Something unusual happened last week with the Trump administration, and you might have missed it, because it involved the U.S. Forest Service, a federal agency that makes big news around these parts but rarely is in the spotlight in Washington, D.C.
Here's the headline: The administration has appointed a new chief for the Forest Service who is, by all accounts, qualified to run the agency.
Tony Tooke, who has worked on or for national forests since he was 18, is the new head of the agency. He becomes the 18th chief of the Forest Service. Tooke replaces Tom Tidwell, who has been head of the Forest Service since 2009.
At the time of his appointment, Tooke was serving as the regional forester for the Southern Region of the Forest Service, based out of Atlanta.
But he's spent his adult life working in the Forest Service. Tooke's resume includes stints as associate deputy chief for the National Forest System, along with a variety of other postings at national forests, mostly in the South. Ideally, we would have liked to have seen a little more experience in the West, but that's just a quibble.
Here's the surprising thing about the Tooke appointment: Organizations that haven't had one good thing to say about the Trump administration, including some environmental organizations, are praising it.
Consider, for example, this statement from Susan Jane Brown of the Western Environmental Law Center, a group that (how to phrase this gently?) has not been thrilled with some of the administration's other appointments:
Brown notes that she has worked with Tooke for years on a variety of issues and has been impressed with his ability to "listen to diverse voices and bring them together for collective action," and she adds that he has "put that approach into action as an extremely effective regional forester."
Similar statements of support for Tooke's appointment came from The Wilderness Society and other organizations — again, groups that haven't spent much time praising the administration.
Of course, it isn't as if running the Forest Service these days is a cakewalk: The agency faces a variety of challenges on a number of fronts, and some recurring issues have become annual frustrations: For example, the agency has been pushing for years for a common-sense solution in how it pays for firefighting costs, but Congress has been unable to resolve the issue. In the meantime, the agency often must borrow from other budget areas to fully fund firefighting efforts.
And the agency faces continued challenges in finding the right balance to manage our national forests. It's an issue of vital importance to rural Western communities that have long relied on these federal lands for their livelihoods, but now find their access limited or completely cut off.
Tooke's appointment brings to the chief's chair a person who understands all those issues and has an intimate understanding of how the agency operates. And it's a little surprising coming from a Trump administration that seemingly has put a priority on finding outsiders to run important agencies. It could be that the president has little interest in the sorts of land-management issues that the Forest Service deals with. (Trump's rally last week in Phoenix was just his second trip west of the Mississippi River since his inauguration.)
Or it could be that the president and his Cabinet heads have reached the point where they have a newfound appreciation for people with valuable experience.
Whatever the reason, it's a good thing that Trump and Sonny Perdue, the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, didn't hand over the keys of the Forest Service to someone with no experience in the agency. To turn to that well-worn cliche, Tooke should be able to hit the ground running — and he's got a lot of ground to cover. (mm)