FS Chief Christiansen’s Job Appears Secure

Two former Obama officials, Robert Bonnie and his long-time associate Meryl Harrell, are the Forest Service-relevant Biden transition team members. They are also two of the three authors of a “transition memo” that frames their advice regarding USDA actions and policies through a climate lens.

Chief Christiansen may be heartened to read the memo’s caveat that “Notably, the Forest Service has no political positions; the Secretary should maintain that tradition . . .” Unsurprisingly, it appears her tenure as Chief will be secure after January 20, if she survives the Trump purge.

What other takeaways do ambitious readers glean from the memo?

22 thoughts on “FS Chief Christiansen’s Job Appears Secure”

  1. “The Secretary should establish concrete, outcome-based targets for restoring forests, moving beyond the current administration’s sole focus on forest timber targets to more holistic performance measures for reducing risks to people and property, improving watershed health, maintaining long-term carbon sequestration on Forest Service lands, and significantly increasing the use of prescribed fire to reduce fuels and improve forest health.”

    The Alaska Roadless Rule and NEPA changes are also on the radar (p. 18), as well as research.
    “Day 1 …Issue a Secretarial order requiring the Chief of the Forest Service to sign off on all roadless projects in Alaska National Forests and task a team to initiate planning a different direction for the Tongass National Forest.”

    (I noted other agency transition leads in a comment here: https://forestpolicypub.com/2020/11/11/percs-report-on-tribal-co-management-for-bears-ears/)

    • I don’t see what they have to say stuff like “beyond the current administration’s sole focus on forest timber targets”- I don’t think it’s true to say it was the current administrations “sole” focus..

      So.. could we ask for four more years of stating policies without having (untrue) swipes at the previous administration? Is this supposed to move toward unity?

      Being hopeful, I think that perhaps when the transition has moved from political operatives (who believe their own hype) to regular political appointees this might go away.

  2. Andy, thanks for posting this!
    Here are my impressions of Transition Team Folks. when considering the metric of “promoting unity.”

    I am dubious about the folks on the transition team for Interior as a symbol of possible efforts at unity. Interior’s policies that we deal with affect the Interior West disproportionately, and yet… one from Nevada and one from New Mexico.. and they are all mostly lawyers and law professors.

    Are they lawyers because… they know more about what USFWS, NPS, BLM etc. actually do? Or because lawyers are in charge of policy these days? What if lawyers, instead of doctors ran, say, NIH or a Covid response team?

    As much as I like law professors, in my experience they tend to deal mostly with “ideas about things” instead of “things”. I’m a card carrying population geneticist and I’ve been lectured by a law professor on how a planning rule should include the concept of island biogeography. (But forests aren’t islands, I pointed out, to no avail). I’d like more people who deal with “things” on the transition, maybe the head of a state wildlife or parks department in the Interior West? My fear is that once the transition team starts with a worldview and a buddy system, that will be transmitted to whom they put on the list for positions, and so on.

    The USDA folks don’t seem so lawyer-centric, but neither do they seem to know much about the FS other than Merrill Harrell (another lawyer) and Robert Bonnie. That’s appropriate as the FS is not the most important thing USDA does. I’d even think they could leave Jim Hubbard in place.. he could work for D Governors, conceivably he could work for a D President.

    It’s an interesting contrast, Interior and Agriculture.
    I thought these USDA ideas are particularly unifying-

    *Decarbonize rural energy and promote green energy and smart grids through the vast reach of rural development grants and loans to rural utilities and by dramatically increasing use of methane digesters, biofuels and wood energy, and wood product innovation. (Day 100)•

    *Prioritize federal investment to address wildfire by establishing a Wildfire Commission, co-chaired by the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior and a Democratic and Republican governor, to offer recommendations to increase the pace and scale of ecologically-sound forest restoration on federal, state, tribal and private forest lands, modernize firefighting response in the US, address development in the wildland-urban interface, and increase the use of prescribed fire. (Day 100)
    (This sounds like something I suggested)

    OTOH I have some concerns about seeing everything as being about Climate Change.. so things like inadequate funding for law enforcement and being overrun by recreationists don’t fit the paradigm and are likely to be continually overlooked.

    Thought experiment: if the answer to poor employee morale is to give more money to NIFA and ERS, why not give money to recreation folks and law enforcement in the FS? I bet if you asked them they might have equally poor morale.

    Similarly if increasing fires mean the USDA should give more money to fire research (now known as climate adaptation and resilience) why would they give it to NIFA and ERS instead of the FS? Or maybe they could actually coordinate fire research among agencies- I know DOE, NOAA, NSF, USGS and the FS all work on apparently the same things. It’s interesting that no Administration has ever prioritized getting more organized and efficient about R&D across agencies. The answer to anything in research seems to be more money, even though we see many research products that are not particularly helpful.

    • Sample of 1. William Perry Pendley (USDI political appointee) is a lawyer who made his name suing the government. In terms of being objective (with a potential for unity) I’d go with a law professor any day. (I’m surprised you seem to be arguing for putting scientists in charge of political decision-making because they are good scientists.)

