Forestry Notes Q&A: Vicki Christiansen

U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen leads a workforce of more than 25,000 employees who steward 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands; supports the world’s largest forestry research organization; and works with states, tribes and others to sustain all forests, so they can benefit all citizens today, and in the future.

Chief Christiansen joined the Forest Service in 2010 as the Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation Management. Prior to serving as chief, she worked as 

Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry, overseeing Forest Service activities in managing wildland fire, and working with our partners to sustain the health and productivity of non-federal forest lands. Prior to joining the Forest Service, she served as the Arizona State Forester and director of the Arizona Division of Forestry, where she was responsible for the protection of 22 million acres of state and private lands in Arizona. She had previously served as the Washington State Forester, the culmination of a 26-year career with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

Chief Christiansen recently sat down with NACD Forestry Specialist Mike Beacom (pictured above with Chief Christiansen) to discuss a number of topics. 

This job comes with great challenges. Immediately, upon stepping into this post, you faced the great challenge of changing Forest Service culture amidst allegations of misconduct. What are the measures you’ve taken that have proven most effective thus far, and what must happen for change to prove long-lasting?

The people in the Forest Service, our workforce and our partners are the essence of how we get our conservation mission work done. And so, one of my first actions was to finalize a body of work we’d been working on in earnest for a couple of years – something I had been involved in while in my other roles in the Forest Service – and that’s to have no question on what we stand for, how we serve, what our values are and what our purpose is. Because when you have a segmented organization, everybody’s viewpoint of who we are and how we show up can be different. We call it, “This is who we are: Values-based, purpose-driven, relationship-focused organization.” We have it all condensed in a little booklet; our values, our purpose, the story of conservation, the Forest Service’s role in it, how we show up. We don’t say this is completely aspirational; we say this is who we are on our best day, but we want to make it who we are every day, and how we serve the public, and that means serving each other and supporting each other. So that’s step one.

The agency’s core values are conservation, service, interdependence, diversity and safety. They’re very clear, but you can’t just claim the values and do work around living the values without looking at a couple of other things. It’s the systems that we have in place. We can claim a value-based way of being, but we have systems that don’t really match up to that, and we are not going to make overnight changes to our systems. When I stepped into this role, we immediately called for “every voice matters.” We called it a ‘stand up, free each other’ action plan. Within the first five weeks after I became interim chief, we did a listen-and-learn session. We cannot change what we don’t know or what we don’t understand, and we needed to break the silence. Every employee was invited to small group sessions where we just opened up space to share personal experience. A through line there was that supervisors really need support, they need help, they need acumen. We probably were hiring more to technical competencies and not necessarily people in leadership competencies in some of the higher roles. So, we’re doing a series of other things looking at our systems, anchoring to this values-based, purpose-driven, relationship-focused, matching up systems that will mirror how we can be a values-based organization.

And the third piece is to build acumen in our people and how we work. An example of that is our Shared Stewardship initiative, how we really listen, how we really partner. It’s going beyond collaboration. Collaboration is great, but shared decision space, that’s the high level how we’re changing our culture. There are many other structural things and even what I would call cultural things that we’re doing. But that’s the framework.

A big part of changing the Forest Service culture, I imagine, is through the recruitment and development of the next generation of foresters. What ideas have you introduced to help increase gender and racial diversity among your workforce?

We’re doing many things on the recruiting front, but I want to be crystal clear that it’s not just about inviting folks in and working hard to get them here; it’s how we support and respect everyone once they’re here.

Forest Service has done some really good work over the years on recruiting. We’re trying to take it to the next level that it’s not just assimilation, you have to assimilate to the way the culture is, everyone’s diverse perspective and backgrounds matter. That’s really important to talk about.

I think one of the most sustainable recruitment tools is that the Forest Service is a good place to work: My voice matters, it’s not exclusionary, I feel included, they look at different perspectives, different ideas. Also, forestry is the heart and soul of our organization, but it’s not the only profession. There are multiple natural resource professions that we need and that we invite in, so we have an intention statement here at the Forest Service to create a culture of inclusion that awakens and strengthens everyone’s connection to the land. And what you notice in there, diversity isn’t said overtly in that intention statement, but by having a culture of inclusion, diversity will flow because folks matter. We want the Forest Service to be a sought-after place to work because of our culture and what we stand for.

Nature provides, it is the flow of the services and benefits that we all enjoy; and that we share taking care of our natural resources together. Nature matters, nature provides, and we can make it last for everyone if we take care of it together.

