State Liaisons: Conduits between States and Forest Service

As the new year and even newer administration rolls in, Forest Service Intermountain Region state liaisons work with state governments, partners, and other federal government agencies behind the scenes to accomplish the Forest Service mission. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, their roles have become essential to getting work done in a virtual environment. 

Like many workers, most of the state liaisons’ work has easily transferred to virtual platforms. All four states in the Intermountain Region (Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, and Idaho) have embraced hosting some form of virtual or socially-distanced legislative session since the start of the pandemic. 

State liaisons have become more critical than ever for the Forest Service and their respective states. “Having a position that’s dedicated to communications with the state[s] has helped ensure ongoing coordination and collaboration during the transition to a virtual work environment.”  Forest Service Nevada state liaison, Cheva Gabor, said.  

For Gabor, coordination between the agency and state has become more structured since the two already had standing federal-state coordination meetings. One example is in working with the state legislature. "While the virtual environment allows business to continue and the Forest Service made multiple presentations to committees, it doesn’t allow for the spontaneous in-person discussions with legislators, committee staff, state and federal partners and other stakeholders that would normally occur in the committee rooms and in the halls of the legislature." 

These discussions, often impromptu and informal in nature, is something that Gabor and other state liaisons miss.  Andy Brunelle, Idaho state liaison said, “We build relationships through communications. It’s mainly through seeking opportunities to encounter or reach out to state officials...Many of these informal opportunities don’t exist in the COVID-19 era...” 

Forest Service Wyoming state liaison, Sandy Underhill, recalls one spontaneous interaction last fall in which Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon and State Forester Bill Crasper visited the Mullen Fire Incident Command Post to thank firefighters and the Incident Management Team for their hard work.  “That doesn’t happen everywhere and that really exemplifies the importance of relationships in Wyoming.  We all do our best to work hand in hand to accomplish great work and resolve hard issues.” 

  As a newcomer to both the position and agency, Forest Service Utah state liaison Quincy Bahr, finds these interactions imperative to do his job. “Obviously, during COVID, this has been more challenging, as the opportunities for candid side conversations and networking introductions at meetings are reduced, but folks have been so good at being inclusive and helping me reach out and make contact virtually.” 

The change to a new administration has had limited impacts on the state liaisons’ workload. At minimum, state liaisons will have to meet with new staff and representatives to establish relationships and help familiarize them with the Forest Service. “The biggest change will come as the Forest Service responds to the priorities of the new administration, and we work to communicate these to state partners,” Gabor said. 

Unlike the other Intermountain Region states, Utah has several new appointments at the executive level, including a new governor and two representatives. “I’ve been working to connect the new appointees with Forest Service leadership and bring them up to speed on ongoing Forest Service efforts and learn about their interests. Relatively little has changed in the state legislature, so it’s just been about getting to know the existing legislators and their staffs,” Bahr explained. 

In addition to helping the states and Forest Service adapt their work to the pandemic and a new administration, state liaisons also coordinate meetings and logistics, create and maintain relationships with state legislators and agency staff, monitor key hot topics for the organization in their states, and share information in a myriad of ways.  For Bahr, this means “getting to know the players and process, which has involved asking lots of questions and lots of listening.” 

State liaisons share information by keeping Forest Service leadership informed of state legislation that would concern or interest the agency and in turn, prepare and provide neutral testimonies for state legislatures on how potential legislation could impact the Forest Service.  

In Nevada, Gabor expects to see some proposed changes to the Nevada Advisory Board on Outdoor Recreation. Bahr is watching several bills that address wildfire and recovery actions, including providing state funds to match Forest Service funding for Shared Stewardship projects as well as a legislative proposal to reorganize the state’s regulatory and management natural resources agencies into one department.  In Idaho, Brunelle’s focus is on proposed expanded funding for Good Neighbor Authority and Shared Stewardship initiatives. Underhill watches for any legislation concerning gas, oil, minerals, tourism, and Wyoming’s budget. “It’s important to understand that the State of Wyoming is very dependent on receipts received from minerals, oil and gas and that tourism is the second largest economic driver in the state.” 

“It is important to understand and be able to communicate how proposed legislation may or not impact (both positive and negative) our work,” Underhill explained. 

Often, committees request presentations from the Forest Service so state liaisons work on developing those presentations and preparing Forest Service staff to present them. Gabor said, “During the legislative session, I attend hearings on bills and sometimes provide comment (neutral testimony) to help legislators understand how a bill would impact our management of National Forest System lands, in addition to providing information regarding proposed legislation during one-on-one conversations with legislators, legislative staff, state agency staff and other stakeholders.” 

Brunelle believes that the trick to collaboration is to have other parties on your side. “I have found that if certain interests or state agencies share our view on a certain issue or topic that state legislators will listen, and maybe make adjustments.” 

Overall, liaisons like Bahr, Brunelle, Gabor, and Underhill make sure that the Forest Service is present and represented when state and Forest Service missions overlap. Underhill sees state liaisons as “as a conduit between the State and the Forest Service Regional and Forest Supervisor offices.” They serve as the “go-to” or first point of contact for state agencies and legislatures if they have questions about an issue, policy, or procedure.  Bahr said, “There are so many people and interests at the state and so many corresponding experts in the Forest Service, I provide a single point of access to make the necessary connections.”  

Also, state liaisons help forests create and manage their relationships with the states, identify opportunities for both parties to proactively engage with each other, and serve as a reliable channel for states and the Forest Service to communicate easily. Bahr is passionate about the latter. “Much of conflict in natural resources management is due to misconceptions or misinformation; frequent and open communication reduces the potential for such differences.” 

Gabor said, “I enjoy finding common goals that the Forest Service shares with state and federal partners and other stakeholders and helping to move them forward to achieve the Forest Service mission.  When we focus on common goals, rather than our differences, we accomplish much more than when we work as individual agencies or even merely coordinate versus collaborate.”