How one "girl ranger" helped save the Southwest


Ed Abbey once called her a "girl ranger," and that's what she was, the very first. Lynell Schalk began her federal career tracking grave robbers and pothunters in southeast Utah, and ended it catching pot growers in western Oregon. She broke through the sagebrush ceiling as the first female special agent in charge in the Western United States, and she did a bang-up job.

Schalk, who winters in Bluff, Utah, and summers in Oregon, is retired these days, but she still volunteers for the BLM as a site steward-at-large, patrolling for pot-hunters and documenting illegal activities. A University of Washington graduate in philosophy, Schalk had been working as a swimming instructor when she read Ed Abbey's Desert Solitaire. It changed her life. She gave two weeks' notice, and at 23 headed towards the Southwest and a lifelong love affair with the landscape.

Schalk went to Natural Bridges National Monument, where she worked as a volunteer in the park for a per diem of $3 a day. Thus began her introduction to women's work in a male-dominated federal agency. As a seasonal ranger at Walnut Canyon National Monument in Arizona, her uniform was a white polyester knit dress, with a special version of the Park Service's arrowhead logo. It was only half the size of a man's – and she hated that.

As a seasonal worker at Navajo National Monument south of Kayenta, Ariz., she spent days alone at Kiet Siel, the second-largest cliff dwelling in the United States. In the oppressive heat of full summer, she'd see an occasional visitor, but more often she had the magnificent ruin all to herself. "It was always hot," Shalk recalls. "And once it got dark there was a constant pitter-patter of rats and mice. You couldn't sleep because of the night noises."

By 1974, she'd become a ranger for Grand Gulch, entitled to her very own 16-foot trailer. Her job was to nab the pothunters who were looting some of the most remote Ancestral Puebloan sites in the Southwest. Schalk eventually became one of the first Grand Gulch rangers, patrolling in everything from pickups to helicopters to horseback. One morning, as she was rounding up horses in a tight corral, she got kicked in her lower back. She lay screaming in agony, sprawled in horse manure. After almost a two-hour hour wait for an ambulance, she was taken to the Monticello, Utah, hospital, only to be placed on a stainless-steel table and given nothing for pain.

Finally, a physician arrived. Although it's been over a decade, Schalk will never forget his words: "Well, young lady, I understand you've been kicked by a horse. I hope it knocked some sense in you, and you will quit this job and get married." Instead, she got a gun.

In 1978, Schalk became one of the first Bureau of Land Management staffers authorized to carry a service revolver. She was also the first female officer. But the BLM had never had armed rangers before, and administrators thought that sidearms should be locked in truck gloveboxes, while rangers wore an empty holster on their duty belts. Schalk and her colleagues protested in a story that eventually made the New York Times. She stated, "You're putting our lives at risk because we are dressed as officers and that's how the public perceives us. We wear a badge and we need to be able to enforce it." Because they were not allowed to wear their weapons, the officers initially refused their commissions.

Rabble-rouser Edward Abbey then got into the controversy, telling Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus to "give these people the enforcement authority they need to protect the public lands of the American West." The secretary rescinded his gun-in-the-glovebox memo, and Schalk got her revolver.

She worked in Utah, California, Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon, sometimes under cover, often alone. Schalk helped with the second prosecution of pothunters under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, taught hundreds of federal and Indian officers and archaeologists about protecting artifacts, and retired after 28 years with a Superior Service Award.  In one case, she personally helped recover 150 Anasazi artifacts now at the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding, Utah.

Retired U.S. Attorney Kris Olson called Schalk "the best case agent I ever had in trial. … Lynell was fearless, but not reckless, in pursuit of her duties."

Schalk is finishing a book she plans to call Plunder on the Plateau. I can't wait to read it. The Old West abounds with stories of sheriffs with their big hats and handlebar mustaches. Now it's the New West, and it's high time we learned about the "girl rangers" who saved 1,000-year old artifacts for us all.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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