Lessons Learned: Samantha Chang

June 10, 2020

This month The Forestry Source features Samantha Chang, a silviculturist with the US Forest Service on the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington State. She joined SAF in July 2000 and is currently chair of the North Puget Sound SAF chapter and secretary for the Washington State SAF. In her own words, Chang explains why job shadowing is an invaluable experience and what it means to be a leader. 

Being a Leader as a Forester
By Samantha Chang

Although I’ve always liked trees, I definitely didn’t start out on what people might think is a traditional path to forestry. I grew up in Los Angeles in the suburbs, and nobody in my family worked in natural resources. I was lucky that, growing up, we had a big backyard, and I could play with dirt. At my high school, there was a lot of emphasis on planning for college or a career. We were given an assignment to research a college and major, if you were interested in one, and figure out how to prepare.

I came across the college catalog for Humboldt State University. It had a pretty picture on the cover—this beautiful picture of the classical northern California coast, with its rocky coastline and trees in the fog—which looked so much better than LA. The college is also close to forests, and our classes were literally a few blocks up the street in the community forest, or out on logging sites or visiting mills.

In my last year of college, I participated in the US Forest Service’s Student Career Experience Program (now called Pathways), working in the Lands and Minerals program on the Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie. I moved into that job permanently after graduating, and transferred to a forester position when one became available. I’ve been on the forest for 17 years.

Why be an ambassador for the profession?

I had a high-school career counselor who set up a job shadow with a couple of foresters who worked for LA County up in the San Bernardino Mountains; they offered to let a couple students tag along for the day. They were doing a mixture of recreation management and running a little tree nursery for reforestation. I remember going up there, looking around, and thinking, “I could do this. I could grow trees.” That job shadow day gave me an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, to picture myself as a forester. It was the only time until I got to college when I had any interaction with someone in the field.

It can be intimidating to get a request of, “Can you take a student out on a job shadow?” As foresters, we tend to be introverts; I’m no exception. But I don’t remember those guys having any prepared talk; it was just hop in the truck and let’s go. You don’t have to be a great public speaker or the spokesperson of the company or the agency. It can be just small things you do to show what a forester does that let a young person see what it looks like, and maybe imagine themselves there. Especially for kids who don’t have opportunities to spend a lot of time outside, and small school districts that don’t have access to outdoor school programs.

A different perspective on forestry as a profession

I feel lucky because becoming a forester wasn’t necessarily a path my parents encouraged me toward, or that anyone around me even knew existed. For most of my family, forestry means logging. In many immigrant cultures, for many of us, one of the goals of our parents or ancestors in coming to America was to provide better opportunities and an easier life for their children. The idea of work that requires physical labor or working outdoors can sound like going backward. That’s something I’ve noticed as the first generation of my family born and raised here. People with a longer generational history in the US don’t see it the same way, since there are idealized images of the solo backpacker, rugged individual, or frontiersperson built into American culture. For some cultures, the forest is a place of danger, even within the US, and hard physical labor and professional work are separate. I think this perspective is missed in conversations of increasing diversity in the forestry profession.

The value of assessing a person holistically

Another way I don’t fit the traditional image of a forester is that I’ve always had physical limitations. While in college, I applied for a wilderness trail crew job with the US Forest Service on the Sierra National Forest. The crew did a lot of rock work, moving and crushing and blasting granite boulders, and camped out for nine days at a time at 8,000–9,000-feet elevation. During the interview, the crew supervisor of course asked, “Can you lift heavy objects?” I told him I had some limitations, but I would still like to try, since I might not have the chance in the future. I remember him saying, “You know what, I’ll go ask our HR people and see if there’s something we can do.” He was willing to take a chance on me, that maybe he’d hire me and it wouldn’t work out. I ended up on light duty before the end of the season because of an injury from moving boulders, but I’m still glad I got that experience. Without it, I wouldn’t understand the Forest Service in the same way.

