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Find your path: One engineer's story

Andrew Avitt
Pacific Southwest Region
February 20, 2024

African American woman in tan Forest Service uniform rests hands on engineering drawings.
Shanisha Reese, deputy director of engineering for the Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt) 

Consider looking at the forest from another perspective — you arrived there by road, launched your boat by ramp, crossed a canyon by bridge, and maybe used a wildland restroom.

These amenities happened thanks to more than 1,000 civil engineers working for the USDA Forest Service across the country.  

Shanisha Reese is one of those civil engineers, working at the Pacific Southwest regional office in Vallejo, California. Although, when she started her career in engineering, the Forest Service wasn’t even a consideration.

“No offense to the Forest Service here, I just never knew about it — other than Smokey Bear commercials,” said Shanisha. “I didn’t grow up recreating out in the forest. I don't think that my parents grew up doing it either.”

That would change when Shanisha and her family moved to Oregon. She found an engineering job working as a facilities and water/wastewater engineer on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

“After that, I fell in love with the outdoors and the forests. I raised my kids going camping and hiking and doing all the outdoor activities provided to us by our public lands. So, if I could work in the outdoors and also have fun recreating in the outdoors, I thought that'd be a good fit.”

Now, 17 years later as a deputy director of engineering, she coordinates engineering efforts across all 18 of California’s national forests. This includes maintaining roads, campground structures and water systems, visitor's centers, facilities, living quarters, bridges and other infrastructure.  

People Behind the Infrastructure

Forest Service engineering is about infrastructure but it’s also about working with people.

“Sometimes we might build projects with our partners or other agencies. We’re working together to provide a service to the public, whether that be campgrounds or safe roads,” Shanisha said. 

“And when it’s all done, there's a real sense of accomplishment when you go out to the forest, and you see people using things that you designed and implemented. You can't beat that!”

With so much infrastructure to maintain, the need for engineering is ever changing.

“Priorities change, funding changes. We are constantly on the move with how we can best serve the public with the resources available,” said Shanisha. “Last year, we had a lot of storm damage. We had a slew of atmospheric rivers that came in, and a lot of roads were damaged from those storms. 

“This year transportation may be a big issue because of the need for repairs. But the following year, it could be facilities, how we're going to house our firefighters and our seasonal work force.”

And the way Forest Service engineers are operating is changing too. 

“Sustainable operations and sustainable resources are coming into play a lot with recent executive orders — whether incorporating sustainable materials in projects or using more fuel-efficient cars and electric vehicles.”

Forest Engineering: A Career Path

One persistent engineering challenge the Forest Service faces is hiring “because the Forest Service isn’t an obvious choice for an engineering career,” said Shanisha.

She recalls assessing her own career options after graduating from the historically Black university Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University with a civil engineering degree.

“When I was in school most people, myself included, were thinking about private industry. All the big companies, big engineering firms,” said Shanisha. “But the Forest Service has been a great fit, on a professional and personal level. For me, the Forest Service has been so fulfilling and family friendly.”

“We've got a lot of hiring to do here in the region. As far as engineers, there’s a great need, because there’s a lot of work to do with all the new projects being planned.”

More information on pursuing an Engineering Career in the Forest Service.

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