguished. Chetco Bar, near Brookings, Oregon, comes immediately to mind. The agency seems to be surrendering to wildfire. As Chief, what will be your standing order as it concerns wildfire starts? Might we work our way back to the days of “10 o’clock fires”
CHRISTIANSEN: Over the last 100 plus years, the Forest Service has learned that diverse and complex landscapes require different approaches to managing wildfires. Decisions about how to manage wildfires are best made by the agency administrators that are closest to them and responsible for them.
As Chief, I expect them to make good decisions - carefully considering all the factors at play, such as risks to firefighter and public safety, values at risk, land management plan direction, impacts on partners, probability of success of different strategies and tactics, and availability of fire suppression assets.
A return to a national “10 a.m. policy” is not possible nor desirable. It is not possible, in part, because of the hazardous fuel buildups that suppressing all wildfires as soon as possible helped create. Hazardous fuel buildups combined with insect and disease infestations, non-native species invasions, drought, and long-term weather trends have led to what many professionals describe as the most extreme fire behavior in their decades-long careers.
Two percent of wildfires are difficult to control and even when we want to put a wildfire out right away and have a lot of wildfire suppression assets available, sometimes we cannot due to the amount and condition of fuels; weather conditions, or difficult topography.
I have asked our agency administrators and incident commanders to implement strategies and tactics that commit responders to operations where and when they can be successful. I expect them to be aggressive implementing tactics that are necessary to protect values at risk and have a high probability of success.
I also expect them to be aggressive recognizing when tactics will have no effect and only increase the exposure of our fire responders and pilots and to accept when all we can do is point protection for communities until the fuels or weather change.
EVERGREEN: Some in the Forest Service for whom we have great respect are advocating for “managed fire,” allowing wildfires to continue burning where it can be safely done, essentially herding these fires across very large landscapes.
We understand the intellectual argument, but we fret about waste and the loss of natural forest assets, and we aren’t certain the public will support managed fire. We favor the more aggressive use of thinning and prescribed fire. Based on your long years of wildfire experience, what’s your assessment? Are we correct as it concerns thinning and prescribed fire, or is managed fire the new norm?
CHRISTIANSEN: Research by Forest Service scientists and others has shown that we need to use all the tools at our disposal to restore healthy, resilient forests. These tools include increased thinning and prescribed fire, as well as managing all or part of some lightning caused wildfires when conditions are right.
Updated “Guidance for Implementation of Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy” issued in 2009 allows wildland fires to be concurrently managed for one or more objectives, and objectives can change as fire spreads across the landscape.
EVERGREEN: What can affect these objectives?
CHRISTIANSEN: Objectives are affected by changes in fuels, weather, topography; varying social understanding and tolerance; and involvement of other governmental jurisdictions having different missions and objectives.
EVERGREEN: How many acres are we talking about here?
CHRISTIANSEN: Between 65 and 82 million acres, about 40 percent of National Forest System lands need restoration. Decades of suppressing all wildfires as soon as possible under the “10:00 a.m. policy” contributed to these conditions.
The agency is currently completing hazardous fuels reduction and landscape restoration treatments on an average of 2.8 million acres each year. Acres burned by natural ignitions that met objectives accounts for about 400,000 acres – 14 percent of this annual average.
When making decisions about how to manage wildfires, Forest Service administrators carefully consider impacts on the public and try their best to maintain public support by keeping the public informed about what they are doing and why. Before an agency administrator can decide to manage all or part of a wildfire to reduce hazardous fuels and achieve other natural resource management objectives, they must have a land management plan developed with public involvement in place that allows for that. Weather and fuel conditions must also be conducive to wildfires burning in ways that are beneficial and not harmful to the land and natural resources.
EVERGREEN: The scale at which the West forest restoration collaboratives are working is much too small – a result of congressional hesitation to tackle the forest density/insect/disease/wildfire crisis at the watershed or landscape scale. As Chief, will you remind Congress of the futility of acreage limits on restoration projects?
CHRISTIANSEN: Approximately 40 percent, or between 65- 82 million acres, of National Forest System lands need restoration. If you consider land under other ownership or management, the figure is even greater nation-wide. Given the urgency of the situation, we are working to increase the pace and scale of improving the conditions of the National Forests within the current budget constraints.
Initial areas of emphasis include:
- Increasing the volume of timber sold from 2.6 Billion Board Feet (BBF) in FY2013 to a target this year of 3.4 BBF. This level of timber harvest would equate to approximately 300,000 acres treated.
- Increasing the acres treated of hazardous fuels reduction from 2.3 million acres in 2013 to a target of 2.6 million in FY 2018 with planned increases projected into the future.
- While we are scaling up the size of our projects to address the growing restoration need, we are also working with Congress to determine the best target budgets and forest management authorities needed that can enable that effort.
EVERGREEN: How about diameter limits in thinnings – another bugaboo that does nothing to restore age class and species diversity in forests requiring more aggressive treatment?
CHRISTIANSEN: Limits or caps on the sizes of trees that can be removed is a complex subject. Most originated in local or regional planning approaches to resolve concerns about preserving large trees. In some cases, our research and monitoring have shown that caps are arbitrary values.
Where the objective is to develop or maintain uneven-aged stands or regeneration treatments, or specifically address a site-specific insect, disease, or fire risk issue, then arbitrary caps may not be effective. In these cases, National Forests are amending forest plans or consulting with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow the harvest of trees greater than the cap.
EVERGREEN: Loss of wood processing infrastructure is a huge worry in several western states. Millowners tell us they will not make the commensurate capital investments unless the Forest Service offers 20-year thinning contracts on projects large enough to be ecologically and economically meaningful.
It seems to us that the first thing the Forest Service needs to do is make certain existing mills have sufficient log supplies from restoration projects to hire second shifts. What’s your assessment?
CHRISTIANSEN: Loss of infrastructure, including mills, is a limiting factor for us to achieve our larger restoration goals. Another factor is limited markets for small diameter trees and biomass that often result from our fuels and restoration work. The new 20-year stewardship authority that was passed in the recent Omnibus legislation will help overcome the capitalization investments that limit new mill and market development.
This authority, along with other USDA programs, and our effort to increase the size of the projects we authorize, should provide longer sustained flow of forest products that will create incentives for these kinds of investments.
EVERGREEN: In our travels, we hear rumblings about the absence of maintained performance standards in the Forest Service. Would you agree that all employees should undergo annual review, and should be dismissed if they have not met the performance standards associated with their jobs? If you disagree, please explain.
CHRISTIANSEN: We disagree. The Forest Service maintains a rigorous performance management system, including a mid-year review and year-end final appraisal of all employees. It has increased in transparency, accountability and consistency across units.
Our performance management system is electronically managed to account for every employee. The system has detailed performance standards and elements for both supervisory and non-supervisory employees. Failure to meet fully successful levels of performance can result in a performance improvement plan, and disciplinary actions such as demotion or removal.
We have also moved to a place where our standards are more consistent and integrated. Rather than locally driven performance standards, you can more readily see a consistent linkage between performance standards and the overall mission delivery of this agency across all units. We are seeing mission-driven, over-arching influences on overall performance standards for each employee.