Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that Randy Moore will serve as the 20th Chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.
“Randy Moore has been a catalyst for change and creativity in carrying out the Forest Service’s mission to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations,” said Secretary Vilsack. “In his role as Regional Forester, Randy has been a conservation leader on the forefront of climate change, most notably leading the Region’s response to the dramatic increase in catastrophic wildfires in California over the last decade. His proven track record of supporting and developing employees and putting communities at the center of the Forest Service’s work positions him well to lead the agency into the future at this critical time in our country.”
Upon swearing in, Moore will serve as the first African American to hold the role of Chief of the Forest Service.
Current Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen will step down from her role on July 26. Chief Christiansen and Regional Forester Moore will continue to collaborate on an intentional leadership transition between now and then as the Forest Service gears up for a tough summer of predicted elevated fire activity across the Western United States.
Randy Moore has been serving as Regional Forester in the Pacific Southwest Region in California since 2007 where he has responsibility for 18 national forests, covering one-fifth of the state on 20 million acres of land. Additionally, he oversees State and Private Forestry programs in Hawaii and the U.S. affiliated Pacific Islands.
Previously, Moore served as the Regional Forester for the Eastern Region, headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for five years.
Moore started his career in conservation in 1978 with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in North Dakota. His Forest Service career began on the Pike and San Isabel National Forests in Colorado and the Comanche and Cimarron National Grasslands in Kansas. He served as Deputy Forest Supervisor on the National Forests of North Carolina and the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri before serving as Forest Supervisor of the Mark Twain National Forest. Moore also has national-level experience in Washington, D.C., serving as acting Associate Deputy Chief for the National Forest System and the National Deputy Soils Program Manager.
Moore earned a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil science from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He and his wife Antoinette have two sons, a daughter-in-law, and two grandsons.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim, Shannon, and Tom.
In what will be one of her last appearances in a Congressional hearing before she retires at the end of August, U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen called repeatedly for a “paradigm shift” for treating hazardous fuels.
Today she testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to defend the President’s budget request for the U.S. Forest Service for Fiscal Year 2022 which begins October 1.
In addition to increasing the amount of timber harvested on Forest Service lands, the topic of reducing the number of devastating wildfires came up many times in the hour and a half hearing. A video is available on the Committee’s website.
Senator John Barrasso (WY) mentioned (at 27:49 in the video) that in an April hearing the chief said a paradigm shift was needed to reduce the hazard fuels in forests. He asked, “Do we need to dramatically increase the number of [wildfire mitigation] acres treated annually?” Chief Christiansen said,”Yes… We can’t just do the same old thing we’ve always done, just treat whatever acres we can get to… We have a crisis. We have a crisis that needs to be addressed differently.”
The Chief said the agency treats about three million acres each year, but they need to treat two to four times that amount.
Senator Ron Wyden (OR) got the Chief to confirm that the agency’s latest estimate is that it would take $20 billion over a 10-year period to “get in front of the hazardous fuel challenge” (at 39:25).
A fuel complex defined by kind, arrangement, volume, condition, and location that presents a threat of ignition and resistance to control.
Senator Wyden addressed the possibility of a fire season this year that could be worse than average (at 36:40). He asked, “What is the plan for keeping people safe when there are fires in multiple communities in the West?”
Chief Christiansen said, in part, that in recent years there has been competition for firefighting resources when the number of fires have resulted in requests for firefighters and equipment that were unable to be filled, and later said, “Our system is at a breaking point.”
Senator Wyden asked the Chief to submit a “written statement on what the plans are if we are short on resources in the West.”
Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (NV) asked if the President’s proposed budget includes sufficient funding for battling wildfires, post-fire recovery, prevention, reducing hazard fuels, and addressing invasive species.
“Senator, it’s a step in the right direction. A significant step in the right direction… It helps in modernizing our wildland fire workforce. It does not get us every step that we need to be.
“I’m very concerned about our workforce,” she continued. “They are tired, and fatigued. Their mental well-being and stress that we are concerned about. Many of these folks are temporary employees and they try to make a year’s living in six to nine months. There are still more things to address, but this budget is a very good first step.
Senator Masto asked about the recruitment and retention challenges that the agency is facing (1:05:30).
