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Fitting into the Forest

October 30, 2014

 

In 1982, Susan Marsh had just arrived at the Gallatin National Forest in Montana. As part of the Supervisor’s Office staff, she visited each of the five ranger districts to introduce herself. Marsh narrates this experience in her forthcoming memoir, A Hunger for High Country:

 

 At the Gardiner Ranger District I was greeted by a woman with graying blond hair, a tanned face full of wrinkles, and dark, friendly eyes. She led me down a hallway to a collection of map tubes and mismatched file cabinets where half a dozen employees gathered at a folding conference table over day-old doughnuts. Veiled eyes assessed me from under cowboy hats as I stood there in my Birkenstocks. The district ranger was a tall, florid-faced man with sun creases at the corners of his eyes. He had the long arms and large hands of a farmer. When I held my hand out, he declined to shake it. 

 

Today, Marsh joins us to reflect further on this moment—and the overall climate of the male-dominated U.S. Forest Service at the time—from which she managed to establish the prolific career A Hunger for High Country recounts.

 

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It wasn’t the first time I’d been snubbed – left standing there alone and apparently invisible as a meeting ended and all the men filed out to have lunch together – but it was the most blatant signal to date of how welcome I would be.

 

In the 1980s, minorities, women, professionals other than foresters and engineers, and other ‘newcomers’ had a hard time of it—at least in the mountain west. People don’t like change, and we represented a lot of change coming all at once. In my own case, I didn’t help make the changes any easier to swallow for the old guard who were used to a predictable, familiar way. I could have learned to be compliant and tell others what they wanted to hear. I could have been less defensive and thicker-skinned about the insults – everyone endures them, after all.

 

But what frustrated me as much as how people were treated was how the land was managed – not as the crown jewel of the national forest system, with six major mountain ranges and legendary trout rivers on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park, but as just another “multiple-use” forest that could have been anywhere. Trees were seen as crops. A living forest was called “standing volume.”


 

Having held jobs in support of the timber program in Washington and Oregon, this was not a new concept to me, but somehow it didn’t seem to apply in a place of low rainfall and high elevation and spectacular mountain scenery. Visiting foresters from the west slope of the Rockies found reasons to chuckle over what was included in the Gallatin National Forest timber base. “Hell,” one old forester from the neighboring Beaverhead National Forest said. “They’ll have to load those pecker poles with a pitchfork.”

 

Ultimately, A Hunger for High Country isn’t just about people like me who struggled to fit in. It’s a portrait of the Forest Service, but not in the sense of airing a bunch of dirty laundry—in the end, I defend the agency. It's also a portrait of the wonderful wild places found at the headwaters of the continent and the world’s first national park. I hope to illuminate the value of the national forests that we are so fortunate to share and to relate my own story in terms of how these precious forests helped heal my spirit and transform me—from an angry, resentful person to one who is magnanimous and grateful for the experiences, good and bad, that have taught me how to live.

 



 

 

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Susan Marsh is a naturalist and award-winning writer in Jackson, Wyo., with more than 30 years’ experience as a wild land steward for the U.S. Forest Service. Devoted to the conservation of public land and a deeper understanding of the relationship between people and wild country, her essays have appeared in a host of magazines and anthologies. Her latest book, A Hunger for High Country, will be available for purchase this November.

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