Transforming Forest Service Culture: A Commitment to Inclusiveness

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Blacks in Government, National Training Conference
Boston, MA
— August 23, 2011

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. The Blacks in Government conference is well-recognized as one of the most important training venues in the federal government. Many of our employees have received key training at this conference and have gone on to high positions in the agency. My Deputy Chief of Research has told me that the training he received here played a major role in his being accepted for the Senior Executive Service. One of our top priorities at the Forest Service is to become a more diverse and inclusive organization, so I welcome this opportunity to talk about that.

As you know, part of what the Forest Service does is to manage the national forests and grasslands. The National Forest System is huge, almost twice the size of California, spread over 44 states and Puerto Rico. Americans get a lot of benefits from these lands—clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and more. By caring for the land, we make sure that Americans continue to get all those benefits.

Rural-Urban Gradient

But our responsibilities go way beyond the national forests and grasslands. We have a role to play, directly or indirectly, on roughly 80 percent of the nation’s forests. That includes the nation’s 100 million acres of urban forests. When people think of forests, they often think of them as far from where people live. In reality, forests range across a gradient, from rural to urban—from remote backcountry trails up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, for example, to shady neighborhood streets and parks right here in Boston.

Our motto at the Forest Service is “caring for the land and serving people,” and that includes serving people right where they live. Eighty percent of Americans now live in metropolitan areas like Boston. That’s where the trees are—the forests are—that most people see every day—that people benefit from in their daily lives. Urban trees and greenery raise the quality of life. They add scenic beauty. They save energy by providing shade. They provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. Scientists tell us that they also reduce stress and lower crime rates.

In addition, urban forests provide great learning opportunities. The ecologist Aldo Leopold once said that “the weeds in a city lot convey the same lessons as the redwoods.” You don’t need to go to a national forest to learn how an ecosystem works—how sun, soil, water, plants, animals, and people interact. You can see it along your local creek, along your neighborhood street, or in your own backyard. But you can also travel to a national forest like the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire to experience forests on another scale. Americans need healthy trees and forests in all these places, at all these scales, and part of our job at the Forest Service is to work across the rural-urban gradient to make it happen.

Roots in the Land

Urban forests are part of our nation’s green infrastructure, and many of our green investments in the past have been made by the African-American community. Some people have said that African-Americans don’t generally equate success with working in nature. Crossing the ocean on a slave ship … working the land under a whip … running through the woods to escape to freedom … finding a murder victim hanging from a tree—experiences like these might lead to an understandable reluctance to choose an outdoor career.

But some recent books by black professors have looked into that, and they’ve found another side to the story. Blacks brought their own traditions with them from Africa, and those traditions were rooted in the land. In fact, African-Americans contributed to some of the earliest explorations of America. African-Americans were among the voyageurs and the Mountain Men who trapped and traded for furs. In 1903, the acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park was Captain Charles Young, an African-American West Point graduate.

In 1910, what is now known as the “Big Burn” blazed through three million acres in Washington State, Idaho, and Montana. African-Americans known as Buffalo Soldiers, the first all-black regiment in the US Army, played a large role in fighting that fire. The Buffalo Soldiers also roamed the West in cavalry units and patrolled the early national parks in California.

African-Americans have a rich heritage of knowing the woods and using them. Especially after the Civil War, they often translated that knowledge into personal gain. African-Americans worked on railroads and as cowboys, and African-American ranchers and farmers helped settle the West. When professional forestry took root around 1900, African-Americans were involved; it’s said that the first African-American professional forester was Ralph Brock, who graduated from a forestry academy in Pennsylvania in 1906. In 1910, despite Jim Crow and all the discrimination they faced, African-Americans owned almost 200 timber companies.

In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed about 250,000 African-Americans. During World War II, African-Americans made up the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, which helped pioneer smokejumping; the smokejumpers, some of our most elite firefighters today, owe a debt of gratitude to those early pioneers. From the late 19th century into the 1960s, African-Americans made up a quarter of the entire forest products industry, and they still own and manage a lot of forest land, especially in the South.

The Changing Face of America

So the foundations for African-American participation in conservation are strong. At the Forest Service, we want to take advantage of that. African-Americans have been a part of the agency from the very beginning. We want to do everything we can to ensure that we look like the face of America. And that face is changing … from rural to urban … from majority white to majority nonwhite. If current trends hold, then minorities will become the national majority by about mid-century.

The Forest Service has made progress. Just 40 years ago, we were nearly 100 percent white … and nearly 100 percent male. Today, we have women and minorities throughout the organization, at every level, including the very top. As a matter of fact, if you look at our National Leadership Council, minority representation is at or above what it is in the civilian labor force. Where we lack diversity is lower down in our workforce.

