Billings, MT, USA — Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth will retire next month and move back to Missoula, crossing paths with his replacement, Abigail Kimbell, who will move from that city to become the agency’s first female chief.
Kimbell has been the regional forester for the Northern Region since February of 2004. She will be the agency’s 16th chief.
Bosworth, whose retirement will be effective Feb. 2, received a standing ovation from agency employees who gathered Friday afternoon to hear the announcement of the new chief.
In a short speech, Bosworth talked about the change he has seen in his 41 years with the agency. “I started with the Forest Service at a time when our focus was on getting out the timber cut,” he said. “That’s what we were all about. As you know, that’s changed. The ’90s were a period of transition to an era of focusing on what we leave on the land rather than what we take away.”
The agency also updated its business processes to transform from an agency at high risk of fraud and abuse to one that regularly gets clean audits, he said.
But Bosworth added that “huge challenges” remain. Throughout his tenure Bosworth has focused on four main threats: fire and fuels, invasive species, the loss of open space and unmanaged recreation.
He said fire and fuels will continue to loom as an especially tough challenge. Others include improving efficiency, finding ways to modernize environmental review processes while increasing public opportunity to be involved in decisions, and finding a way to connect Americans to the land, either by getting more kids in the woods or bringing the words to urbanites.
“The biggest challenge is going to be the effects of climate change on the natural resources that are under our care,” he said. “In only the last century, average temperatures in some parts of the United States have increased up to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. And climate models project continued warming over the next century.”
Asked later about the effects of climate change, Bosworth said evidence shows fire seasons are much longer now. “We have fires start earlier, they burn later in the year, so I believe there’s a relationship,” he said. “We have more insect problem, mountain pine beetle problems, than what I believe we would have absent a changing climate.”
Moving forward, forest plans should focus on what will be useful in a warmer climate, such as planting the right species of trees that will grow for 100 or 200 years, he said. Planning could allow more use of wood fiber for energy than fossil fuels, he said.
Kimbell also received a warm welcome from the crowd.
“I am honored, humbled, excited and not just a little bit frightened to take the helm of this great agency from someone I respect as deeply as I respect Dale Bosworth,” she said.
She said some of the biggest challenges she will face include the changing demands for good and services from the national forests, aging facilities, reducing hazardous wildfire fuels, climate adjustments, and the diverse and growing American population, especially in the areas where urban and wild lands meet.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., expressed concern about Kimbell, saying she has been willing to raise fees.
“While I’m pleased a Montanan has been picked for this important job, I’m concerned about Gail’s willingness to charge additional fees to access public lands,” Baucus said in a statement. “That’s a wrong approach. I hope she backs away from plans that would limit Montanans’ access to public lands for hunting, fishing and recreation.”
Earlier this month, Baucus vowed to fight a plan calling for increased or new fees at the Helena National Forest’s rental cabins and campgrounds. Late last year, he sent a letter to Kimbell requesting that Montanans’ opinions be considered before cutbacks are made at any facilities in the state.
On Friday, he said he looks forward to meeting with her soon.
Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner welcomed Kimbell and praised Bosworth. Conner said during the outgoing chief’s time, fuels treatment work has increased fourfold, the financial system moved to very sound footing and new land management planning rules were published.
“The Forest Service is a better place because Dale Bosworth was our chief,” he said. “He will be sorely missed.”
Bosworth said he spent 24 of his 41 career years in the Western Montana and northern Idaho region, so most of his on-the-ground experience came from the area.
“Montana and northern Idaho are really kind of a microcosm of a lot of things that take place around the country,” Bosworth said. “The issues are right up front there, people will fight at the drop of a hat over things they believe in, and I kind of feel that if you can bring peace to the valley in Montana, you can bring peace to the valley about anywhere in the country.”
Kimbell said during her three years in Missoula, more than at any time in her career, she has seen people on all sides of an issue working together.
“The arguments have really matured to a point where people are very anxious to get together and to work out solutions,” Kimbell said. “I think there are a number of people who are very tired of the conflict or frustrated with the conflict and really want to bring resolution to a lot of these issues.”
Bosworth said the most difficult issue during his tenure surrounded fire, including preventing it and the loss of firefighters. During the past decade or so, “we really saw a difference in the way fires are behaving in the forests,” he said.
“Trying to deal with that, both the cost of fighting fire, the amount of energy it takes from our organization trying to get forest health under control through thinning and prescribed fire,” he said. “It’s going to take a long time to get where we need to get.”
Bosworth said he kept his home in Missoula and will move back there to retire.