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Wyoming’s first woman forester has plans for the future of the state’s forests

A portrait of Kelly Norris
Wyoming State Forestry Division
Wyoming State Forester Kelly Norris.

Last month, a new Wyoming State Forester was selected by Governor Mark Gordon to fill the vacancy left by longtime state forester Bill Crapser. Wyoming Public Radio’s Hugh Cook spoke with Kelly Norris about the state of Wyoming’s forests, her plans for the agency to focus on, and being the first woman to fill the position.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Kelly Norris: I am the first woman state forester for the state of Wyoming, also the first assistant district forester, the first female district forester, and the first woman assistant state forester of operations.

Hugh Cook: As your time as state forester, what are some of the things that you're focusing on for Wyoming's forests that might go back to Bill Crapser’s time, from his tenure as well as what are you hoping to focus on for your tenure?

KN: We are building upon what we've been working towards as a state agency and with our forests, we are really focusing for me, personally, focusing on our partnerships and in how we can grow capacity.

Immediately, we have a capacity issue within our agency, we’re hiring as quickly as we can. That's a real big focus for us. We're sitting at [a] 20 percent vacancy rate. We right now have quite a bit of turnover with all of the funding and all the interest going into the forestry profession and the firefighting profession. We are finding that we have to become much more competitive in our positions and we're learning to grow within that and evolve as we work towards building our capacity internally.

On top of that, we're really working with our state partners or other state agencies, as well as our federal agencies to just grow capacity, to get more work done on the ground. We're really looking at how can we look at cross boundary projects at a landscape level. What are the barriers we can take away? How can we be more efficient together through our good neighbor authority projects, or through different grants and other avenues to get that work done?

Outside of that, I think the other thing we're really always focused on is wildfire and the issue of wildfire. We're going to continue to work with our wildfire community, both our volunteer base and our county base through the state side, as well as our federal partners, and the federal firefighting community and how we can work together to continue to build and sustain capacity in the wildfire community.

And lastly, one of the things that we really are going to have to focus on in the next five to 10 years, depending how long it takes, is we have three forest plan revisions kicking off in the state of Wyoming. We have the Black Hills, we have the Bridger-Teton, and we have the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests. And that's going to take quite a bit of our time and effort and it's going to be very important that we're at the table helping influence and speaking on behalf of Wyoming's forests through that process.

HC: What will those forest plan revisions look like? What does that entail?

KN: So that entails quite a bit of time and collaboration. We work really closely with the governor's office and other state agencies helping formulate our input. We are a stakeholder that is at a cooperating status through the forest planning rule. So we get to work with the force and how we want to influence and see that but we are looking at two of those forest plan revisions are through region two, and one of them is through region four [the two regions in Wyoming]. And so it's going to take quite a bit of coordination between all of us at the state level, and then all of our partners to be there at the table, county commissioners, all sorts of county working groups to help provide that influence and that desire of how those forest plans will turn out. As we've been learning, those forests plans get put into place and they can be 30 years old before they get revisited again. So it's very, very important for all of us in Wyoming to be involved in them.

HC: How would you describe the health of Wyoming's forests?

KN: Well, Wyoming's forests have been through quite a dynamic change over the last couple of decades. We had the mountain pine beetle come through, we've had different other epidemics. We're in a situation with the Western Spruce Budworm for multiple years now in certain areas of the state. And there's other areas where we're watching very closely to see if we're going to see another insect and disease outbreak. So with that they're primed for wildfire. They're definitely primed to have some management or treatments done for their forest health and for the diversity and the needs of those watersheds.

Wyoming’s forests are extremely important when it comes to what they provide to the water source for the rest of the West. They are headwater states. We are a headwater source in many of our forests and so keeping our forests healthy is extremely important as it will affect the health of the water.

HC: Fire suppression is something that not only has a lot of tension here in Wyoming, but certainly throughout the West. And obviously, what's happening, as you know, in Canada with some of those major wildfires there and everything for this year. Thus far, what has been the situation here compared to other places, and what is the capacity for fighting a wild major wildfire here at Wyoming if one were to occur?

KN: This year, we've been very quiet. It's been obviously apparent we've had quite the monsoonal rains. We've had quite a bit of moisture. I've been told by numerous ranchers, it's the best grass they've seen in over 30 years. And it's been needed, but we're drying out. We've been drying out the last week and we're continuing to dry out into the next weeks. And so, what we are concerned about is what fall is to bring with hunters and campfires. And as we get into the fall, some of Wyoming's largest fires that we've had to manage and deal with happened in the fall. [They] didn't start until September, October, and so we're not out of the woods whatsoever. We've held very strong, and we are still very prepared in many ways for wildfire to start. We've had multiple initial attacks across the state. We've had two larger fires, we had multiple starts across the state due to lightning, and we had one type three team come in in Goshen County to manage a complex and then we've had another couple larger fires up in the [Bighorn] Basin.

So, we're watching closely, we have our state SEATs,[or] single engine air tankers that are located out of Casper. And we also have the state helicopter program, which we provide. And we also have a hand crew that we provide through the inmate program that we partner with [the] Wyoming Department of Corrections with and then we also have all of our militia. But we really help coordinate closely with our county and our federal partners, we very much depend on our volunteers. And most of the majority of Wyoming state forestry and state lands, we depend on [the] initial attack of the volunteer firefighter base, as well as our federal firefighter base at what we provide. And what we can bring is aviation, we bring hand crews, we bring a few resources, but it is very important for us to support our federal partners and our county volunteers in helping them recruit and retain their firefighters. They are very, very important to Wyoming.

HC: Anything else that you're making a priority to focus on?

KN: One of the things we haven't talked too much in detail about is our Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) Program. One of the things we are very focused on is the success of that program, and how well that's been doing. And that is also in connection with the Farm Bill, which is being discussed and about to expire in the coming months. But much of the Farm Bill also has forestry title and has authorities in it and that's where the good neighbor authority lies. We have great partnerships with our national forests and with Wyoming BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and we have currently five GNA foresters and a permanent GNA coordinator that work on national forest lands helping get more work done on the ground. And then what we do is that work gets contracted through state contracting systems, it's more efficient, we're problem solving.

We're trying to make more of that commercial timber available in different forms and different sizes and different sized contracts to help our industry. So, one of the things we really want to focus on is continuing to grow the amount of wood that we get available, continue to improve and increase the amount of treatments across our forests and in having that partnership with our federal partners in getting that to kick off, so we're going to continue to do that. That is a real priority for us ---- how do we look at our forests with our federal partners, where are our priorities, where do we want to say we're all going to come together, state, private, federal lands and manage this entire landscape because it's critical to us.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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