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Conversations from the Field: Interview with Liz Agpaoa

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Paula Bechtler

bechtler aprilAs both government and nonprofit entities take stock of what remains following the Great Recession, valuable lessons will emerge that can benefit current public administration students who have yet to enter the work field. One of these lessons was readily apparent when I spoke recently with USDA Forest Service Southern Regional Forester Liz Agpaoa: resilience.

Having spent the sum of her career with the Forest Service, Agpaoa began her work in 1979 as a district biologist at the Williamette National Forest in Oregon. Like many who find success within the realm of natural resources, her passion for ecology ironically led to an office job where she now seeks to protect the land and animals in 13 southern states and Puerto Rico. “I knew I wanted to pursue something related to the outdoors and wildlife and when a Forest Service representative visited my college campus, I talked to them and got interested,” Agpaoa said. Over the next 29 years, she worked her way up through the ranks and through a variety of regions, acquiring a vast knowledge of the Forest Service along the way.

A Resilient Southern Culture

In 2008, Agpaoa accepted her current position, where the federal land base is a bit smaller and more dispersed than in other regions due to the way it was historically established. According to Agpaoa, this scattered nature makes collaboration with other federal agencies a necessity. “The Southeastern National Resources Leadership Group meets twice a year,” Agpaoa said, “and we discuss everything from the government shutdown to budgets to the drought in 2011.” This group is comprised, in part, of southern region representatives from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, Geological Survey and of course, the Forest Service. “It’s part of the southern culture of not having a lot and trying to leverage what resources we do have through cooperation,” Agpaoa said.

Resilient Ecosystems

One strategy to leverage limited resources involves anticipating future needs and making current decisions in light of those goals. Agpaoa tries to do just that, especially when it comes to natural resource management. “We are making major headway to restore our forest ecosystems across the south, including those of the red-cockaded woodpecker, the gopher tortoise and the longleaf pine,” she said. While the Forest Service tries to act as a responsible steward for the natural resources under its purview, there are a variety of forces outside its control for which it must also plan. Agpaoa points to fluctuations in climate such as prolonged drought or rain, tornadoes and hurricanes as factors that require resilience from Mother Nature as well as the government agencies and citizens whom the weather affects. “The public is usually very accepting of our efforts to restore the land, and that has allowed us to make great strides,” she said.

A Resilient Organization

Another force beyond Agpaoa’s control is the inevitable change in leadership, whether through a new presidential administration or otherwise. I asked her if such change presented any particular challenges. Agpaoa responded, “One of the reasons the Forest Service is great is that we have an enduring mission to sustain the nation’s forest for the long run and the greatest good. When you have an encompassing mission like that, it can live with the fluctuations and the different interests in changing administrations.” Agpaoa said that while each administration might vary in terms of their favored causes, the Forest Service is secure in its role. “In any government administration we can deliver our mission, but maybe with a different emphasis on a particular geographic location or area of work,” she said.

A Resilient Workforce

Perhaps Agpaoa’s confidence stems from her desire to strengthen and grow the workforce that supports her. “We want to bring in new a generation of Forest Service employees who have a personal mission to support healthy forests and grasslands, and who are resilient themselves,” Agpaoa said. Part of the resilience found in her employees must come from working under a manager who values their gifts. “I think that everyone is unique and you always have something to contribute. That perspective gives people permission to have a different opinion and that’s healthy for the individual as well as the organization. Employees should know the value of their individual voice,” she said.

After 35 years of experience in the federal government, I wondered if Agpaoa has ever questioned the value of her own voice, possibly due to gender discrimination. “Early on it came up,” she said, “maybe more so when I was a ranger. In the last 20 years, my gender has really not been a factor. In the Forest Service we do that really well,” Agpaoa said. She’s right. Of the nine regional foresters within the Forest Service, the women now outnumber the men. Taking it a step further, I asked her if the Forest Service had allowed her and her husband (also a federal employee) to strike a family-friendly, work-life balance. She replied, “When our boys were young, it was always a juggling piece, but now they’re grown and I travel more. If I can, I always try to leave town on a Monday and be back in the office on Friday because if you don’t book-end it, you lose track of what’s going on in the office.”

A Resilient Attitude

Agpaoa’s advice for future public administrators speaks to her own journey from district biologist to regional forester. “We all come in at different levels but every job is important regardless of your grade,” she said. “When you are in a job, do it to the best of your ability and don’t worry about who is seeing you. Bring the best part of you to that job every day. If you’re supporting other people well that will carry the day.”

 

Author: Paula Bechtler is a MPA student and staff member at Kennesaw State University. She can be reached at [email protected]

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