Forest Service Chief: US Faces ‘Crisis’ in the Woods

SILVERDALE, Wash. — About 80 million acres of national forests are ripe for burning up, so the U.S. Forest Service will have to be smart about picking which ones to thin, the agency’s chief, Vicki Christiansen, says.

A native of Washington state, Christiansen attended the annual meeting of the Washington Farm Forestry Association, a group that represents small forest landowners. In an interview, Christiansen said that the agency needs to do more to head off catastrophic fires.

“Quite frankly, the scale is not big enough,” she said. “We’re not reducing the risk. America’s forests are in crisis.”

Christiansen was elevated to interim Forest Service chief in March 2018. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue eliminated the “interim” label in October, making Christiansen the Forest Service’s 19th chief in its 105-year history and the first since the 1930s to not have spent most working years with the federal agency.

She had a 26-year career with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, beginning in 1983. Her first job was overseeing reforestation around Mount St. Helens. She eventually became the Washington state forester.

Later, she was the Arizona state forester and joined the Forest Service in 2010. She was deputy chief for state and private forestry when picked to replace Tony Tooke, who resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Under Christiansen, the Forest Service has adopted a fire-prevention strategy that stresses working with states and private landowners.

She notes that she, Perdue and Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Jim Hubbard all have backgrounds in state government. Perdue was governor of Georgia, and Hubbard spent 35 years in the Colorado State Forest Service.

The state experience, Christiansen said, “gives me, I think, a different perspective than many of our, at least, modern chiefs.

“These national forests are not just islands,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”