In 1905, when the Forest Service was founded, we felt very proud and strong about our legacy of the Pinchot Rangers and all of the rest of that, where the protection of water and timber was the primary purpose why these forest reserves became national forests. But we’ve contemporized Gifford Pinchot’s message and we call that the story of conservation and the Forest Service’s role in it; that nature matters, nature connects us to everything, we all need nature to live. Nature provides, it is the flow of the services and benefits that we all enjoy; and that we share taking care of our natural resources together. Nature matters, nature provides, and we can make it last for everyone if we take care of it together. We want folks to really know and understand that Forest Service is more than just foresters and firefighters. We need plenty of foresters and firefighters, but everyone has a role to offer in the Forest Service.

The National Association of State Foresters recently organized a roundtable for Shared Stewardship. What are the keys to making Shared Stewardship a success?

First and foremost, it’s building on some really good collaboration work that the whole round of partners has been working on for over a decade. We have some really great play space collaboratives with conservation districts, NRCS, Department of Interior, Forest Service, state forestry agencies, state fish and wildlife agencies–you name it. There’s a mix of folks along with NGO and play space citizenry that are valuing the multiple benefits that come from healthy, productive, working landscapes. That’s a critical foundation. Meanwhile, we have threats to our natural resources that are accelerating. Wildfire gets most of the headline space and that certainly is a major threat, but there are many others – invasives, insects and disease, water quality – and so what we’ve always done isn’t necessarily going to get us to where we need to be.

What’s different about Shared Stewardship is to really acknowledge this scale issue. One of our scientists calls it a ‘scale mismatch.’ Just from the Forest Service, the lands we manage, 80 million of the 193 million acres are at least at moderate to significant risk of catastrophic fire, insects and disease. Eighty million acres need treatment, and just working harder and thinking that every acre is all equal in the amount of risk it’s going to reduce isn’t getting us where we need to be. Shared Stewardship is about looking at the scale and working more intentionally. I think everyone would say – clean water, good wildlife habitat, good economic opportunities from our natural resources, health and safety of communities – all of those things are important. Well, if we consider them all the highest priority in equal doses across the whole U.S., we still are not prioritizing.

The conservation challenges and opportunities of our time are bigger than any one organization, than any one government entity – local, state, tribal, federal – and we need to think about the way we convene, and the way we make choices and tradeoffs about the priorities.

Shared Stewardship is a call to action and it’s an invitation. There is not a lot of structure around it. It’s to say the conservation challenges and opportunities of our time are bigger than any one organization, than any one government entity – local, state, tribal, federal – and we need to think about the way we convene, and the way we make choices and tradeoffs about the priorities.

Shared Stewardship is envisioned, and it’s playing out to be loosely at the state scale and asking the states to convene the partners and people that are most important to identify the mutual priorities and outcomes for the state. The priorities in California are a little different than the priorities in Arkansas,  Minnesota and in Utah. And as a federal agency, we can’t assume to be able to manage all of those priorities from a national level. We need to build up from our play space conservation efforts on a scale that is going to make a difference. And the collateral benefits that go with this is that we open up bigger space on how we really listen, how we find our mutual outcomes and priorities, what matters the most in this area versus this area. For the Forest Service, it’s not about the federal dominance, it’s about  sharing that decision space, and sharing  decisions on how we’re going to prioritize our resources based on these mutual outcomes.

You’re familiar with conservation districts. If you were speaking directly to our 3,000 districts, how would you advise them that they fit into Shared Stewardship?

The state conservation commissions have a strong voice to reach out to their state forestry organization, their natural resource directors for the governor’s office, and say ‘We have a role.’ Conservation districts are the heart of the conservation done in that community. In my experience, particularly in Washington State, we had conservation districts that really focused on being the catalyst around Firewise communities because they were a part of that community. As the state department of natural resources, we just helped boost those conservation districts because they were in the areas where the wildland urban interface was significant. That’s an example of where we prioritized what we wanted to make happen, and we shared our investment.

Conservation districts are the heart of the conservation done in that community.

I would strongly encourage conservation districts, at the level they can, to coalesce their efforts at a state scale and reach out to their state agency partners and say, ‘We’d love to be a part of how we define what Shared Stewardship is like and what the prioritization is for our state.’

How has your career path as a state forester and then your time in State & Private Forestry helped prepare you for this job and also the landscape-scale approach we accept as the new norm for forestland management?

You know we all have our own stories and we all have our strengths and our weaker sides that we bring to our story. I always anchor ourselves to our mission, because we have a great mission: to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands for the benefit of current and future generations. What’s not compelling about that? And we are solidly anchored in the direct management we do of the national forests, the 193 million acres, that we are a direct land manager makes us rich in who we are, but we are more than just that. We have the tools at the national scale to sustain all of America’s forests – that’s the State and Private Forestry mission that gives us broad authorities to leverage with and through others, and then embedded in our own organization is the world’s largest forestry research and development organization so we have direct science, applied science that we can bring to the mix.

