Nothing is on hold at the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Region headquarters despite the temporary tenure of its latest leader.

Interim Regional Forester Vicki Christiansen replaced Leslie Weldon two weeks ago, after Weldon was promoted to deputy chief of the national forest system in Washington, D.C.

On Thursday, Christiansen said she looks forward to a busy time in her new post.

"Whether I'm here for 3 1/2 months, 5 1/2 months - there's no set time period," Christiansen said. She's a member of the government's Senior Executive Service, which is a step above the Civil Service and provides leadership personnel who can bridge changeovers in administrations.

"The chief (Tom Tidwell) asked me to be far more than the custodial leader out here," she said. "I have full authority to act. Not only will I get valuable experience as a senior line officer inside the Forest Service, it enriches my understanding of the intricacies out here."

Her relatively clean desk should soon start filling up, as several national forests in Montana and northern Idaho wrap up or begin rewriting their forest plans, all of which must dovetail with a coming national-level change in the way those plans are developed.

That will involve working with larger groups of people on larger-scale projects than in the past, Christiansen said. The draft national planning rule calls for much more collaborative planning than the Forest Service previously did. It also anticipates getting past historically common debates between the timber industry and environmentalists.

"The energy that it takes fighting or arguing about that isn't any energy getting used toward a productive future," Christiansen said. "That was energy going toward no real common purpose. And you don't have the time to go after these small projects. If you're going to make a difference on the landscape, you have to think big."

As example, she referred to the 750,000-acre Four Forests Restoration Initiative in Arizona. The multiyear stewardship contract mixed salvage harvesting, landscape restoration, marketable oriented strand board production and reducing fire hazard. It won an agreement between the Centers for Biological Diversity and a timber company to keep the project out of court.

A relative newcomer to the Forest Service, Christiansen was the state forester in Arizona and Washington before moving to the federal government less than two years ago. She has 30 years of experience as a wildland firefighter and fire manager with special expertise as a fire line blasting adviser.

Before coming to Missoula, Christiansen was the deputy director of fire and aviation management in the Forest Service in Washington, D.C. She helped develop the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. The Society of American Foresters credited her congressional testimony as instrumental in passing the FLAME Act, which revolutionized the way the Forest Service pays for firefighting.

Fire will continue to be part of Christiansen's responsibility, whether in Montana or Washington. She said the combination of more people living in fire-prone areas, changing climates that change fire behavior and increasing costs of fighting fire all require the Forest Service to be innovative in its strategy.

"We're facing more and longer fire seasons with more complex fires," she said. "We're going to be dealing with more complexity until we get this landscape turned around."

Being both a land manager and a fire manager gives the Forest Service more flexibility in deciding how to confront fire than state agencies or local fire departments have, Christiansen said. But that also means the feds must be better communicators about actions and choices.

"The public wants to know why do we aggressively put out a fire in one place and appear to be less aggressive in another," she said. "We have far greater decision support tools than what I had in 1980 when I had my first year as a firefighter on a wildland engine. But we also have more sophisticated fires."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

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