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Associate Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Tells Boise Women: Follow Your 'Arrow North'

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Mary Wagner, associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service, was clearly a crowd favorite as she shared her experiences in the USFS. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Mary Wagner, associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service, was clearly a crowd favorite as she shared her experiences in the USFS.


Mary Wagner became the associate chief for the U.S. Forest Service five years ago, but her love of the country's lands started long before. Delivering a presentation at the Andrus Center Conference on Women and Leadership this morning, she traced her fascination with wild places to her earliest years.

"In a box on the shelf in my closet is a photo of me at 10 years old, wearing dungarees and a poncho, standing with my mom and my siblings in front of a great coastal redwood," she said. "I remember the smell. ... I remember how it felt. ... For me, the place was magical."

Addressing hundreds of women at the conference Sept. 10, Wagner mapped the trajectory of her life from that visit to the redwoods through taking the job as second-in-command of the Forest Service. Her talk was peppered with stories: she talked about Brownie meetings when she was a child, family camping trips and her first seasonal job as a wildland firefighter in the Payette National Forest.

"I fell in love here," she said, referring to her time in Idaho. "With the Forest Service and a few boys. I settled on one, though."

Wagner decided to become a forester after visiting a community college career center and flipping through careers ideas in a filing cabinet—all arranged in alphabetical order. She stopped at forester and decided to follow the path, but it had to start with fighting fires. In the early 1990s, she said it was remarkable to see women staffing fire engines.

She married a hot shot and they've lived a "tumbling tumbleweed lifestyle" rising in the ranks of the Forest Service. Wagner went from firefighter to district ranger to deputy forest supervisor to forest supervisor to deputy regional forester to associate director for Recreation, Heritage and Wilderness Resources to, finally, associate chief

In her speech, she talked about how crucial her mentors and supporters have been during the past 35 years with the USFS.

"Along the way I've found people who have supported me, stretched my thinking and dusted me off after some colossal failures of mine," she said. "Seeking mentorship is a strength."

She offered several such lessons to help women gain leadership positions and help those already in leadership lead better.

"Don't be afraid to step into something you've never done before," she said, going on to urge attendees to, "listen to your instincts and be true to who you are."

"Ask yourself: What's your arrow north?" she said.

Wagner calls herself the "most improbable associate chief" because it was never her plan. She had settled into a position as forester for the Pacific Northwest Region in Portland, Ore.—a job and a place that she loved—but when USFS Chief Tom Tidwell asked her to join him in Washington D.C., the choice clear.

Wagner ended her conference appearance by talking about how the Forest Service has taken steps to hire women and minorities. Women make up 37 percent of Forest Service employees and 35 percent of the senior leaders in the department are women. 

"It's not about head counts and percentages," Wagner said. "It's about creating a culture of inclusion that strengthens people's connection to the land."

The conference continues, Friday, Sept. 11 in the Boise State University Student Union Building.