Christiansen named Forest Service Chief

Trinity Lewis
for Tri-State Livestock News
Tensleep Canyon on the West side of the Big Horn Mountains, echoed with bawling cows, running creek below and cowboys hollering at cows that refused to come out of the brush or behind rocks to walk home to the Rice Ranch outside of Tensleep, Wyoming, a couple of weeks ago. Photo by Lana Tibbetts

Last week Vicki Christiansen was formally appointed United States Forest Service Chief.

Housed in the United States Department of Agriculture, due to it’s renewable resources of land, water and forests, the United States Forest Service (USFS) administers the nation’s 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands. The agency’s authority encompasses 193 million acres in the United States. Since its inception, as a result of the Transfer Act of 1905, the USFS has been managed by the USFS Chief.

While attending college, Christiansen fought fires as a wild land firefighter for the USFS. In 1983, upon graduating with a forest management degree from the University of Washington, she landed her first permanent position as a forester responsible for the reforestation of state land trusts in the Mt. Saint Helen’s volcanic blast zone.

Later on she would add to her resume: Arizona State Forester and Director of the Arizona Division of Forestry. Christiansen played an integral part on the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy and helped lead the agency’s First Initiative whose goal it was to increase safety in wild land firefighting scenarios.

“Her background is pretty specific. We are looking forward to an opportunity to get her up to speed on some of our other issues.”Ethan Lane, executive director of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association’s Public Lands Council

In an interview with Tri-State Livestock News Ethan Lane, executive director of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association’s Public Lands Council, voiced concerns that no real tie to agriculture is listed on Christiansen’s resume. “Her background is pretty specific.” He said relaying that with the occurrence of numerous devastating fires across the west the federal government has emphasized the management of wild land fires in their employment decisions. “We are looking forward to an opportunity to get her up to speed on some of our other issues.” Lane added.

Some of those issues are the United States Forest Service allotments on which producers run their livestock as part of the USFS range program. “We have been voicing concerns for a while that the USFS isn’t paying enough attention to their range program.” Lane said noting that around 7,000 producers run livestock on federally-managed land11`. He went on to explain that chiefs who know how important ranching is to managing forest service lands, particularly in the Dakotas with a lot of national grasslands that fall into the hands of the USFS, have become an anomaly. He said to sum it all up “It’s not all just big trees.”

In regard to the strained relationships between producers and USFS employees Lane noted that he is hopeful Christiansen’s leadership will have a positive impact to soothe those relations. “I think that those relationships can be improved by re-focusing on the range program. I think a lot of areas in the West are filled with ranchers operating on the forest who feel like they’ve been placed on the back burner until it comes to regulatory compliance. When they’re trying to get permits approved all of a sudden there is no staff available.” The NCBA is not sitting idly by, “We have made these issues very clear to Christiansen and we will continue to hammer the need to improve relationships with ranchers and that can be done by strengthening and being committed to the range program.”

Christiansen’s appointment was made official last week although she had been serving as the Interim Chief following her predecessor’s involvement in a sexual misconduct allegations. Ethan Lane says that the permanent appointment of Christiansen has a huge impact. “Temporary detailees can be found throughout the forest service right now and it is wreaking havoc on how they can consistently manage the forest. We are seeing this on all levels of the United States Forest Service from key positions in Washington D.C. to rational offices where they may have temps or simply no one at all.” Lane assured that they have also voiced this concern as well insisting that staffing be stabilized.

Lane hypothesized that many positions in the USFS are currently empty due to the fire-borrowing situation that has left them with financial strains. “I think it (the employment issue) is probably most directly related to funding. Hopefully with some fire-borrowing fixes and additional fire language in the Farm Bill, that will help them alleviate some of that so that they can get some permanent staff back in place. There are some really good people in the USFS the problem is we often times only get to work with them for a few months.” He smiled and added about USFS staff, “ There are definitely some bad ones too.”

Senator John Barrasso from Wyoming, where 9 million acres are USFS owned, weighed in on the forestry discussion involved with this year’s farm bill. “Because the House and Senate passed two farm bills with different contents, the conference committee is working to resolve differences between the bill to have one 2018 Farm Bill. Both bills contained important forestry provisions, but the conference committee is negotiating what will be in the final version. During the Senate process, I worked with my colleagues on the Senate Agriculture Committee, emphasizing the need to include forestry provisions in the bill. Not only do we need to ensure adequate availability of live trees for our mills and communities, we also need to reduce hazardous fuels that feed catastrophic wildfires like we have seen this year.”

Lane stated that the NCBA is in favor of the provisions that have been made in the farm bill and Barrasso expounded on the beneficial aspect to the language in the farm bill, “Providing additional tools, and requiring the agencies to use existing tools, will improve forest management across the West. We must get ahead of our future forest management needs to prevent immense damage to wildlife habitat, grazing opportunities, homes, property, and even loss of life. I am optimistic the Farm Bill conference report will include some of these changes. I will continue to pursue forestry reforms, like those contained in my bills: the National Forest Ecosystem Improvement Act and the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act.”