Diversity and Inclusiveness at the Forest Service

Leslie Weldon, Deputy Chief, National Forest System
Federal Asian Pacific American Council, 30th Annual National Leadership Training Program
Rockville, MD
— May 5, 2015

It’s a pleasure to be here today! I am here representing the USDA Forest Service on behalf of Chief Tom Tidwell. Chief Tidwell really wanted to be here today but unfortunately was called away.

First, a little about the Forest Service. We manage the national forests and grasslands, 193 million acres of public lands, an area almost twice the size of California. Forty-four states and Puerto Rico have at least one national forest or national grassland. These lands are yours to use and enjoy in all kinds of ways.

We also have a very robust organization for research and development in areas related to conservation. And we work with all 56 states and territories to help private forest landowners manage their lands sustainably—and to help municipalities sustain their urban and community forests. Directly or indirectly, we play a role on 80 percent of the forest lands across the United States.


The Forest Service is part of USDA. All of us at USDA, including the Forest Service, are striving to become a multicultural organization that reflects the demographics of the communities we serve. We want to become an employer agency of choice for the 21st century. We want to create a work environment where everyone is respected and accepted.

We want to become an organization known for its diversity and inclusiveness. The reasons are clear.

First, our population in the United States is growing ever more diverse. By 2050, we expect ethnic minorities to be in the majority. Ethnic minorities are already in the majority in many of our great cities (such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York) and some of our largest states (including California and Texas).

Second, our population is also growing ever more metropolitan. At a time when 83 percent of our population lives in metropolitan areas, part of our job at the Forest Service is to reach out to urban and underserved communities to give more people opportunities to get outdoors, up close and personal with nature. 

Building on USDA priorities, the Forest Service is promoting diversity and inclusiveness both internally—in terms of our own workforce—and externally—in terms of the communities we serve.

Internally, we are committed to creating and retaining a more diverse and inclusive workforce.  Part of inclusiveness is making our workforce look more like the face of America. Diversity of thought is key to the ability of successful organizations to respond to changing circumstances, and it stems from hiring people from various backgrounds. We are changing our culture accordingly, striving to become an employer of choice for all Americans. We are absolutely committed to treating everyone fairly and with respect, giving everyone in our workforce the opportunity to contribute and succeed.

Externally, we are committed to expanding access to the outdoors for underserved and minority communities and young people from urban areas. We are expanding programs designed to reach out to urban youth. We are offering them opportunities to experience the Great Outdoors. We are also offering hands-on workforce development in green careers on the national forests and grasslands.

We are also working with partners to offer urban youth opportunities to engage in conservation work in their own communities. We provide coaching and mentoring opportunities for interns interested in green careers. One example is the MobilizeGreen agreement, a partnership that has launched Forest Service careers for a number of participants. 

We are supporting the President’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, with a national target of 10,000 students serving on public lands. Through Forest Service Job Corps, we have eight Public Lands Corps projects involving 1,825 Job Corps students in conservation work. That alone is more than 18 percent of overall Public Lands Corps target. We are using new recruiting and hiring tools under the Public Land Corps Authority to increase the diversity of our new hires. 

We have also implemented other youth programs. For example, the Bridging Cultures Conservation Corps targets underserved college youth interested in natural resource careers.

Leadership is key, and we are developing Forest Service leaders who embrace differences. We hold all our senior executives accountable in their annual job evaluations for contributing to diversity and inclusiveness. Every month, we track our workforce to identify progress and to pinpoint remaining areas of underrepresentation. 

Once you’re hired, we want you to stay and build a career, so we also focus on retention and promotion. We train supervisors in retention strategies, wellness, and work/life balance, and we provide mentoring, coaching, and individual development plans for all our employees.


Commitments to diversity and inclusiveness are a great starting point. But in the end, results are what count. At the Forest Service, we do have results to show in the makeup of our workforce, especially if you take our whole 110-history into account.

At one time in our history, especially in our leadership, the Forest Service was mainly an elite cadre of white men, almost all of them professional foresters. Since they came from identical backgrounds, they all thought in the same way, so their decisions mirrored each other. It made for a very cohesive organization, and it worked very well for many decades.

But in the long run it made for a weak organization, because when conditions changed, we were too stuck in our ways, and we refused to change ourselves. And that’s because we were missing out on the ideas and perspectives of the vast majority of our fellow citizens—citizens whose backgrounds were different—citizens such as women … such as minorities … such as folks whose training was in something other than forestry.

Today, I am happy to say that we are a very different kind of organization. If you just look at our leadership alone—our Senior Executive Service—you can see a tremendous difference. More than 35 percent of our top leadership is made up of racial minorities. Almost 60 percent of our top leadership reflects either gender or racial diversity. And we have folks from all kinds of professional backgrounds throughout our organization now. We have engineers, wildlife biologists, social scientists, public affairs specialists … you name it.

In the last 30 to 40 years, we have made great strides in building diversity into our workforce as a whole. If you look at the top ten “mission-critical” professions in the Forest Service, women and minorities are actually over-represented in some of them.

Take the “Forester” job series, for example. Fifteen percent of the foresters in this country are women and 5 percent are minority. In each case, the representation in the Forest Service is much higher for both—27 percent of our foresters are women, compared to 15 percent for the nation as a whole; and 11 percent of our foresters are minority, compared to 5 percent.

But we do fall short in some professions for both women and minorities. We are working hard to make up the shortfall.

The Forest Service has also made progress in implementing the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders, launched 3 years ago. We have taken more than a dozen different actions. Before closing, I will outline just a few of the actions we have taken or initiatives we have underway.

In our Pacific Southwest Region, we have some great partnership programs with some truly remarkable individuals. These folks are leading the way in getting young people from urban and underserved communities outdoors, up close and personal with nature. The Central California Consortium and the Northern California Consortium Initiatives provide training opportunities to promote healthy ecosystems through conservation work. These are capacity-building initiatives to strengthen community outreach, education, and recruitment. In 2014, we hired a total of 50 students, and about 25 percent of Asian American descent.

In 2013, we signed a 4-year Participating Agreement to expand opportunities for placing young people throughout our agency. Our Cooperative Forestry staff in Washington, DC, signed a $60,000 Cooperative Agreement with the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership.

The Forest Service also has Special Emphasis Program Managers across the agency to promote employee cultural awareness of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. For example, we launched a program called “Getting to Know China” and another program on Philippine culture. These programs give our employees insights into other countries’ unique histories and rich cultures.

Our Civil Rights office in Washington, DC, has sponsored numerous events during Asian Pacific Heritage Month. They included a FAPAC federal training conference in North Carolina and a Hmong Conference in California. At these events, Forest Service professionals gave presentations and led career several development workshops.

At the Forest Service, we have regional offices across the country, and we also have some regional research stations. Our regions and stations hosted a variety of programs during Asian American and Pacific Islander Month to raise cultural awareness and celebrate cultural diversity.

One final initiative I want to mention is the Forest Service’s Limited English Proficiency Plan. The Forest Service serves everyone, including people whose first language might not be English. We are responsible for effectively communicating about the services people need in a language they can understand. We are required to do so by law and by Executive Order. But we are doing it not because we have to, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Our Limited English Proficiency Plan takes a 5-year phased approach. This year, in phase I of the plan, we are focusing providing the tools and services we need to translate vital documents into other languages and to provide oral interpretation. 

In closing, the Forest Service is fully committed to becoming an employer of choice for all Americans, and we have robust programs and initiatives for reaching out to underserved and urban communities all across America. That includes the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. We want to fully engage with you and continue to partner with you at every level.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be here … and thank you for all you do!