Even though he didn’t realize it at the time, scientific education from Washington State University would help U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell ’76 tackle the challenge of managing 193 million acres of forest and grasslands during a time of increasing wildfires and climate change.

Tidwell was born in Yakima and grew up mostly in Boise, where his family would spend their vacations in the national forests. His love of the woods and the outdoors drew him to WSU’s forestry program. Under the tutelage of plant ecologist Rexford Daubenmire and other professors, Tidwell learned principles and scientific rigor that would help him for many years.

“It gave me the science foundation to work in this field, and it helped me understand the complexity of ecosystems,” says Tidwell.

After WSU, he began his Forest Service career in Boise National Forest, and has since worked in eight different national forests. In Tidwell’s 37 years in the Forest Service, he worked as firefighter, district ranger, forest supervisor, and legislative affairs specialist.

“The idea of a job outdoors was attractive. Little did I know it would lead to a job that you spend most of the time in an office setting,” he jokes.

United States Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. Photo USFS
United States Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. Photo USFS

Tidwell was named Forest Service chief in 2009 and has led efforts to balance uses and sustain national forests, particularly with the overarching challenge of climate change. He says a collaborative effort between local, state, and federal governments works best. He also believes that people should get outdoors and enjoy the forests.

“I encourage everyone to take advantage of this incredible resource we’re fortunate to have in this country,” says Tidwell.

He and his wife Kim have one daughter, MacKenzie. Tidwell received the WSU Alumni Achievement Award in 2011.

We tapped into Tidwell’s expertise and talked with him about managing forests with the higher risk of wildfires in hotter, dryer summers.

With the drought in the Northwest and major fires like last year’s Carlton Complex, what is the Forest Service strategy for dealing with the risk of major wildfires?

Fire knows no boundaries. When we have these predictions of above-average fire seasons, we spend time coordinating with state, county, and local fire departments so they’re aware of what we’re thinking. We’re doing everything we can to be ready to deal with whatever fire comes.

It takes all of us working together. There’s no way the Forest Service can accomplish our responsibilities without state, county, and local working together.

I know that Carlton Complexes make the news, but 98 percent of fires on the national forests are suppressed in the initial attack. There’s a lot of great work that goes on, not just on the large fires but on those smaller fires.

What’s the long term plan for forest management, considering climate change, insect depredation, and other problems?

Our strategy is first based on the science we have, and how to apply that science. We’re fortunate that our research scientists have worked for decades to understand the effects of a changing climate on vegetation throughout the country. We then can apply that science to restore the resiliency of our forest ecosystems. When we do get that wildfire, the forest is able to recover faster.

We’re also not restoring back to pre-settlement conditions. We recognize fire is part of the ecosystem. There’s a need for us to allow fire to carry out natural resiliency efforts, but do that in a way to keep our communities safe. Around our communities, we’re thinning our forests. However, as our summers get longer, hotter, and dryer, the windows we have to do prescribed fires or manage natural fire get shorter and shorter.

Times have changed. Climate change has contributed to our fire seasons being 60 to 80 days longer than what they were even about 15 years ago.

What do Pacific Northwest residents need to know about wildfire risk in our forests?

We still want folks to get outdoors and enjoy the national forests, but we need to be more careful and reduce human-caused fires, which are the majority of ignitions. Everything we can do to keep those fires from getting started makes the job of firefighters a lot easier.

If there’s a fire and the sheriff’s department asks you to evacuate, please do it. I know how hard it is to leave your belongings and your home. Most people want to stay and defend it. But the best thing you can do to help firefighters is to follow those directions and let the firefighters deal with the fire rather than a rescue operation.