I tell our employees, ‘You know, I’ve helped be a part of implementing the Forest Service’s mission for the last 39 years. It’s just the last nine years I’ve actually worked in the Forest Service.’

I tell that story to say, my journey has been in more of this cross-boundary work versus maybe some of my other predecessors that did rich partnerships and collaboration, but all from a place of being in the Forest Service. I’ve had to be in front of county commissions, in front of state legislators, addressing the more place-based questions and queries. And my personal passion is the interface of connecting people with their natural resources, this value about to awaken and strengthen everyone’s connection to the land.

As you mentioned, wildfire continues to dominate headlines. The Wildfire Funding Fix was an important step in helping to bring relief to agency budgets. What is the next key step in combating wildfire’s stronghold on the health of our forests?

The Wildfire Funding Fix gave us some additional tools – 20-year stewardship contracting, permanent Good Neighbor Authority and the like – but the financial piece of it is it takes us out of this freefall we were in. The budget practice was that we first have to fund our 10-year average of past fire costs. That average was an upward trend. In 1995, 15 percent of our constraint budget went to fire, all the rest went to conservation. Last year, it was about 56 percent. We couldn’t get as much work done, we couldn’t partner, so the funding fix will stabilize us from continuing that trajectory upward, because it goes back to the 2015 10-year average, and we will not continue to erode our budgets going forward.

The other thing was the continual erosion of our base budget, but in many of those years that still was not enough, because the 10-year average kept growing bigger, that we’d have to borrow from the non-fire accounts and that would freeze us even more. So, we will have this disaster relief account – again, the financial piece doesn’t start until 2020 – that should we go over the 10-year average, we can draw from those accounts, and so it nearly zeroes out the chance we will ever have to do fire borrowing.

But the next steps, already the current steps, in that we haven’t just been sitting around waiting for Congress to help us with this, we’ve been really looking within the agency on how we can do reforms to help get more work done. Several in play are environmental assessment and decision-making. We have analyzed hundreds – actually thousands – of our past decisions, and we are over-analyzing some of our most basic decisions to get work done.

Your proposed changes to NEPA implementation in June stressed both the need for environmental review but also a need for expediency. Do you believe NEPA can get beyond politics, the way wildfire has?

What I can say with some certainty is our commitment towards the work, and I think what we do and how we demonstrate this will bring most folks along. Take the environmental piece out of it. I have these analogies. When I’m going to get in the car and drive somewhere that’s pretty standard – the gym, grocery store, somewhere in my local community – I’m not going to do a big route analysis, right? I’m going to consider the current conditions, I’m going to put on my seatbelt, I’m going to mitigate for whatever weather factors there are that make this a safe journey, and I’m not going to impact myself or others. That, I would say, is analogous to a pre-routine practice that has a pretty low chance of a significant environmental impact. It’s analogous to a categorical exclusion. A categorical exclusion doesn’t mean we don’t do any environmental assessment, it’s just that it’s routine in nature, and I’m going to mitigate for what’s before me.

On the other hand, let’s imagine I’m going to drive from Washington D.C., to someplace far away–a place that is unfamiliar territory. I don’t know what the risks are, I’m going to do a pretty thorough route analysis: how I’m going to get there, what my options are, what are the tradeoffs, etc. It’s not exactly parallel but take the energy of the environmental piece out of it. That’s what we’re talking about. Let’s use the right tool for good environmental sound decisions for the right kind of action. It’s about getting the work done, it’s about all of the values –environmental, social, economic – that come from our lands, our forests, our environment.

You spoke at the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition’s Annual Reception in March. What’s the most effective selling point for promoting the need to invest in urban forestry?

Well over 80 percent of America’s population lives in urban environments, and it goes back to that value we have of awakening and strengthening everyone’s connection to the land. We have to meet people where they’re at. We care about rural prosperity, and we care about the health of the wildlands all the way to the private forest landowners in this nation that are primarily outside of the urban areas, but caring about that cannot be at the exclusion of the most dominant part of our population, and if they lose a connection to the land we aren’t going to have the support for how we provide water for America, how we shelter America, and how we provide all the other benefits. There’s clearly a connection to our larger conservation natural resource missions that we all care about.

There’s documented scientific-based benefits of what urban forests bring for the economic, social and environmental way of life in the urban center, from the health benefits to property values, to energy savings, and everything else.

It’s a triple win when we have a gradient all the way out from strong urban green infrastructure to our rural and wildlands.

Check out NACD’s Forestry Notes for more Q&As and stories like this.

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