Over the years, we have worked closely with historically black colleges and universities, providing special grants and making special agreements, with Tuskegee University, for example … with Alabama A&M … and many more. We also provide special training opportunities for students from HBCUs; for example, students from Southern University work at our Southern Research Station in Asheville, North Carolina; and we have Ph.D. students in our Scientist Recruitment Program.

And we work hard to help our employees succeed. We offer special training and career enrichment opportunities, including leadership programs for employees at all levels of the organization … including congressional fellowships and presidential management fellowships. In all these programs, women and minorities are well represented.


Cultural Transformation

But I would be the first to admit that we have to do more. That’s why one of our top priorities at the Forest Service is inclusiveness and diversity. We cannot afford to miss out on the skills and abilities, the talents and contributions of what is rapidly becoming the majority of Americans. Diversity of thought is key to successful organizations, and it comes from hiring people from all different backgrounds—rural and urban … male and female … with ethnicities, professions, and perspectives of all kinds.

The Forest Service will become a fully inclusive organization: an agency where everyone is welcome, respected, and has equal opportunity to contribute and succeed; an agency that reflects America. This is essential if we are going to serve our diverse communities and compete in the job market.

In the past 40 years, we have made a lot of progress, but there are still areas of underrepresentation, both in our workforce and in the communities we serve. So we are deliberately transforming our culture to become an employer of choice for all Americans. We want to broaden the circle of conservation—to make a connection to underserved communities all across America, especially in our urban areas—to build a workforce that truly reflects the face of America. We are designing our programs accordingly, and we are tailoring our recruitment and retention policies to the needs of young Americans from every background.

Two years ago, I spoke at this same conference in Baltimore, Maryland. At that conference, people shared their issues and concerns … their perceptions of barriers … their suggestions for improving the hiring, career advancement, and retention of women, minorities, persons with disabilities, and veterans. We took those suggestions very seriously, and they helped shape what we are now calling Cultural Transformation. Cultural Transformation is a concerted national drive, at the USDA level, to develop a workforce that mirrors the face of America.

Here are some of the steps we are taking:

  • The Secretary of Agriculture has appointed 11 high-level executives to guide implementation of Cultural Transformation across USDA.
  • I have appointed two high-level Forest Service employees to lead Cultural Transformation for the Forest Service. They sit in our national office and report directly to me.
  • We hold all Forest Service senior executives accountable in their annual job evaluations for contributing to diversity. 
  • Each month, we track our workforce to identify progress and to pinpoint remaining areas of underrepresentation. 
  • To promote recruitment, we have developed a Workforce Recruitment and Strategic Diversity Plan, and we are monitoring applications to make sure outreach is effective. We are reviewing all job hires to ensure that diversity is taken into account.
  • 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.

That’s a broad outline of what we are doing, just to give you some idea. There are many more steps we are taking, too many to list just now. In short, inclusiveness is a national priority for the Forest Service, and we are holding leaders at every level accountable for achieving it.

Taking the Lead

We have more than 30,000 employees all over the country, and we have a history and culture of decentralization. We empower our employees to take initiative … to work with partners … to find solutions at the local level. With so many talented people in our agency, there are new ideas every day on how to truly become an agency that looks like the populations we serve.

We have the potential … you have the potential … to help make it happen. But I worry that people might sit back and do nothing, or at least not enough. They might feel overwhelmed by the challenge. They might listen to the naysayers who say it can’t be done. Or they might look to other people to take the lead … to the agency or the department to solve problems for them.

I have experienced that myself, in my own career. There was a time for 8 straight years when I was applying unsuccessfully for jobs. Some were for promotions, some were for lateral moves. For some, I would make the top three finalists; for others, I wouldn’t even be judged qualified. I share with you not because I am proud of my track record, but as an example of “what if.” What if I had listened? Who told me I was lucky to have the job I had? Who asked why I would even want to move?

My point is this: You determine your career. It depends on taking the future into your own hands. The Forest Service has worked closely with the African American Strategy Group, and we look to you for assistance. By sharing your issues, your ideas and suggestions, you can contribute to diversity in the Forest Service. 

We are all in this together, and it’s a two-way street. You can help by making sure to apply for the jobs we make available; after you’re hired, you can help by taking the steps you need to build a career. Fulfill your responsibility to do your part to achieve inclusiveness. This includes welcoming new employees and respecting, supporting, and valuing diversity of thought. You can help by taking advantage of every opportunity there is in the Forest Service. If we all move forward as one, then I am confident we will succeed. I challenge you to do your part to make sure the Forest Service excels.

Thank you.


E.g., Dianne Glave, Rooted in the Earth (2010); Kimberly Smith, African American Environmental Thought (2007).