“It’s a calling to do this work,” the Chief said. “But anybody should be able to have a living wage to do this work. We do have concerns about a competitive wage… We are committed to work with the Department of the Interior and others to do a comprehensive look at our workforce needs.”
“Please share that,” said Senator Masto. “It’s the same thing I’m hearing in my state from our fire chiefs. It’s a challenge. And this is something we have to address.”
Senator Angus King (Maine) said timber sales on public lands fell from 13 billion board feet in 1988 to 3.2 billion last year, a factor of five, he said. (1:13:07) “What in the hell happened,” he asked. Later he said, “Coincidentally from 1991 to 2020 the number of acres burned has gone up by a factor of five. Is there a connection?”
“Yes sir, there is,” the Chief quickly replied. The Senator moved on to another topic and did not allow her to fully explain why she thought there is a connection.
Vicki Christiansen announced today her intention to retire from her position as Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. In addition to issuing a news release, she recorded what the Forest Service calls a “selfie video.” (below)
At times during the three-minute video she appeared to be emotional, taking a pause to collect herself. But she got right to the point. Here is how it began:
Hi everyone, it’s Chief Vicki Christiansen. Today, I’m going to share a personal decision that I have made together with my family. I will be retiring from USDA Forest Service in August. Please know what a difficult and emotional decision this is for me. I’ve been a wildland firefighter, a professional forester and a land manager for the last 40 years, and my personal passion is connecting people with their natural resources and serving at the Forest Service for the past 11 years has allowed me to do that in partnership with all of you. Serving with you has been a really special privilege, and it’s the best capstone that I could ever ask for my career.
Christiansen worked as a firefighter in Washington for 26 years, eventually serving as the Washington State Forester. She then served as the Arizona State Forester from 2009 to 2010. She joined the United States Forest Service in 2010 as the acting director of legislative affairs before serving as deputy director of fire and aviation management. In 2012, she served as acting regional forester for the Northern Region, which covers 25 million acres across five states and includes 12 national forests.
Christiansen was named the 19th chief of the Forest Service in October 2018.
Chief Christiansen said she “has been working with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to plan her retirement for several months.” He is expected to nominate her successor later in June.
Chief Christiansen received mixed reviews during the last several months. She has been criticized for her meek appearances before Congressional committees, failing to be a strong advocate to impress upon the legislators that inadequate funds are being appropriated for the Forest Service, making it impossible to make adequate progress in managing hazardous fuels, prescribing burning, and recruiting and retaining skilled firefighting personnel.
Below is the complete transcript of the video, “lightly edited for clarity” by the US Forest Service:
“Hi everyone, it’s Chief Vicki Christiansen. Today, I’m going to share a personal decision that I have made together with my family. I will be retiring from USDA Forest Service in August. Please know what a difficult and emotional decision this is for me. I’ve been a wildland firefighter, a professional forester and a land manager for the last 40 years, and my personal passion is connecting people with their natural resources and serving at the Forest Service for the past 11 years has allowed me to do that in partnership with all of you. Serving with you has been a really special privilege, and it’s the best capstone that I could ever ask for my career.
“But, the time has come for me to spend more time with my family: my dear mother, who will turn 90 in a few months, my—of course—my children and my grandchildren. You know, they live a continent away in the Pacific Northwest, and I just need to be closer to them. And they have supported me so much throughout my entire career. It’s time for me to give back and to support them.
“I’ve chosen this moment, in part, because I think it’s the best time. There’s never a perfect time. I’d like to get so much more done with you and for you, but there are great leaders that are ready to step up, and in the coming days or weeks Secretary Vilsack will be announcing the next Chief. And I’ll stick around; I’ll spend a few weeks to do a transition with the new Chief once they’re in place. We want you all to know how much a good transition means for the Forest Service and USDA.
“So, think about all that we have accomplished in the last three years: coping with a global pandemic and horrendous fire years, the good traction that has been made in improving forest conditions and really setting the stage to do even more of that work with shared stewardship, and, of course, changing our culture for the better by naming and living our values through This is Who We Are.
“So, thank you for your support and thank you for your incredibly hard work. I am very proud to be one of you and this great mission of the Forest Service will be in my heart forever. It’s been an extreme honor and a great privilege to serve as your Chief.
End of transcript.
To see all articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Victoria Christiansen”, click here.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Riva, SR, and Kelly.
