Work or Play? A Forest Service Ranger’s Journey

Words by Chrissie White

Since the early 20th century women have been pioneering their way through the wilderness as hard workers of the National Parks Service. They are teachers, guides, counselors, conservationists, search and rescue, friends, and generally just badass people. In a field dominated by men, it can seem daunting to pursue a career in the outdoors. However, when the wild calls sometimes you have to follow. That is exactly what Tessa Rough did in 2017, and she hasn’t looked back since.

Tessa grew up in the Pacific Northwest in a family of outdoor enthusiasts and avid hikers. After graduating from high school she secured a job working at Mount Saint Helens as an Interpretive Field Ranger. I met up with her to discuss what it’s like to be in the early stages of a career aimed towards educating people about the outdoors, what her future goals were, and how other people who dream of putting on that green and brown uniform can get involved.

Q: How did you start working for the Forest Service and why?

A: In the summer of 2016, I was finishing up my degree in Environmental Studies at the University of Washington with a course on natural disturbances with Professor Jerry Forest Franklin. I spent a week camping in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and learned about Professor Franklin’s work as one of the first ecosystem scientists for the Mount Saint Helens area after the 1980 eruption. This experience is what ignited my passion for our public lands.

After graduating however, I was living in Seattle and struggling to find use for my degree. I was working at REI and a coworker of mine directed me to an organization called the Student Conservation Association. I applied for 20 different National Parks and National Forests through the Student Conservation Association website and received an offer from the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. From there, I was placed into an internship position partnered with Americorps as an Interpretive Field Ranger.

Q: What were your duties working as a Field Ranger at Gifford Pinchot National Forest?

A: My position as an Interpretive Field Ranger for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest involved researching, preparing and presenting different interpretive programs revolving around the 1980 volcanic eruption. I focused my programming on the ecology and geology of the volcanic terrain of the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument. I also guided hikes from Johnston Ridge Observatory along the Boundary Trail with interpretation on the ecological succession after a natural disturbance and stories of those who perished in the 1980 eruption.

I’d be guiding hikes on Monday, presenting my geology/ecology presentations on Tuesday, roving trails on Wednesday and fielding inquiries from visitors at Johnston Ridge Observatory on Thursday. No day was the same.

Q: Can you teach us one historical fact about Mount Saint Helens?

A: The Johnston Ridge Observatory where I worked is named after David A. Johnston, a volcanologist closely monitoring Mount Saint Helens’ activity. David was instrumental in developing a zone around the volcano which was off limits to the public, ultimately saving hundreds of lives. He was actually not meant to be in the vicinity of the volcano on the morning of May 18th, 1980 when the volcano erupted, a graduate student by the name of Harry Glicken was. Harry had to attend an interview for his graduate work so David reluctantly agreed to take over for him. David’s last words, “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” were recorded via radio transmission to the United States Geological Survey headquarters right before he was swept away in the lateral blast. Harry Glicken, the graduate student, was particularly distraught after the volcanic eruption and David’s death. From then on Harry continued to study volcanoes until his death in the 1991 eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan. Harry and David are the only two American volcanologists known to have died in volcanic eruptions.

It’s no secret that Mount Saint Helens is an active volcano. In fact, Mount Saint Helens is actually the youngest and most active volcano in the Cascade range! The Native American Cowlitz tribe named the volcano Lawetlat’la, roughly translating to “the smoker”.

Q: What are you currently doing for the forest service?

A: My current position as the Youth and Community Engagement Coordinator for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest revolves around organizing field trips for diverse, underserved youth from Title 1 schools in the Puget Sound region. The Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest actually fully funds transportation in an effort to break down barriers to public lands. Field trips vary from eagle watching on the Skagit River to snowshoe walks at Snoqualmie Pass. This past winter, we reached 898 youth and worked with 16 Title 1 schools in the greater Seattle area.

Another aspect of my work is building upon partnerships with various conservation-focused youth organizations by coordinating multi-day stewardship events for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. This summer, I completed stewardship events with Seattle-based organizations including Washington Trails Association, Seattle Parks & Recreation, Student Conservation Association, Ryther, and Interim WILD. In hopes of inspiring stewardship participants to pursue a career in the outdoors, I also update and maintain contact information for youth interested in U.S. Forest Service jobs. My position works to inspire the next generation of diverse conservation leaders!

Q: Have you had any funny, scary, or strange animal occurrences during your time there?

A: In July of 2018, it was the first day of a weeklong stewardship which I had spent months coordinating with U.S. Forest Service staff to ensure programming ran smoothly. This process involved reserving campsites and completing site visits for possible work projects. It was my first multi-day event and I was very nervous. After welcoming the group of 10 youth and 2 crew leaders to the Skykomish Ranger District, I hopped in my government vehicle and instructed the group to caravan behind me to the first worksite. To my horror, about 3 miles down the old Forest Service road was a black bear eating garbage outside of an abandoned RV.

It ended up turning into a great discussion about Leave No Trace principles and bear safety. It was also a wonderful learning opportunity as an outdoor educator – no matter how much you prepare, the forest (and wildlife!) will always be in charge.

Q: What is it like to live up in the mountains with a bunch of nature-obsessed rangers?

A: While working as a ranger for the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument, the rangers live in a remarkably remote location for the duration of the season. The bunks are without cell phone service, wireless internet and an hour drive from civilization. Approximately 10 rangers living and working together for 6 months eventually turned into a small mountain community. We tie dyed shirts, carved pumpkins, hosted an early Thanksgiving, star-gazed, and had a German feast per the request of our ranger from Germany. Movie nights and board games became absolutely essential.

There were also moments of solitude, however. Each evening I would go for a run on old logging roads and occasionally stumble across a herd of elk or a beaver busily building its dam.

Q: Who are your biggest inspirations when it comes to land conservation?

A: Of course leaders like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt come to mind, however, I think I admire Rachel Carson more for her work as a female environmentalist. Rachel Carson discovered the wildly dangerous effects of DDT, managing to prevail against the whole chemical industry and suggestions of being a “hysterical woman”.

Q: What advice would you give other people who are interested in pursuing this lifestyle?

A: I highly encourage anyone interested in pursuing a career in the outdoors to consider applying through a partner organization, like the Student Conservation Association. The vast majority of individuals working with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service started out with the Student Conservation Association and it is a highly regarded organization in the environmental field.

I’d also really like to encourage individuals with diverse backgrounds to pursue a career in conservation. Although the U.S. government has a predominantly monotonous history of white men, this is changing. Almost 60 percent of the U.S. Forest Service top leadership reflects either gender or racial diversity. The Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest community engagement team I work heavily with is 80 percent female. The U.S. Forest Service still has a lot of work to do, but they are actively committed to changing.

Q: One last question:​ ​If you were a plant, which plant would you be?

A: I would be a Prairie Lupine. Prairie lupine was the first plant to return to the Mount Saint Helens moonscape after the 1980 volcanic eruption. It has the ability to get nitrogen from the bacteria on their roots and are incredibly resilient as a result. Once the prairie lupine added organic material to the nutrient poor environment, other plants and animals started to return as well.

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