      • This is my own experience from speaking with a variety of law profs – giving talks to students and so on. At the two schools I worked with CU and University of Denver, they were not particularly objective. I was surprised at the culture the first time I attended a law school seminar series on public lands- at how snarky people were about people who want to use natural resources and Republicans.. it was pretty out in the open. Clearly, there’s a different culture (possibly more “in your face”?) than the culture of land grant universities’ ag and natural resources programs that I was used to.

        In Colorado the new regulator for oil and gas spent his previous career suing oil and gas companies, as here. Jeff Robbins now leads the state commission he once took to court.”

        So is it OK or not to appoint anti-oriented lawyers to jobs? Seems like both sides do it.

        • I didn’t argue that both sides don’t appoint litigators (note that the Biden EPA transition lead would be someone who has been suing them). Just that law professors might be a better bet for unity. (Of course that covers a range of personal opinions, but in my experience, there are some who think more like judges.)

  3. Expect several regions to get new RFs (2, 6, and 10 seem prime targets). The Deputy Chief, Associate Chief, and Chief positions will likely be reshuffled as well.

    I’ll eat my hat if Hubbard is kept on as Under Secretary. He may have the wherewithal to walk that political tightrope but the optics seem untenable.

    One thing to keep an eye on: The ongoing transition to a new budget structure may allow for broader changes to the structure of the overall workforce.

    • Okay, Anonymous, I’ll take your bait.

      A new R-2 RF is a no-brainer as there is no incumbent. This seat has been filled by two successive “actings.

      Yes, Pacific Northwest RF Glenn Casamassa could retire. But, who does that anymore based on age alone? With the pipeline of SES-qualified employees thin already, I suspect Glenn’s tenure will be as long as he wishes.

      Of the three, Alaska RF Dave Schmidt appears the most vulnerable. How fast and how convincingly can he pivot on the Alaska roadless rule? Probably not fast or convincingly enough.

      There will be a new USDA undersecretary for NRE. But, that person may be “acting” for a long time. Does anyone see a McConnell-controlled Senate confirming any Biden appointee?

      • Those three regions came to mind because they each made high-profile decisions during the Trump administration that environmentalists loudly opposed (AK roadless rule, chainsaw use in wilderness, eastside screens, etc.). I forgot that the R2 RF was already removed. And you make a fair point about the thinness of the SES pipeline.

        Still, I’m curious about your choice of headline, Andy. Why do you read this report as signalling that the Biden administration will retain Christiansen? Won’t that depend on what the new AgSec and Under Secretary want?

        As for confirmations, I could easily see Romney and Murkowski bucking the GOP to support qualified nominees for USDA. That is especially true if they nominate blue dogs from red states like Steve Bullock and Heidi Heitkamp, who are rumored to be in the running. That assumes, however, that McConnell actually schedules a vote.

        • “Why do you read this report as signaling that the Biden administration will retain Christiansen?” When the Biden transition team goes out of its way to remind us that the Chief’s position is a Senate-unconfirmed civil servant, it suggests to me a message of “cool your jets, folks, we’re in no hurry to replace the Chief.”

          “Won’t that depend on what the new AgSec and Under Secretary want?” Their answer to “Is the Chief’s office broken?” will be dispositive. In other words, I wouldn’t look to the Forest Service as an agency where the Biden administration wants to put down a big marker or make a big statement. Interior, however, is a whole different matter!

        • As to R-2, though, I thought Brian Ferebee undid the decision to go into Wilderness which was mooted later anyway because the snow never cleared.. if that’s a reason for possible enemization it seems pretty slight.

  4. Late in getting back to you Sharon… I only offered that “career Chief” is generic and no assurance about VC. FS has gone from being pretty independent of USDA Secy (ignored by?) to some very interventionist actions dating back to the 90’s when FS issues became more intractable. I’m sure every Chief has wrestled with questions of how stiff-necked can I be vis-a-vis biting my tongue and staying on the job. It appears to me that, though Chief position remains career, incoming administrations opt for change to ensure compatibility with their agenda – especially if the incumbent Chief has appeared too comfortable with policies that a new Secy finds repugnant. I’m not in much of a position anymore to predict accurately what might happen, except that Hubbard will be gone Jan 20 (he’s a political appointee).

    • Jim, I have never been even a vaguely political animal. My former RF “you need to read between the lines, Sharon.”

      It’s a bit creepy to me when you get to things like “appeared too comfortable.” That sounds like it’s in the eye of the beholder. As much as I’d like to think the FS is like the Sound of Music, it can also be like The Lord of the Flies and an opportunity for back-stabbing gossip.

      I know Hubbard is a political appointee, I was thinking outside the box.

  5. Every Chief has subtle ways of asserting their independence and integrity in the face of political bullying; maybe even overt ways.

    • My point was that “subtle ways” may be seen by others as “giving in” especially those who, for whatever reason, might not like that person. I’ve always wished some management author would write “Personal Chemistry: An Underrated Factor in Workplace Conflict.”

  6. As opposed to doing nothing or simply agreeing, I see “subtle ways” as “pushing back”, not giving in…

    But that’s a GREAT title — get crackin’!!


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