Senator Dianne Feinstein was adamant that the pay structure for federal wildland firefighters is not adequate in today’s job market
The pay of federal wildland firefighters and hazardous fuels treatments were two of the issues discussed Wednesday at a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. The only witness was Vicki Christiansen, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. The hearing was titled, Rethinking Resiliency: Budgeting for the Future of Forest Management.
Senator Dianne Feinstein said her main concern is the “salary situation.” She said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Suppression pays their firefighters $70,000 and the “U.S. Forest Service pays $38,000.” She had a strong point but her information about the FS salary is misleading. Most FS firefighters start as a seasonal employee at the GS-3 level. If they worked year round, which most of them do not, they would earn $28,078 a year at $13.45 an hour. After working for five to ten years they might be able to obtain a permanent full time appointment. If they reached the GS-6 level, they could earn $39,311 a year as a trained, experienced, highly skilled mid-level firefighter — an employee highly valued by other organizations anxious to hire them at double the salary.
Senator Feinstein said the differential in pay between CAL FIRE and the FS “…is the problem. And the loss in fire is just tremendous. I think that we have to move some way in a bill to make that change.”
“State, local, and private entities can range from $70,000 to $88,000 a year,” Chief Christiansen replied. “And their benefits are better. We have folks that are absolutely committed to the mission of the Forest Service, but at that wage, that gap in the wage, they’re going on to work for other entities. So we really appreciate working with you to bridge this gap and to discuss. We need more of a year-round workforce as well.”
“Well thank you Chief,” said Senator Feinstein. “Thank you very much for that because I’ve been around a long time, was a mayor for nine years of [San Francisco]. And I’ve never seen a pay differential this stark as the difference between federal firefighter pay and state firefighter pay. So the reason I’m here, is to say we need to move and do something about it. Let me ask another question. Do you have the mobility, Chief, to make the necessary moves to prevent this inequity from showing in actual firefighting?”
“Thank you,” Said the Chief. “We certainly can bring a strong voice to this problem, but we have to work across the Federal government with the Office of Personnel Management and of course, other agencies with federal wildland firefighters, the Department of the Interior being the largest. [Agriculture] Secretary Vilsack has made a commitment to bring leadership to this. And we really look forward to working with you here in Congress to address this issue.”
Senator Feinstein said she hoped the committee would work with her and others and “try to solve it.”
The Chief said that during the pandemic the FS continued hazardous fuels work, “…but we know it’s not enough. We need a paradigm shift under the President’s jobs plan. President Biden is calling on Congress to significantly invest in protection from extreme wildfire. After confronting record wildfires last year, we expect another long and arduous fire year in ’21. We are prepared, but we remain deeply concerned about the welfare and the pay of our thousands of firefighters. We’re grateful for your help in finding solutions that address pay equity, fatigue, and the mental wellbeing of our firefighters. Just this Monday, a Forest Service firefighter was seriously injured in New Mexico. He is a smoke jumper from Montana, and this demonstrates the seriousness of this business. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family. As I know yours are as well. You know, our infrastructure needs are pressing as are the economic needs of Americans. When we improve the infrastructure of the National Forests by upgrading roads, trails, and recreation sites. It spurs job growth and boosts economies. Thanks to the Great American Outdoor Act, we expect to create an additional 4,400 jobs and contribute an estimated $420 million to the GDP annually.
Senator Merkley asked about a report required by law to have been submitted by March 27 to provide Congress an estimate of the federal investment required to treat and restore federal and non-federal acres classified as high risk for wildfire. Chief Christiansen blamed the delay on the Department of the Interior where it is “in its final clearance”. Senator Merkley emphasized that the subcommittee needs the data “to advance far more funds for forest treatments” and asked the Chief to be sure it is submitted by the end of the month.
The Senator mentioned there is a significant backlog of fuel reduction projects in Oregon and New Mexico. He asked the Chief, “What does it take to get these projects that have already cleared the environmental controls, underway. Is it a single limitation? Is it just money or is it anything else?”
After an extended answer from the Chief, Senator Merkley interrupted to say, “I’m going to have you shorten it a little bit there. I think your answer was essentially, ‘Yes, it’s funds’ “.
