Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced today he is retiring next month after more than four decades at the agency that oversees 193 million acres of forestland and more than 30,000 employees.
“On September 1, I will step down as your Chief and leave the Forest Service — carrying with me more than 40 years of cherished memories, lasting friendships and a lifelong love for public lands and service,” Tidwell wrote in a farewell email sent today to Forest Service staff. “It has been my greatest honor to serve, a privilege and most rewarding experience.”
Tidwell, 62, is credited during his eight years as agency chief with increasing the number of women and minorities in administrative positions, prioritizing wildland firefighter safety and improving the service’s law enforcement division after employees complained of a hostile work environment.
He’s also responsible for focusing attention on restoring the “ecological resilience” of national forest system lands, according to agency observers, and for sounding the alarm on the impacts of a warming climate and its potential to dry up critical watersheds originating in national forests.
But he never could convince Congress to authorize funding wildfires like natural disasters, instead forcing the Forest Service to pilfer other agency programs to pay for the growing costs of suppressing an increasing number of blazes that today eat up more than half the agency’s annual budget.
“I think he was an effective chief, and he left the agency better than he found it,” said Dale Bosworth, a Forest Service chief during the George W. Bush administration who retired from the agency in 2007. “In my view, he did a good job, especially considering all the challenges facing the Forest Service, particularly wildfires.”
Wildfire suppression funding remains an enormously challenging problem. More than 86 million acres of national forest lands are considered to be at high risk for wildfires as well as insect infestation.
But the Forest Service, in a statement announcing Tidwell’s retirement, noted that he “played an instrumental role early on in drawing attention and public support to confront the increasing severity and costs of wildfires” and their impacts on national forest lands.
“From the start, we have relied on Chief Tidwell’s experience and counsel, drawing on his years of experience both in the field and in Washington,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “The Forest Service will miss the benefit of his knowledge but we wish him well on his retirement after more than 40 years of service with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
During his four-decade career, Tidwell worked in eight national forests in a variety of positions at all levels of the agency. As a legislative affairs staffer for the agency, he worked on a number of controversial issues, including implementation of the roadless rule.
Tidwell began as a firefighter at the Boise National Forest, eventually serving 19 years as an agency administrator responsible for fire suppression decisions (E&E News PM, June 17, 2009).
That’s one reason Tidwell worked hard as Forest Service chief to change the firefighting culture to ensure safety as a top priority, said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
Since his appointment in June 2009, firefighter deaths have dropped to an average of 15 per year, Stahl said. Between 2001 and 2008, firefighter deaths averaged 20 per year.
“He felt very strongly that we shouldn’t be killing firefighters,” Stahl said. “That was one of his priorities, ensuring that their workplace is safe.”
Tidwell served as deputy regional forester for the Pacific Southwest Region, forest supervisor at the Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Utah, district ranger for the Uinta National Forest, and acting forest supervisor at the Fishlake National Forest in Utah and the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho.
Tidwell, who suffered a heart attack on the job in 2011, acknowledged the challenging nature of the job in his farewell email to staff.
“We have lived through some tough days responding to natural disasters and dangers that come from keeping citizens safe. We have been called to respond in a way that only the Forest Service can,” he wrote.
“We have grieved together, far too many times, for those who have lost their lives in support of our mission. By far these have been the most trying times for me,” he added. “But I was always grateful for how you showed up to respect the sacrifices of others, to lend your support for grieving families, friends and co-workers, to help them begin healing from their loss. That, along with your commitment to our safety journey, to do what we can to ensure everyone returns home safely every day, is what carried me through those times. I know you will continue our progress on this never-ending Journey.”
Reporter Zack Colman contributed.