After 13 years at the helm of the Kaibab National Forest, Forest Supervisor Mike Williams will depart Arizona for a new job as the head of the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest in northwest Washington.
When Williams leaves in May, he will be the third forest supervisor to leave northern Arizona’s forests since the beginning of the year. Coconino National Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart left mid-April to become forest supervisor for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and Jim Zornes left his post as the forest supervisor on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in January for a job in the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain regional office.
Zornes was in the Arizona supervisor position for three years, Stewart for five and Williams for 13.
It’s not uncommon for the agency’s leaders to move around to different positions in different forests every several years, Forest Service officials say. For example, it's pretty standard for Forest Supervisors to be in place for three to five years and then move to their next position, Coconino National Forest spokesman Brady Smith wrote in an email.
However common it is, some say the constant movement of agency leaders can be a mixed bag in terms of how it affects management of the nation’s forests.
“I always feel like it’s at the expense of the resource when you have people managing thousands of acres of land, building relationships with people on the ground and getting to know the details of the landscape and then suddenly to have them plucked up and moved onward,” said Alicyn Gitlin, with the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “I don't feel like it benefits the resource.”
As he prepared to depart the Kaibab, Williams acknowledged that a forest supervisor builds up institutional knowledge that is somewhat lost when he or she moves on to another position.
“There's no question that experience and knowledge of the area leaves with the forest supervisor who is moving on, but if you look across the entire Forest Service system, people are coming and going all the time,” Williams said. “You are going to gain and lose all at the same time.”
There are also advantages to having employees move to a new place, he said.
“It's the breadth of experience that you gain by moving to a different location,” he said.
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Other Forest Service officials emphasized that movement of employees and leaders throughout the agency is much more about an opportunity to gain diverse experience and contribute differently at different locations.
“We don't see that as a negative to have individuals working in different locations,” said Sandra Lopez, human resources public affairs officer with the Forest Service. “They tend to move around a lot to gain different experiences and go to different levels of the agency.”
The Forest Service has no policy, formal or informal, about how or when their employees should move from one job to the next, and it doesn’t track how long forest supervisors tend to stay in place, Lopez said.
Forest Service employees may want to move to gain experience working in a different area, for promotion purposes or for personal reasons like living closer to aging parents or seeing a different part of the country, she said. An employee's skills may also be needed on another forest, so they’re asked to move, said Cathie Schmidlin, a regional spokeswoman for the Forest Service.
Zornes said he believes the more varied experiences a supervisor can acquire the better that person is at handling diverse situations when they come up.
Another perspective holds that it doesn’t matter much who is in top leadership positions in the Forest Service. The agency’s decisions tend to follow the “status quo” regardless of who is in charge, said Robin Silver, cofounder of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has a long history of negotiating with and litigating against the Forest Service.
But Gitlin maintained that there is a lot to be said for land managers who really know a place.
“You have all of these nuanced politics and relationships and bits of knowledge, especially somewhere like the Colorado Plateau with really complex ecosystems, recreational issues, grazing issues and forest issues,” she said. “Then you pick someone up and move them to a totally different place and you have to build relationships and institutional knowledge with someone else. I have never felt that would be a good policy when it comes to land management.”
The departure of Stewart, Williams and Zornes also roughly aligns with the completion of the first Environmental Impact Statement for the 3.2 million-acre Four Forest Restoration Initiative project, but Forest Service officials say that was just coincidence.