Forest Service chief on managing 193 million acres of national forest


This undated photo provided by Trust For Public Lands shows a portion of the Fleming Ranch, purchased by the U.S. Forest Service for $1.5 million for to add to the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California. (Maria Grants/AP)
August 14, 2012

Tom Tidwell is chief of the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that manages the nation's 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands that encompass 193 million acres. Tidwell has spent three decades in the Forest Service, serving in a variety of positions that have included district ranger, forest supervisor, legislative affairs specialist and deputy regional forester for the Pacific Southwest Region. Tidwell spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post's Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service's Center for Government Leadership.

What has been the biggest surprise during your tenure as chief of the Forest Service?

Having a good grasp of everything that this agency does, what we're able to do day in and day out, and what a difference it makes to so many people in this country.

I don’t know if it’s a surprise, but I’m continually impressed with the magnitude of public service that this agency provides in the stewardship of 193 million acres of our national forest and grasslands and through our research and development branch. We provide leading-edge science to deal with issues such as restoration of our nation’s forests.

You have had a very busy forest-fire season this summer. How do you handle these situations and deal with employees on the frontlines?

For any crisis situation, employees need to trust their judgment. They need to rely on their training and experience and always be focused on taking care of the public. When it comes to a fire or any emergency, we make sure that our employees are safe, but we also find ways to communicate with the public and local officials about what is going on. The public should feel comfortable and confident in the level of expertise that we are bringing to these emergency situations.

For instance, we successfully suppress between 97 and 98 percent of all fires, but there is that 2 percent that no matter how many resources, how many firefighters and how many fire engines we have on the scene, it will escape initial attack and get large. In those cases, we need to be able to quickly put a good strategy in place to control the fire.

What advice do you have to help federal managers increase operational efficiency?

It’s so important to be able to understand the benefits of working across federal agencies and state and local governments. The demand from the public for a higher level of service is going to continue to increase, but at the same time, the level of resources that we can bring to the table is diminishing. Federal leaders need to embrace opportunities to become more efficient and effective.

The best example I have is our approach to wild land firefighting. It’s not just the Forest Service. It is the Departments of the Interior, Homeland Security, Commerce and, at times, Defense. We’ve been able to develop an interagency, coordinated response that allows us to quickly respond to fires. I think this is a model for how we need to do things in the federal government.

How do you explain the importance of the work of the Forest Service to the American public?       

We have the responsibility for the stewardship of 193 million acres of land, ensuring that the public is going to be able to enjoy the clean air, clean water and biodiversity that are provided by these lands in a recreational setting. The other key part is the economic activity. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are maintained by the activities of the national forest. Also, there’s the importance of conservation and to make sure the next generation is also going to be able to enjoy the same range of benefits.

Do you have leadership role models?

There’s Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service. The longer I’m in this position, the more impressed I am with what he did to establish the agency and build its foundation. The key principles that guide this agency today are just as true as they were 107 years ago. Also, I admire Theodore Roosevelt and what he did for conservation in this country. He took what was, at times, an unpopular stance to preserve the forests we have today.

Another role model is Martin Luther King Jr. and how he was able to influence the way people thought when he didn’t have a position of authority. He was able to motivate people to act differently when they really had a choice not to. That’s what I look for in leaders — people who are able to listen to others and influence their thinking in a way that is long lasting.  

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