Former Arizona forester taps years of history in new Forest Service job

Former Arizona State Forester Vicki Christiansen faces a range of challenges in her new role as chief of the U.S. Forest Service, which grapples with funding, bigger and more intense wildfires, and a lingering culture of sexual harassment. (Photo by Lillian Donahue/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – One of Vicki Christiansen’s first jobs in her career as a wildland firefighter was helping to reforest the blast zone around Mount St. Helen’s after the Washington volcano blew its top in 1980.

Years later, Christiansen found herself helping commercially thin the same forests she had helped to establish 25 years earlier.

“There wasn’t a textbook on how to establish a new forest in a volcanic blast zone,” Christiansen said in a recent interview. “So I’ve been really lucky, I’ve learned a lot in my career and the interface with people, people that really care about their natural resources.”

Christiansen will be calling on her experience, including her turn a few years back as Arizona state forester, as she takes on her newest role, as chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

As before, she will face challenges for which there is no textbook. In a nearly 40-year career, Christiansen has seen wildfires get more severe and deployments get longer and more dangerous. Funding for firefighting on the 193 million acres of land her agency manages has been a perennial problem.

And there’s one long-simmering fire she is determined to address: Christiansen said she has seen treatment of women in the field get better since when she first started, but it is nowhere near perfect.

Christiansen said the issue is important to her, as she has seen inequality for women and people of color in the industry throughout her career. But when she started out as a wildland firefighter 38 years ago, she said, people were not as sensitive to these issues.

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“I wasn’t equipped, quite frankly, on how to call out maybe some of the behaviors that weren’t respectful to women and people of color or whatever it might be,” she said of her younger self. “That’s why I’m really committed that there’s a place and there’s inclusion and there’s equity and everyone provides value.”

Christiansen announced efforts to deal with harassment in April, shortly after she was named an interim replacement for former Chief Tony Tooke, who stepped down amid accusations of sexual harassment. That’s when Christiansen laid out a plan to “break the silence” and deal with the “allegations of harassment, assault, bullying and retaliation” facing the agency.

“We must hold ourselves and our agency accountable to the highest standards of conduct,” she said in a video announcing her “Stand Up for Each Other” program. “We will not tolerate behavior that makes our colleagues or the people in the communities we serve unsafe in any way, including harassment, bullying, assault or retaliation.”

The program included a month of listening sessions by agency directors, as Christiansen called on everyone on the agency to do their part “to confront this culture.”

But Christiansen, who officially took over as chief in October, faced a cool reception in a November hearing of the House Oversight and Goverment Reform Committee. There, a letter from 119 women in the agency said the “Stand Up” program had put the burden on victims to come forward and speak out “when you have not made it a safe environment to do so.”

Christiansen said then that the agency is doing what it can, but that changing the culture will take time.

But some problems can’t wait. One of the biggest jobs of Christiansen’s 30,000-employee agency is firefighting, and Christiansen’s appointment comes after two big fire years. In the past two years alone, there have been more than 120,000 fires that burned more than 18 million acres.

A new funding formula that takes effect this year is expected to help the Forest Service get ahead after years of struggling to get resources to keep up with fires. Christiansen said the so-called Fire Funding Fix will help respond to the more catastrophic fires, the ones she calls “hurricane fires,” but others caution that responding to fires is only part of the solution.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson and the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said that Congress needs to take a closer look at the “whole preventive treatment that we need to do where the urban interface and the wildlands meet.”

Christiansen said she plans to work more closely with communities than past chiefs have, in an effort to bridge the gaps between different levels of the Service. Since she has worked at the local, state and now federal level, she said she can see innovative ways the different branches can work together.

“My time in Arizona really was instrumental in how we help steward all of our forest lands throughout this nation,” she said.

– Cronkite News video by Lillian Donahue

Christiansen said her experiences helped her learn “all the tactics and the strategy of wildland fire” and how those have changed. And those who have worked with her agree.

Jim Allen, executive director of the Northern Arizona University School of Forestry, said Christiansen’s outgoing nature is what makes her the perfect person for the job.

When she was Arizona State Forester, he said, she took a seat on the NAU School of Forestry’s advisory board and worked closely with the school and the community in general.

“I think it’s just part of her outgoing nature that she wants to work more with communities and work more with tribes,” Allen said. “She wants to put the ‘service’ back in Forest Service.”

But Christiansen said she is partly motivated by the things she has seen in her long career that were not so pleasant.

She was Arizona state forester in 2010 when the Schultz Fire burned more than 15,000 acres, clearing the way for flooding when the next monsoon rain hit, which caused further damage and led to the drowning of a young girl. An NAU study later put the cost of the fire and subsequent flooding between $133 million and $147 million.

“That always will have an impact on me,” Christiansen said. “It’s not just the wildfires themselves, it’s the aftereffects of wildfire and the effects on human communities that keep me awake at night, and why I keep working so hard at what I’m doing.”

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