The agency issues statement about compensation, recruitment, and retention for wildland firefighters
I was working on an article for Wildfire Today about the difficulties the federal land management agencies are having trying to recruit and retain firefighters while their employment packages pale in comparison to similar jobs in some state or municipal organizations. I sought out a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service (FS) in California, Jonathan Groveman who works out of their regional office, asking for specific numbers of firefighter positions in the state that can’t be filled.
About 20 hours after we last spoke, Mr. Groveman sent an email with a rather extraordinary official statement. There were no detailed numbers like I requested, but what was sent instead was six paragraphs that indicated that the FS, or at least Mr. Groveman, recognizes some of the issues that are beginning to seriously cripple the ability of the five federal land management agencies to protect the homeland from wildfires.
When Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen testified before a House Appropriations Subcommittee on April 17 she squandered two clear opportunities to accept or ask for more funding in two very important inadequately budgeted areas, fuels treatment and aerial firefighting. It was not clear if the Chief selected that strategy because her chain of command in the Department of Agriculture and the White House demanded that she remain agnostic about adequate funding for those areas, or if she took it upon herself to remain meek, adopting a don’t-make-any-waves posture. If it was the latter, the Chief needs to find another job.
At that point it looked hopeless to expect the Forest Service to be proactive about requesting Congress to provide badly needed funding for protecting our homeland from fires.
In order to solve a problem, first it must be identified — which is tough to do with one’s head buried in the sand.
Mr. Groveman’s statement identified some of the issues that are seriously degrading the effectiveness of federal wildland firefighting. Assuming it represents the stance of the agencies and the White House, the next step is for Senators and Congressmen to work with the agencies to make sure they have the tools needed to do their jobs. Here are some of the highlights — quotes from the document. Following those, is the complete statement.
“Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with wages offered by state, local and private entities in some areas of the United States. We have seen key highly trained personnel leave the Forest Service and we have also experienced some inability to recruit new employees into the agency, which we understand is due to wage disparities with the states.
“We are committed to ensuring that Federal firefighters are properly compensated and recognized for the work they do
“This is not about minimum wage but about a competitive wage.
“In order for us to remain competitive we need to create a structure for establishing a wage that creates greater parity. This would enable us to maintain the necessary firefighting workforce necessary to meet wildland fire response expectations.”
The full statement is below:
Maintaining our ability to hire and retain firefighters as we see the complexity of the firefighting environment grow exponentially, has been further complicated by our inability to offer competitive wages. Federal wages for firefighters have not kept pace with wages offered by state, local and private entities in some areas of the United States. We have seen key highly trained personnel leave the Forest Service and we have also experienced some inability to recruit new employees into the agency, which we understand is due to wage disparities with the states.
We are committed to ensuring that Federal firefighters are properly compensated and recognized for the work they do and the administration is focused on equity in all forms. These problems are not unique to the Forest Service and also apply to firefighters within the Department of the Interior.
This is not about minimum wage but about a competitive wage. Particularly in states like California we are seeing that federal wages for firefighters is about half of what they would get for similar jobs in state and private entities. In order for us to remain competitive we need to create a structure for establishing a wage that creates greater parity. This would enable us to maintain the necessary firefighting workforce necessary to meet wildland fire response expectations.
We are working with OPM and OMB to evaluate options to modernize the firefighting workforce compensation structure, including job series, pay grade levels, and other changes.
In light of these challenges the Forest Service still maintains a robust and highly capable wildland fire workforce and will be able to meet the demands of what is expected to be another challenging fire year. We work with our federal, state, tribal, local and private partners to be sure we can access all available resources to respond to wildfires as needed.
The Forest Service is focused on creating a more modern firefighting workforce where we have specialized year round capability to respond to the wildfires conditions of not only today but into the future. This includes greater utilization of technology to enhance firefighter capability, effectiveness and safety.
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen discusses last week’s budget hearing and the “wildfire crisis that is before us”
On April 21 Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen recorded another in a series of what she calls “selfie videos” in which she gives her take on recent activities within the agency. The Chief has done this on a number of occasions. They are informal and are sometimes recorded on a cell phone.
She began the most recent edition by talking about the weather, volunteers, Earth Day, Administrative Professionals Day, and telework, before shifting to her testimony April 15 before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. The purpose of the hearing was to discuss with members of Congress the proposed budget for the Forest Service for the fiscal year that begins October 1, 2021. It was pointed out critically on this website on April 17 that during the hearing she had two clear opportunities to accept or ask for more funding in two very important inadequately budgeted areas, fuels treatment and aerial firefighting.
