BY LEA SLOAN
Mary Wagner, Associate Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, retired in June 2016, after 34 years. Yet, her appetite for the outdoor world started at a young age. Mary grew up in Southern California, one of four siblings whose working parents’ idea of a fun weekend was packing the kids into a “travel trailer” and taking them into the San Bernardino or San Jacinto Mountains for camping, hiking and sitting around a campfire.
After graduating high school, Mary was unsure of her career path. One day’s methodical perusal of the Career Center file cabinet at college led to kismet, when she pulled out the sheet of paper on forestry and thought instantly, “this is it.” For Mary, a science-oriented career outdoors hit all the right nerves.
She transferred to Humboldt State University to study forest management and got an opportunity through the state of California’s Young Adult Observation Corps program to work on a crew assigned for the summer to the San Bernardino National Forest headquarters. There, working under forest botanist and other forest staff officers, Mary loved standing in streams with nets for fish counts, conducting rare plant surveys and following lichen researchers studying the impact of air pollution on forests.
But most of all, she loved the people.
“It was the early-‘80s, an era when women were ground-breaking their way into fields like this,” says Mary. The people she worked with there became her mentors and coaches and left “an indelibly positive impression on me.”
Being recruited for the Forest Service’s Cooperative Education program led to her being selected for a Forest Service job. She survived her first experience as a firefighter at Payette National Forest in Idaho, where she learned to operate a chainsaw, among other things, before moving on to Sawtooth National Forest, where her training as a forester began in earnest.
“The mission of the Forest Service attracted me in its positions on the sustainable use of resources and to pass something along to future generations,” says Mary. “But, it was the people that kept me there. Early on, it struck me that conservation is about people — working together as a community to help determine what was going to happen in the woods.”
Mary became a forest supervisor in 1999, working in Dixie National Forest in southern Utah. There, collaboration took a different form: working with officials on a scenic byway plan for Highway 12 in Garfield County. But, the community was digging in its heels, very turned-off by the process they had witnessed with the federal designation of the nearby Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. Locals felt the federal government had run rough-shod over the community, and there was a lack of trust in the scenic byway planning process.
The scenic byway designation had the potential to offer important long-term benefits to the community from the standpoint of future tourism dollars. Under Mary’s leadership, the Forest Service made overtures to the community, offering to bring resources to the table, including advisors who could provide perspective based on experience, while taking a back seat and letting the community lead the process.
“It created a remarkable partnership energy, and really brought home that there are different ways to approach things,” says Mary. Ultimately, the county earned Highway 12 an All-American Road status, a win-win for all concerned, and an important reminder that there are many ways to navigate what can seem like insurmountable obstacles.
“When there’s a common cause, people do tend to roll up their sleeves and work together,” says Mary.
After a couple of short details to the Intermountain Regional Office and Forest Service headquarters, Mary came to Washington, D.C. in 2003 as the Assistant Director of Recreation, Heritage and Wilderness and the first Director of Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers. A return to the field as Deputy Regional Forester for the Intermountain Region and Regional Forester for the Pacific Northwest Region proceeded Mary’s return to headquarters as Associate Chief in January 2011.
While claiming she has nothing to be proud of in her career “that is attributable to me, or at least, to me alone,” she does make note of the 2015-2020 Strategic Plan, for its simplicity and clarity in addressing the agency’s role in sustaining our nation’s forests and grasslands, applying knowledge globally and delivering benefits to people. She also noted the agency’s work towards “a climate of inclusion, that awakens and strengthens people’s connection to the land,” by becoming aware of, and finding their way into, the diverse communities of outdoor people.
Mary feels privileged to have followed Hank Kashdan into the Associate Chief office, as he had followed Sally Collins into the position. Their management style and rhythm set a tone that Mary admired and wished to perpetuate. But, there were many others in the Forest Service for whom she has profound respect as well.
“The maraschino cherry on the top of my Forest Service career was working for Tom Tidwell,” says Mary. “I admire what he does and how he does it.
He is devoted to the mission of the agency and building on the efforts of previous Chief’s has continued to frame the most important issues for natural resources and people. He had set an agenda for restoring and maintaining resilient forests and grasslands, addressing the impacts of wildfire and climate and deepening and strengthening connection with people and communities. It was an absolute privilege to assist the agency in making progress on these priorities.”
In the near term, Mary and her husband are planning mountain hikes and river-rafting with friends and family with her newly gained free time. Further into the future, however, she sees herself involved in “some sort of advocacy — homelessness, food security, access to the outdoors — important issues in every community.”
Lea Sloan writes from Washington, D.C. and is American Forests’ vice president of communications.