Women in the Forest Service - Highlights

During World War II, there was another surge of women employed as lookouts on the national forests.

first female forest service fire lookout playing with her dog in front of an old cabinA report came out of Corvallis newsletter announced that “The Portland [Regional] office of the U. S. Forest Service announces that 246 women have been hired to fill fire protection positions next summer in the national forests of Oregon and Washington. School teachers and wives of men in the military services constitute the majority of the employees.”

For years, the wives of the District Rangers and other district employees served as unpaid employees ("volunteers"). Wives were often considered a convenient, necessary, and free source of labor on ranger districts short on staff and money. In fact, wives who balked at doing such free work were thought of as being unloyal to their husbands and the Forest Service.

Typically, the early Forest Service had only a handful of employees that were hired year round. During fire season, men were hired to fight fires, but only after the fires began. This was a time when the wives were often enlisted as unpaid employees funneling men and supplies to fight the fires, as well as serving as telephone operators (both public and Forest Service), cooks, and overall managers of the entire ranger districts. Alice Shambaugh described her life on the ranger station during the summer and fall fire season: “During the summer months I work part time as telephone operator, but sometimes the definition of my title is broadened to include stenographer, radio operator, and property and supply clerk. This is only a small valley with very few people to draw from in case of emergency–there is no pool hall where an extra truck driver can be picked up in a hurry. Out here the telephone operator fills in where and at any time needed.”

Wives were, in some cases, acknowledged as better leaders and organizers than their husbands: “She was alone and had entire charge of getting men, pack outfits and provisions together, hiring horses for them and sending them to the fires and according to Mr. McKenzie [the district ranger] she did better than any man could have done, including himself.”

In recent years, women have become involved in every aspect of national forest management, as well as employed in increasing numbers in the research, state & private forestry, and international programs. The most noticeable changes came in the dangerous duties of smokejumping, fire fighting, and law enforcement where women were finally admitted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet the most profound changes in the agency came in the professional ranks–as experts in every field and as line and staff officers. In regular field work, women in the early 1970s found themselves in a situation where their male counterparts did not know how to work with female co-workers. Even wives of some male employees did not want their husbands working next to women in similar or even supervisory positions.

Notable during the last 25 years was the advancement of a number of women into the ranks of line and staff. Below are a list of significant “first” dates for women in the Forest Service:

  • woman leading an interpretive walk circa 1960s on a paved trail. She is wearing a dress and heels1910 First scientist hired at the Forest Products Laboratory (Eloise B. Gerry).

  • 1913 First forest fire lookout (Hallie M. Daggett - Klamath National Forest [NF])

  • 1957 First forester hired (Joanne G. McElfresh - Deerlodge NF).

  • 1978 First to head a research project (Jackie Robertson at Pacific Southwest Station - PSW).

  • 1978 First special agent (Janet Arling).

  • 1979 First District Ranger (Wendy Milner Herrett - Blanco RD, White River NF).

  • 1985 First Forest Supervisor (Geri B. Larson - Tahoe NF).

  • 1991 First Director of a Research Station (Barbara C. Weber at PSW).

  • 1992 First Regional Forester (Elizabeth Estill - Rocky Mountain Region 2).

  • 1999 First Associate Chief for Natural Resources (Hilda Diaz-Soltero - Washington office).

  • 2002 First Chief Operating Officer/Associate Chief (Sally Collins - Washington office)

  • 2007 First Chief of the Forest Service (Abigail R. Kimbell)

The facts are that woman employed in the Forest Service are in every capacity and experience from the new recruits to the top administrative positions. It is hoped that soon the employment of women in any capacity in the agency will no longer be heralded as another first. They will be considered as the most qualified person for the job, no matter what the work entails.

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