Leadership Corner

Rising to the occasion

March 25th, 2020 at 10:25AM
Portrait of Chief Christiansen in uniform.
Chief Vicki Christiansen

It’s been a hectic week of new developments with respect to the coronavirus, or COVID-2019. As more Americans are tested, the number of identified cases in the United States continues to grow. In response, we are practicing social distancing, both within the Forest Service and across the nation.

As you know, this is a global pandemic and a national emergency, and everyone is affected. We are all in this together, and we have an obligation to the American people to work together to rise to the occasion.

I know this is new for you—it is for all of us. But America has been through national emergencies before, and we have faced them together as a nation.

In each case, Americans pulled together as a nation to meet the challenge, and I am confident that we will do so again. In each case, Americans looked to our national government for leadership, and as part of our national response, the Forest Service played a prominent role.

Following 9/11, for example, America called on the Forest Service for disaster relief based on a century of experience in incident management. During the Great Depression, we put millions back to work through the Civilian Conservation Corps, creating jobs and stimulating the economy.

Part of who we are as an agency is seeing the opportunity to be a part of the solution. This pandemic might be new for us, but we have been through national crises before, and we have always turned them into opportunities to answer the call. A dynamic tension for us right now is between our core values of safety and service: we can’t serve the American people unless we keep ourselves and others safe. Much of this is manifested through a dramatic change in how most of us do our jobs while maintaining social distancing.

But our core purpose hasn’t changed: to support nature in sustaining life. We have a sacred obligation to the people we serve to continue fulfilling our mission, and we can do so through safe kinds of communication and through outdoor work, such as wildfire response and projects to sustain and restore healthy, resilient landscapes and watersheds. We are moving forward eyeing everything we do through the lens of agency risk management. By balancing safety against service, we can and will continue to fulfill our mission in this current crisis.

Fulfilling our mission is vitally important, especially now. In times of crisis, the people we serve look to us, as one of the nation’s uniformed services, for guidance and leadership. Each of us has an opportunity to model leadership through our service ethic and through our voice as an agency—by showing up as responsive, trustworthy, caring, respectful, inclusive, and curious.

Like previous emergencies, the current crisis has interlocking social and economic dimensions. The immediate task before Americans is to do the right thing—to recognize that we are all in this together and to work together toward common goals. Sound familiar?

Our overarching goal as a nation is to reduce the rate of COVID-19 spread and thereby keep our medical facilities from being overwhelmed. The right thing to do is to reduce the rate of spread through social distancing. As the coronavirus fades, commerce can pick up again, and economic stimulus will be needed. Already, our national leaders are putting stimulus policies in place.

In each regard, the Forest Service is uniquely poised to help. One of our organizational strengths is decentralization, so we are poised to help in ways tailored to local needs.

One way is through communication. Rumors abound in times of crisis, and we can offer detailed information that is accurate and trustworthy. For that, we rely on medical experts. At the national level, the Centers for Disease Control maintains a COVID-19 website with information that is comprehensive and up to date at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.

For information more specific to the agency, I urge you to work through your supervisor, or review the information we are posting in a couple of locations, to include the USDA COVID-19 page, https://www.usda.gov/coronavirus, and “Inside the Forest Service,” https://www.fs.usda.gov/inside-fs/leadership/coronavirus-heres-what-know, as well as the policy information and updates going out to all employees via email.

Another way we can help is through the resources at our disposal, both staff and facilities. Customer service is a national priority for the Forest Service, as is being a good neighbor and sharing stewardship. We have always worked with partners in local communities, and we can draw on our longstanding traditions of collaborative community-based stewardship to help meet local needs in this particular emergency, whatever they might be.

We are also poised to get right back to work for the American people. We have projects in preparation to improve conditions on the national forests and grasslands across the nation, many in partnership with states, tribes, and others. We stand ready to turn the current crisis into new opportunities for social, economic, and ecological benefits for the people and communities we serve.

Our nation has called on the Forest Service time and again to help Americans rise to daunting challenges, and I am proud of that. We have always risen to the challenge, both as Forest Service employees and as Americans, based on a simple truth: that we are all in this together. Part of our national character as Americans is our willingness to stand together in times of adversity to do the right thing. 

The Forest Service stands ready to help. As the dimensions of our national crisis have become more clear in recent weeks, so has our obligation to the people we serve. We have a solemn duty to the American people to help them rise to the occasion of this national emergency. It is who we are at the Forest Service—who we have always been.

I encourage you to use the Leadership Corner Forum (internal link) to discuss how you’re working during the coronavirus. Share what you’re doing to stay healthy and how you’re adapting to still serve the public.

Editor’s note: Keep up with the latest status updates about the coronavirus.