Wisdom of One Elder (or Not): And a Link to My Yale School of the Environment Award Video

Last month, I rode the train into Union Station, New Haven, Connecticut for the first time in fifty years.  That was 1972, two years after Earth Day, three years after NEPA, and NFMA was not yet a twinkle in the eye of Congress.  So let’s just say that much has changed since then.  Fifty  years  before I took the train in 1972 was 1922, right after World War I and before the Dust Bowl, which remains the US’s worst environmental disaster.  And fifty years from now will be 2072, which seems like a long ways away. If you think about a fifty-year span of time, you may be able to see patterns- what is a trend and what is a blip

I was in New Haven to receive an award from the Yale School of the Environment Alumni Association.  As I told the students, if you work on the same thing for 50 years, chances are, somewhere along the way, someone will appreciate it (even if you have to wait a long time :)) .  I was hoping to give a seminar (challenging the Coastal Elite in the hold of their Mothership, what fun!) but post-Covid they decided to move to video.  This was a bit challenging for me, as they were looking for video of me doing interesting things, but I was lucky to find black and white photos. Most of my work has been not visually interesting, think Data General or later terminals, or rooms with people and flipcharts- or even piles of paper, or conference calls (pre-Zoom). I spent weeks digging through old files, remembering people, and thinking about my story and all the different ways of telling it. I am very grateful to the talented editor and producer Alana DeJoseph for spinning gold from a mess of straw.

I would never have dug into all this without the prompt from Yale, but it has been a meaningful exercise for me.  I reached out in gratitude with many colleagues from the past. And it was interesting to find what bits of history are available on the internet and which are not. The human brain is all about story-telling and sense-making, and what could be more human than telling your own story?

So I’m making a request, for any of you who are so inclined, I’d be interested in posting reflective historic pieces; what did you experience? what did you learn? what is your current perspective on your experiences? what advice would you give to younger folks?

Here is a link to award write-up and the video. 

7 thoughts on “Wisdom of One Elder (or Not): And a Link to My Yale School of the Environment Award Video”

  1. Congratulations on your award Sharon. It sounds like you have always worked to be your own person in an agency that in my opinion generally prefers employees to operate within some fairly narrow walls regardless of what of the latest management talking points. Remember “empowerment” during the early 90s? After many years as a seasonal employee (what a great lifestyle) I got lucky and was hired into a non-traditional position, for which I wrote a proposal, by forest supervisor Jim Webb. Jim Webb “ruined” a lot of us as he walked the talk of empowerment. His direction was you know what you need to do, so get it done. You can break FS policy as long as what you do is legal, moral and safe. Unfortunately, after Jim retired, his replacement was more of a traditionalist and so many of the innovative things being done on the Rio Grande NF came to a halt, including eliminating my position as a permanent full time environmental education specialist (even though my work was receiving national and international recognition outside of the USFS) – It wasn’t personal, the new forest supervisor just refused to fund a non-traditional position. I was put into the public affairs position. What this taught me is that things ultimately revert back to the mean. It’s hard to make lasting changes in a federal government agency.

    I particularly liked hearing about the beginnings of the Smokey Wire. If I am understanding this correctly, you started the newsletter/forum while still employed and it didn’t go over well with some and that was at least one of things you took into account as you decided when to retire. Kudos to you! I’m sure several people can recite this story more accurately than me, but it reminds me of a quote from one of the first crop of district rangers who said over the past year he saw the forest supervisor twice and the forest supervisor saw him just once. Technology has changed that and censorship has reached new levels in the USFS. The WO and RO often micro-managed my news releases to the point that I couldn’t tell the whole story about sensitive issues. But, I felt the need to maintain my integrity, so I went out into the communities on my own time and provided the information by word of mouth. My thought is that I ultimately worked for the voters/taxpayers in a democratic system and the only way for that to work is for the public to know the entire story.

    The take home message I guess I’m trying to say here is that while there have been some modernization in USFS culture, (e.g., diversity training) people are still people and those in higher levels of management feel the need to control those closer to the ground to ensure no one creates any kind of issue that would reflect badly on the administration. That is just the realities of working for the federal government. Some things will never change.

    • Mike, it’s actually a longer and more complicated story than that..
      “you started the newsletter/forum while still employed and it didn’t go over well with some and that was at least one of things you took into account as you decided when to retire.” I was actually forced out of my job for reasons unknown (there were many people I could have potentially irritated, including various folks in the State) and then of course reinstated once they figured out they couldn’t actually do that (thanks to the person who handled my grievance in Region 8).

      I decided to give up when I was supporting an employee to go to the Rio Grande as Deputy. It appeared to me that the Forest wanted her; you probably know more about this. So I went to my boss at the time (who is still working in a high level position with the FS) to encourage him to support her and he said she couldn’t because the WO said she was running a blog.. now if you know the personality of my employee, that would be among the last things she would ever do. And my boss didn’t know it was me. Whatever happened to the old thing, “if someone complains to you about an employee, hear their side”. I realized that they were coming after my employees, and that was the final straw.

      But I still don’t know if it was the Smokey Wire- I also got in trouble for allowing a diverse employee to take a detail in DC that was a promotion for him and was asked to call him back, I told them “it’s your idea, you do it.” I was asked to give a talk by a State advisory group, I asked the relevant state representative if that was OK.. was giving the talk, the phone was buzzing. I got in trouble for giving the talk and not answering the phone (as I was giving the talk!), because the person whom I’d asked had a boss, who actually didn’t want me talking to them but didn’t tell me or tell his employee to tell me.

      Now my boss’s boss was applying for a job with the State at the time, so that made much possible extra State drama. Nowadays I think we might call that a “hostile work environment.”

      The reason I’m telling these stories is that sometimes people just decide that they don’t want you around, and try to make your life difficult. For a while I thought that this was wrong and tried to fight it. But if you can get away, that’s the best thing. A great thing about the FS is that there are many possible jobs, and nowadays many of them virtual. So if there’s anyone out there who is experiencing this kind of thing, my advice is to get out as soon as you can.


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