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New approach needed as Forest Service fumbles on Black Hills leadership

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New approach needed as Forest Service fumbles on Black Hills leadership

Sep 18, 2023 | 5:04 pm ET
By Seth Tupper
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New approach needed as Forest Service fumbles on Black Hills leadership
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The Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board, comprised of 16 representatives from an array of interest groups, meets in October 2022 at the forest's Mystic Ranger District office in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)

When I reported back in May that the Black Hills National Forest was on its eighth supervisor in seven years, I made it sound like that was a lot of turnover.

Since then, there have been two more supervisors.

That brings the tally to 10 in the past seven years, and five this year alone.

The current year’s turnover began in the spring with the departure of Jeff Tomac, who was the last person to hold the job without an “acting” tag. He’s been followed in rapid succession by Acting Supervisors Bryan Karchut, Carl Petrick, Toni Strauss and Ivan Green.

Eight supervisors, seven years: The ‘challenging’ Black Hills National Forest

Individual circumstances have caused some of the turnover, but overall, the Black Hills is tough on supervisors. The forest is used, loved and sometimes abused by dozens of interest groups, and it’s checkerboarded with privately owned land and other agencies’ public land. Throw in disputes over logging, mining, wildfires, tree-killing beetles, competing recreational uses and Native American land rights, and it’s easy to see why supervisors get chewed up and spit out like a tree branch in a wood chipper.

Since 2016, when the runaway turnover began, the Forest Service has shipped in permanent and acting supervisors whose prior postings were in states including Colorado, Texas, Wyoming, Nebraska, North Dakota, Colorado, Idaho and Florida.

In other words, the agency has looked mostly outside the Black Hills for permanent and temporary leaders, only twice promoting from within and applying the “acting” tag both times.

That’s partly because of the traditions and culture of the agency, said Dave Mertz, a retired Black Hills National Forest employee.

“There’s this idea within the Forest Service that you need to bring in somebody new with a different perspective,” Mertz said.

There’s some wisdom in that approach. It may be easier for supervisors to maintain independence when they have no history or connections with the local interest groups that compete for primacy in forest management.

But that advantage is wasted when a supervisor only sticks around a few weeks, a few months, or even a year. In a national forest with four districts, hundreds of employees and about a million acres, that’s barely enough time to learn names and get familiarized with the geography, let alone make a lasting impact.

That’s why it may be time for the Forest Service to change its culture and focus more on cultivating leaders from within a particular forest. The Black Hills National Forest has some capable and respected district rangers, and in any other walk of life, the best of those sub-managers could eventually end up with the top job. Instead, a stream of imported supervisors has faced the challenge of becoming an instant expert on a place that’s layered with unique problems.

And right now, there doesn’t appear to be much public engagement on those problems. Past supervisors have been highly involved with the Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board, a group of 16 appointed members representing virtually all of the local industries and groups that are interested in the use and conservation of the forest. Over the years, the board has helped supervisors make decisions and craft policies on logging levels, off-road vehicle travel, recreational trail development and other crucial matters.

It all adds up to a conclusion that the forest is in dire need of a leader, and whether or not promoting from within is the answer, the Forest Service clearly needs a new approach for choosing and retaining that leader.

I’ve attended many of the advisory board meetings for the past nine years, and the most recent one was among the least productive I’ve witnessed. In a directionless slump without a supervisor who’s been around long enough to help craft an agenda, board members simply gave informational presentations about their particular areas of interest.

Meanwhile, the staff of the Black Hills National Forest is in the midst of a once-every-15-years process to revise the forest plan, a document with hundreds of pages guiding every aspect of forest management. The Forest Service is not currently getting valuable input and debate on that process at public advisory board meetings, and while the forest’s leadership vacuum persists, Forest Service officials may be subjected to behind-the-scenes influence from those with enough power and influence to exert it.

It all adds up to a conclusion that the forest is in dire need of a leader, and whether or not promoting from within is the answer, the Forest Service clearly needs a new approach for choosing and retaining that leader.

This forest, after all, consistently ranks among the nation’s most productive sources of timber. It’s been home to one of the world’s most productive gold mines. It holds spiritual significance for multiple Native American tribes. Its beauty attracts millions of tourists every year. Its creeks, reservoirs and aquifers provide water for thousands of people in the region. And its natural wonders provide recreational opportunities for rock climbers, hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders and others.

The lynchpin of all that activity is the Forest Service, which controls more land in the Black Hills than any other landowner. Leading the agency’s efforts in such an expansive, dynamic and beloved national forest is a tough task. But it’s also an opportunity for the right person to leave a lasting legacy.

And it’s far too important a job to be passed endlessly from one temporary seat-filler to another.

More Black Hills news and commentary

A portion of the Black Hills National Forest near Mystic. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)
A portion of the Black Hills National Forest near Mystic. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)