Transforming the Forest Service: Maverick bureaucrat Wendy Herrett

  • Wendy Herrett, former Forest Service supervisor

    Photo courtesy Wendy Herrett

Since the frontier age, the West’s forests have been home to all kinds of rogues and rebels, from family logging operations to stubborn ranchers to hard-core eco-defenders. And for nearly as long, the U.S. Forest Service has been charged with keeping them all in balance.

But sometimes, the Forest Service needs its own mavericks. For the latter part of the last century, it had one in Wendy Herrett, a landscape architect from Denver who blazed her own path through the bureaucracy. In the 1970s, Herrett became the Forest Service’s first female district ranger. A decade later, as supervisor of Oregon’s Siuslaw National Forest, Herrett stood up to the powerful timber industry and steered the Siuslaw through a radical restructuring of its budget and priorities.

Today, Herrett’s legacy can be seen in the abundance of female forest supervisors — and in the rise of more ecosystem-friendly approaches to forest management.

"She has the heart of a warrior," says Jim Furnish, who served as deputy supervisor under Herrett on the Siuslaw. "She’s very strong in her convictions, and I think they’ve been vindicated."

Pressure to succeed

In 1970, when Wendy Herrett graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in landscape architecture, women in the Forest Service worked mostly in administrative positions. Herrett faced discrimination early on, when she applied for a landscape architect job with the agency. The Forest Service placed her on southern Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest, but the supervisor refused to let her work because he feared she might corrupt his male employees.

Herrett persevered, and was hired on the nearby Mount Hood National Forest, where she worked for three years before transferring to Colorado’s Routt National Forest. There, she gained the respect of the regional forester.

In 1979, she became the Forest Service’s first female district ranger, on the Routt’s Blanco Ranger District. National forests are divided into districts, each of which is headed by a district ranger who reports to the forest supervisor in charge of the whole forest. The forests themselves are grouped into regions, which are headed by regional foresters.

In this bureaucracy, the going was tough for women, and Herrett sensed a double standard and felt resentment from co-workers. The Routt was charged with the tricky task of reducing grazing allotments, and Herrett asked her superiors for advice. But administrators at the supervisor’s office refused to cooperate because, Herrett believes, they wanted her to fail.

"I felt a lot of pressure to succeed for other women," Herrett says. "It wasn’t just Wendy who would fail."

But despite Herrett’s mixed success in reducing grazing allotments, she didn’t fail in pioneering the way for more women to assume leadership positions in the Forest Service. In fact, during her five years at Blanco, the agency hired four other women district rangers.

"For all of us, she made it easier," says Linda Goodman, the regional forester for the Northwest’s Region 6. Goodman entered the agency a few years after Herrett, working in administration. Later, she worked under Herrett, who "showed me there were (other) options in the Forest Service."

Taking on the timber beasts

Herrett’s next major challenge came in 1990, when she became forest supervisor of the Siuslaw National Forest on the Oregon coast, one of the agency’s most powerful timber machines. No sooner had Herrett started than Judge William Dwyer made his landmark decision on spotted owl habitat. Dwyer ruled that national forests must take into account habitat for the spotted owl, a mandate that forced forests to slash their timber harvests.

In the early 1990s, the Siuslaw’s annual timber production decreased from 315 million board-feet to 23 million board-feet, a 92 percent drop. While Herrett empathized with the communities surrounding the Siuslaw that lost timber-fueled jobs and income, she also believed that much of what resulted from Dwyer’s decision would be good for the forest.

"(Logging communities) wanted a cheerleader, and I wasn’t going to be a cheerleader," Herrett says.

The forest began closing timber roads, and it increased work on fishery and watershed protection. Furnish, who succeeded Herrett as forest supervisor, says the Siuslaw is now a model for Northwest forest management (HCN, 9/27/04: Life After Old Growth). "(The Siuslaw managers) have really deepened and intensified their commitment to ecosystem management," he says. "I give Wendy a lot of credit for that."

Herrett also sought to build consensus within the agency on the most efficient ways to reorganize the forest. Though facing a reduced budget, she went to every district on the forest to get input from different managers. "The collaborative model she used was something we use a lot today," Goodman says. "She was a real consensus seeker."

Herrett retired in 1996, after a stint as Region 6’s director of recreation, lands and minerals. Today, roughly a third of the Forest Service’s district rangers and forest supervisors are women.

These days, Herrett warns that the Bush administration is dismantling much of the work she and others did to protect forest watersheds, habitat and scenic vistas. Still, she says she counts on the people she knows in the Forest Service to buffer the forests from harmful policies. And she says the Clinton administration also made mistakes: It failed to recognize that national forests were more than recreation and wilderness, that some communities depended on their timber harvest.

Herrett still hopes for more forest managers brave enough to bend the rigid bureaucracy. "There aren’t enough mavericks," she says, "people looking to solve problems, willing to change the game a little to get a satisfactory outcome."

The author writes from Portland, Oregon.

High Country News Classifieds