Wildfire Today: Forest Service Chief Christiansen testifies about harassment within the agency

Senator: “Making sure we have good policies in place doesn’t make a difference on the ground unless and until that culture is changed.”

Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen testified April 9, 2019 before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee today the only witness, Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen, was there to defend and answer questions about the administration’s proposed budget for the agency in the fiscal year that begins October 1, and to address any other topics introduced by the senators.

In this article we will cover the six and a half minute portion of the hearing in which harassment and an unhealthy working environment was discussed. And we have the reaction from Abby Bolt, a former Battalion Chief on the Sequoia National Forest in California, who sent an open letter to Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture, and Vicki Christiansen, Chief of the Forest Service, saying her resignation was effective immediately due to these issues.

In a separate article we will address other topics discussed in the hearing, including an overall five percent reduction in the Forest Service budget, defunding the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and the Land and Water Conservation Fund, what happened to $545 million appropriated for fuel reduction, and the results from the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness (AFUE) study.

A video recording of the hearing is available at the Committee’s website. It begins at 19:48.

After opening statements from Senator Lisa Murkowski, Senator Joe Manchin, and Chief Christiansen, the first two questions were about the article which was published on Wildfire Today 15 minutes before the hearing started that was about the Battalion Chief on the Sequoia National Forest, Abby Bolt, who resigned.

At 37:00 in the video, Senator Murkowski read passages from the article.

Senator Murkowski,Chair of the Committee

“The headline is, “Forest Service Battalion Chief resigns in open letter to the Secretary of Agriculture”.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, April 9, 2019 in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

It details that a woman who has been serving for 22 years in the U.S. Forest Service has resigned because in her words, she said Forest Service leaders have “failed to demonstrate moral courage by adhering to high ethical standards, and choosing the difficult right over the easy wrong helped me in determining my decision to resign.”

“You’ve indicated that things have changed within the Service. This is obviously a current event here, and so the question to you is why is this continuing to happen? Have the reforms that you have just briefly touched on [in your prepared statement] not yet been put in place? What is causing a continual deterioration within the workforce there?”

Chief Christiansen:

“Thank you Madam Chairman. I’m unable to speak directly about individual cases, and I assure you, things of the past we are looking at closely and we are learning and we are making corrections at every turn of the way. What we have done in the last year is I have set up a Work Environment and Performance Office with our most senior executives overseeing this work. This is a best practice in both private and government sectors. We are committed to results. It is a three-prong approach. First about accountability. Second is about prevention. Third is about a sustainable change in behavior and and agency culture.

“Many things we are doing. We are continuing to listen to our employees, we are revising our anti-harassment policy. We are holding supervisors accountable that do not report within a 24-hour period. We have increased our resources for followup and investigation, and we aggressively addressed many incidents of harassment with 23 removals, 5 demotions, 42 suspensions, and 166 other actions. We’ve added case managers and we’re working with OIG to identify and implement the best practices for measuring success, because all agencies really want to know what are the true measurements of success.

“In the prevention, we have instituted a no alcohol in any Forest Service seasonal housing starting this field season. We’ve increased our conflict management and prevention center resources, and we are delivering bistandard intervention training. When our employees spoke to us they said we need better skills in how we speak up early in when someone feels offended or when they feel there is inappropriate behavior. And we are improving organizational behavior and culture by having an ethic to stop the silence. If we can’t talk about it then we can’t fix it. And we are asking folks to be empowered to listen and learn and have incorporated employee advisory groups at the national level and across the service.

“We’ve incorporated our first ever code of conduct and agency core values. This is in every supervisor’s performance standards, and they will be held accountable in how we are reshaping the culture of the Forest Service.”

Senator Murkowski:

“Well Chief I appreciate what you have detailed. I am concerned, though, that even given the many steps that is is clear that you have put in place, when you have a 22-year veteran, someone who has achieved a position as Battalion Chief, when you have someone like that saying enough is not being done we still have a failure within your system. We still have a level of harassment or assault that clearly is not acceptable. So I would do more than urge you, as a Chairman of a Committee and as an American, I would tell you making sure we have good policies in place doesn’t make a difference on the ground unless and until that culture is changed. And I don’t want to pin everything just on one story that has appeared today but I think you know that internally the agency remains troubled. So put the policies in place as you are, but when you say there is accountability there has to be strict accountability because you can’t continue to have these levels of wrongdoing within our agency.”

Chief Christiansen:

“We have more to do Senators and I am absolutely committed with urgency.”

After Abby Bolt, the Battalion Chief who resigned, saw a video of the hearing, we asked for her reaction. She wrote:

“I was not aware of the hearing that was scheduled for today until after the Wildfire Today article. As I watched the senator quote my letter it brought tears to my eyes knowing that people at all levels across the nation are truly listening. When I heard Chief Christiansen respond I was overcome with a deep pain in my heart. I have been reaching out to her since she became Chief, offering solutions for our agency including a strong social media effort to inspire and motivate all federal employees to improve their work environment.  I actively requested, formally and informally, to not be forced to remain in a proven hostile work environment as I worked through the processes in place meant to deal with harassment and discrimination. Nothing was ever done to improve my toxic work environment and I strongly feel Chief Christiansen could have made a difference. The administrative harassment only continued.

“Since speaking to the media last year and revealing an assault that happened on a fire assignment in more than one interview, no one from my agency officially reached out to me in any way, not even to ensure they weren’t liable or to find out how to prevent anything in the future. They did not seem to care or be interested in learning from the incident. I was worried that a landslide of inquiries would be required and prepared myself for the stress. However, I felt zero support just as I feared I would back when it happened which drove me to push forward in silence. The administrative harassment only continued. Vicki was aware of everything, yet she did nothing, at least not that I was made aware of.”

By:  Bill Gabbert
Source: Wildfire Today