You might have missed this news from earlier in the month, but don't blame yourself: As far as we can tell, it went virtually unreported — although it potentially has big ramifications for U.S. forest lands.
After serving as interim head of the U.S. Forest Service since March, Vicki Christensen earlier this month was able to remove that "interim" chief. She now is the full-fledged 19th chief of the Forest Service.
She is not, by the way, the first female chief of the Forest Service. That honor goes to Gail Kimball, an Oregon State University graduate, who served in that role from 2007 to 2009.
Christensen's ascension to the chief role should be good news for the West. She has longstanding experience working in the region, including 26 years working with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and a stint as the state forester. She also held the state forester's role in Arizona. She started her career in forestry as a wildland firefighter in 1980.
She joined the Forest Service in 2010 and went on to become the Forest Service’s deputy chief for state and private forestry, where she had oversight of fire and aviation management, tribal relations, forest health protection, cooperative forestry and conservation education.
Christiansen was made interim chief in May, after then-Chief Tony Tooke resigned in the wake of a sexual misconduct investigation. One of her first actions as interim chief was to mandate a full day of training on harassment and safety issues for all Forest Service employees.
Much more work remains, of course, to change the culture of the male-dominated agency, which has a history of problems related to sexual harassment and misconduct. But Christiansen appears to be on the right track: "You have my personal commitment to do whatever it takes to bring about a permanent culture change in the Forest Service," she said in a June hearing with a Senate committee.
That's not the only cultural shift Christiansen is trying to lead in the Forest Service. In interviews since she assumed the interim role, she's talked about the importance of shifting the agency's attitudes toward wildfire, a task she compared to "turning the Titanic."
She noted that the Forest Service still is successful at extinguishing 98 percent of wildfires on its lands — but some of those fires, she argued, could help to reduce the risk of catastrophic blazes in the future. She's talked about the need to start distinguishing between what she called, for lack of a better term, "wanted" fires and "unwanted" fires.
"There might be a day, a year, or four or five, whatever it is down the road, where I don't have to articulate just the 98 percent initial attack success rate because we've created more understanding, more acceptance of fire's role on the landscape, where allowable," she told Oregon Public Broadcasting in an interview.
Christiansen's experience with state forests offers another hopeful sign. She is pushing forward with a strategy the agency dubs "Toward Shared Stewardship," which emphasizes cooperative work between the federal agency and state land managers. The plan is intended to help rethink approaches to wildfire, invasive species damage, drought and disease — and to do so in part by working more closely with state and tribal agencies.
The notion of the Forest Service reaching out to local agencies and stakeholders isn't new, of course, but Christiansen's experience and contacts could drive that effort forward in new and welcome ways.
When Christiansen was named interim chief earlier this year, there was grumbling from some quarters about the fact that she has only been with the Forest Service since 2010. But that status as a relative newcomer could prove to be an advantage to someone trying to change the agency's culture on a number of fronts. And her decades of experience with state forests and fighting wildfires should be valuable assets. It will be fascinating to watch how the Forest Service moves forward under her leadership.