Mary Farnsworth is the new forest supervisor for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, which covers 2.5 million acres in Idaho, Washington and Montana.
More than 400 wildlife species, including grizzly bears and wolves, roam the forest. It’s also a large employer, with more than 300 permanent workers and a payroll that swells by hundreds of seasonal employees each summer.
Farnsworth, 46, was most recently the deputy forest supervisor on the Deschutes National Forest in central Oregon. Early in her career, she spent a summer fighting fires on a Hotshot crew. She also spent 2 1/2 years in Washington, D.C., working on the National Fire Plan, a blueprint for managing the impact of wildfires on communities and ecosystems.
Here’s an edited version of an interview with her.
Q.You grew up in San Diego, a large urban area. What drew you to the Forest Service?
A.I’ve wanted to be a ranger since junior high school. … I was a longtime Girl Scout, and my family took a two-week backpacking trip in the Central Sierras when I was young. We came across a wilderness ranger. He was in full uniform, with a shovel in his hand and a radio and chest pack. Being a ranger seemed like the job to have. The Forest Service somehow got into my psyche as the perfect career.
Q.Tell me about your summer assignment on a Hotshot crew in Redmond, Ore.
A.There’s some serious physical fitness stuff going on to be a Hotshot. You’re working like a professional athlete every day. I enjoyed the camaraderie of working with 20 other folks under trying conditions. You’ve got to be on top of your game and you’ve got to be able to work with the other folks on your crew, supporting them. After that summer, I chose to apply for positions in fire management.
Q.You described firefighting as good management training.
A.There’s an expectation of leadership. You need to make decisions and get things done. You are held accountable for what happens.
Q.What are some of the challenges and opportunities you see on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest?
A.Completing the forest plan. It sets the direction for the forest, so we’re all on the same page, moving in the same direction. A lot of people are waiting for our new forest plan to be released. It’s been nearly 10 years in the making, which sounds like a horrendously long time. But there have been some changes in the rules, some things that have really held us up.
Another challenge is the federal budget. You just have to turn on CNN to see that our country is in debt. We have a tremendous amount of work to do on the forest, regardless of our budgets. We’re going to get a lot of work done whatever the budget is.
A.In my short time here, I’ve got the impression that there may be some opportunities to provide more outdoor recreation. One of our biggest points of contact with the public is recreation. Tourism is a big deal in Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry and St. Maries.
Q.What’s your favorite outdoor activity?
A.I like all sorts of different activities. I like to ski, though I flop and flounder. … I also snowshoe, cross-country ski and I hike. When I was growing up in San Diego, I did lots of water sports. I’m looking forward to getting my kayak out on the lakes here. In the past, I was a competitive cyclist. Now, I ride for health, fitness and sanity. My job can be pretty stressful.
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