A Q&A with Chris Furr
Chris Furr is the new district ranger for the Methow Valley Ranger District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, replacing Mike Liu. Furr grew up in southwest Mississippi and is a longtime U.S. Forest Service employee who spent the past seven years in northern New Mexico, five of them as district ranger in the southern Rocky Mountains.
Furr started his new position in the Methow Valley on July 26, as firefighting efforts on the Crescent Mountain and Gilbert fires were in full swing. He took a few minutes with reporter Ashley Ahearn earlier this week to talk about himself and his new job.
Q. Why the Forest Service? What drew you to federal agency work?
Growing up back east, it isn’t nearly as big a thing as it is here, and I didn’t know that much about it growing up. As a forestry graduate, the markets crashed before I got out of school so there weren’t jobs in industry. I managed to get a temporary position with the local [Forest Service] district. I got on a 30-day emergency hire in 1999 and haven’t missed a day since. It’s hard to get your foot in the door so I’ve been open to whatever the career path and the opportunities were. I wanted to be close to home and that didn’t work out, but there are so many opportunities that when you’re open to it — to get to live here in this place where people have second and third homes, very much a destination place — it’s a real privilege to be able to live and work here.
What intrigued me about this job was restoration in dry forest types and riparian work that really lines up with the work going on here, and partnerships. That’s how we got the majority of our work done in New Mexico, working with stakeholder groups, and I have to say that one of the most-encouraging things here so far is the level of interest locally. So I’m looking forward to continuing to get to know people.
Q. What are your top priorities in this new position?
Right now it’s relationships. Fire season has accelerated that, but I want to get to know who the key players are, what the needs are, because I can’t come in here with my own set of priorities. I have to fit the leadership of this district into what the community and stakeholders need, and the good work that’s already ongoing. It’s really just getting myself up to speed and then we’ll have priorities pretty shortly after that. I’m not a “my way or the highway” type person. We’ve had a lot of success here that I want to keep going and build on.
Generally, recreation is a big driver here so … working with the trails collaborative is going to be a big priority around restoration, and really talking and thinking about if we’re doing our analysis on the appropriate scale.
The size of these fires is pretty unprecedented and I want to make sure the work that we’re doing is relevant. I know if we’re burning small acres, doing small thinning and those type things, a lot of times it doesn’t really make a difference. I don’t say that to say that’s what we’re doing, but that’s something I’m really interested in digging into — what are those opportunities?
Q. In terms of prescribed burns and thinning?
Yes. Particularly in the drier forest types where fire has a role, and trying to reestablish that role and build resiliency into these systems so that even if we do have fire … it is something that’s a lot easier to deal with versus what we’re seeing now with the high intensity of these fires.
Q. What is the role of prescribed burns? Do you want to spend more resources on that?
It’s so important in these dry systems. Even if we go in and mechanically treat the landscape, fire just has to be a part of these systems. That’s something I am interested in digging into, is our role with the state and smoke management and what that looks like. We do have a lot of things that make it difficult, particularly summers like this where the public has been affected all summer there’s less tolerance for smoke. There’s lots of opportunities to interact with our public around those topics, and I don’t want to say “educate” because it sounds condescending, but really help people understand what our challenges are in management, and fire is a really important tool.
Q. In recent years there’s been increased hostility towards federal agencies, especially in the rural west. How have you bridged those divides in the communities where you’ve worked?
We look for where things line up. Access is a thing that’s important to the administration, and jobs in these rural communities, so a lot of the things we want to do, especially living in a town here, where we’ve joked about the “Lycra to Carhartt ratio” — but there’s both. You have rural traditional communities and then folks who are dependent on all the business that comes to town. All those things line up so having a healthier landscape — having people come into town and have good opportunities to get out and use their public lands — all those things line up with the administration and some of their initiatives. It’s just finding those places that line up with the good work that we’re already doing.
Q. What do you make of the threats to public lands in our country these days?
Just as someone who enjoys recreating, it’s always scary, and I think my concern is just relevancy to our publics over the long-term. Do people, and particularly kids, do they understand what a gift they have here? It’s something that’s important to the agency going forward … how do we stay relevant to our youth and be something that’s valued? Because it’s the young people that are going to be making those decisions.
More than half the Forest Service’s budget is now spent fighting wildfires, as opposed to doing science or conducting prescribed burns. How do you navigate the budget allocations to keep people safe but also not be on the defensive all the time?
Legislatively there have been several attempts to solve that. It’s really changed during my career. Really my focus is more on what you have and what you’re able to do rather than what you don’t have. If they get that solved and we have more money on the other side we’ll be able to do more work. But right now, particularly in New Mexico in a smaller forest, with a smaller budget, that sort of thing forces creativity and that’s where a lot of your partnerships and innovation comes out of. That’s what I hope to bring in is looking for those opportunities, and not spending a lot of time and energy focusing on what we don’t have.
Q. As you look ahead, with climate change and longer, drier, hotter fire seasons. How do you straddle that as a federal employee who’s living on the front lines of that now?
The way I look at it is these are the right things to do for the land and the resiliency and everything we’re talking about — thinning, prescribed burns for example — those are things that help make your landscape more resilient, whether it be from a drying climate and a longer fire season, so the more resiliency to build into these landscapes the better off we are.
Q. What keeps you up at night?
I’ve had a few sleepless nights here with the Crescent Mountain Fire and you know, you care about people and there’s a lot of things you don’t have any control of at the end of the day. So having a few hundred people out here on the ground day and night in unforgiving country, you wonder have you done everything you can do to keep people safe? That’s part of the job that, when I first became a ranger, the paternal feelings with your people really surprised me, of how responsible you feel.
Q. If and when you have spare time, what do you and your wife do for fun?
We have horses but we also love to hike. We’re just really looking forward to getting out and exploring this landscape. I’ve only driven up to Washington Pass a few times because we’ve been so busy with the fire, but we’re really excited just to get some views of what this country looks like and to get out in it — to hunt and fish and backpack and do all the things that people move here to do.
Q. Final thoughts?
I’m really looking forward to working with the community and I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people through this fire, but my door is going to be open so I hope that if I don’t meet you out and about, I’m looking forward to season’s end, maybe when things calm down, to meet people on a more casual basis around town. I want people to come say hello, and we’re excited to be here and looking forward to being a part of this community.