You can watch the complete video at the bottom of this article. The Forest Service provided a “lightly edited for clarity transcript”, a portion of which is below. The Chief started talking about the hearing at 6:15. The transcript below begins at 7:10 after she introduced the topic in general terms.
…So, it was a really great hearing, it was my opportunity to really showcase all the great work that you all are doing. And if some of you aren’t familiar with the budget process, it’s a little bit complex, especially this year with this new administration coming in. They didn’t have the time to develop a full budget proposal. So, last week, what’s called the budget blueprint came out, and it’s just the high-level funding that the administration recommends to meet the priorities of the administration. You may notice, if you’re paying attention, there are some initiatives that bump up the Forest Service’s proposed budget in that budget blueprint. They’re high level, and there’s not a lot of detail, but it’s around our work to create resiliency for wildfire, climate change work and additional science resources.
The full budget won’t be out until the middle of May, so it was a little bit of a unique time to have a budget hearing because I really couldn’t talk about the administration’s full proposal because it’s not out yet. And, oftentimes, people ask me, “Chief, why don’t you just ask for all the money we need?” and the process is: we’re part of a big family, all right? The Forest Service is a part of a big federal family, and just to give you context, there’s $769 billion of discretionary funds for non-defense spending for all of the federal government. So, all of the appropriations committees in Congress divvy that out and those subcommittees then help decide based on the administration’s budget proposals how they’re going to prioritize and then how they’re going to negotiate with the other chamber—in this case it would be with the Senate—on a final budget construct. So, we’re part of that bigger federal family. We certainly talk about what we can do, I talk about our science, I talk about the challenges we face, but we’re a part, again, of that bigger family budget that is delivered as one administration and, in this case, right now, we only have that blueprint.
So, in the hearing last week, I got a lot of great questions about how we could invest in making a difference on the landscape and in serving the American people. I highlighted how Forest Service has really risen to the challenge in a very difficult year, how important it is that we steward the nation’s forests and serve the American people, the wildfire crisis that is before us, and that we really need to have a paradigm shift, quite frankly, in matching the work that we need to do to create more resilience on the landscape at the scope and scale to meet the challenge. I talked about the infrastructure and, of course, the resources that Congress gave us last year through the Great American Outdoors Act and how important that is in being able to provide a better experience for the American people, but also to provide critical jobs: jobs near national forests, particularly in rural areas, and we were really mindful of the job creation of that important investment that Congress had made.
So, it’s conversational; it was a virtual hearing, I did go into my office. I did it from my office, and we’re really figuring out how to even do hearings virtually. It will be provided in a link from this selfie video if you do want to take the time to watch it. It’s about an hour-and-a-half long but you can, of course, speed through the parts you don’t want to hear. And there was also, by the way, some really good engagement about our state and private mission area; you know, providing the capacity and the resources through our state forestry agencies and other partners for urban forestry and stewardship forestry, forest health and all the rest. So, really good conversations about state and private and our need and how we show up with our really important science in the Forest Service. So, one down, three more to go. The other three will likely be after the full budget comes out, so that will be a little bit of a regular way that we would do budget hearings.
Probably more than you ever wanted to know about budget and budget processes, but I know folks ask me, “Why don’t you just ask for more money, Chief?” and I want to give you a little bit of how the process works. So, I talk about the great work you do and how we’re a good investment and what the needs are on the ground.
I just signed my leadership intent letter for wildfire for the 2021 season, so that will be hitting all of your mailboxes. Look for that, and I think I’m going to try to do a little selfie video to give some highlights about the 2021 wildfire letter. For now, I’m going to call it a wrap.
I hope you all have a great day and a great rest of your week. Thank you for what you do. Stay safe and be well.
(end of transcript)
The “Leadership Intent letter” mentioned by the Chief can be downloaded here. Not much is surprising in the two-page document, but she does refer to COVID-19:
We will continue to use the foundational risk management practices that enabled success in 2020, including consistent mask use, small dispersed fire camps, remote incident management, enhanced safety protocols in our logistical contracts, and continued COVID-19 screening and testing of firefighters.
She also said vaccinations are good, safety is good, sexual harassment is bad, fuel treatment is good, and the Cohesive Strategy is good.