What I’ve learned from this experience is that if you are someone with a physical limitation, don’t just assume you can’t do the work. For a hiring manager, if you have a candidate for a job, be sure to look at all of their abilities. Although hiring practices are better than they were a generation ago, I think there’s still a tendency to think that the only person who can be a good forester is someone who’s a physical powerhouse—someone who can plant trees for 60 hours a week. I like to think that I brought different skills to the table that were also useful on that trail crew.

If you’re used to working with limitations, whether it’s a bad back, bad knee, or something else, you get good at adapting. For me, it’s always work smarter, not harder.

On leadership

During college, I took a temporary job as a field ranger on the Deschutes National Forest in central Oregon. The boss I had was one of the best supervisors I ever had: He walked the talk. The first day, he took us out the trailheads we would be checking on. He got out of the rig, went to the back, and took out a shovel. Wherever he went, he automatically brought a shovel, because if there were horse apples on the trail, he could take care of it. If the water bar was out of shape, he would fix it right there. He didn’t make a note and assign it to someone else—he fixed it. He led by example, and that set the tone for me the whole summer. You don’t defer responsibility. You’re not so important you can’t deal with things yourself. You come prepared, even if it’s just a matter of remember to bring a shovel with you.

When I was a timber crew supervisor, I hired and supervised several crew members each year. At the times when I felt like I was doing my best, I took time to prepare for their performance reviews by really thinking about how I could provide meaningful feedback. By that, I mean telling them what I had noticed that they did particularly well and how that helped us meet our goals, and also ways they could improve their skills. Most people are capable of entering data into a database—that doesn’t count. What’s important for an employee to know is what makes them of value to an organization, and what their unique skills are. It took me a long time to be able to recognize this in myself: What I’m good at that maybe other people aren’t, and also what I am not good at, or am capable of but don’t enjoy doing.

During a performance review, especially for those who are working summer jobs or are recent college graduates, I also asked what they want to do next year, or five years from now, and what can we do to help them get there? It might not cost an agency or business that much to provide these opportunities, and it leads to better employee retention or a more skilled workforce.

Another reason why I ask these questions is that it’s another way I can give back to the profession. Not all of those crew members stayed with the Forest Service, but a lot of them are still in forestry, and hopefully, they gained useful skills along the way that allow them to contribute better wherever they ended up. That’s a responsibility we all share. A lot of the work we do in forestry is meant to outlive us, and is built upon the work that was done a generation before. It’s important to cultivate the people who will work alongside us and keep it going.

What to consider when looking for a job

When students ask about finding a job in the Forest Service, I say that you have to target either the job you want or the place you want to live—it’s very unlikely you’ll get both at the same time. Be flexible when you’re just starting out. During summers in college, I worked three different jobs in three states. I happened to land in western Washington, and I definitely didn’t think then that I would still be here 17 years later.

Rethinking the value of the public lands during times of crisis

The idea of public service was, and still is, very important to me, which is why I joined the US Forest Service. These economically challenging times put public land agencies in a position to serve a different role. We’re able to continue offering timber to the mills, because we’re not holding out to wait until the log market rises. The role of government is to assist, and that’s one form of assistance we can give, whether by offering timber sales or providing free firewood permits so people can heat their homes, which we’re doing on the Mt. Baker, as are many other national forests.

The recreational opportunities on public lands, such as hiking trails and campgrounds, benefit the public, and the demand has become really obvious now that they’re unavailable during the pandemic, so people can maintain social distancing. People aren’t taking a walk in the woods or a bike ride for granted anymore. And the importance of access to the outdoors for emotional and mental health has become clear in the last couple months. Similar to when the recession hit in 2008, going camping is a lot more affordable and accessible to so many more people than flying a family on vacation somewhere and staying in a hotel.

Samantha Chang can be reached at northpugetSAF@gmail.com.

Do you have lessons learned that you would like to share with fellow SAF members in a future issue? Please email Andrea Watts at wattsa@safnet.org

SAF members can read the full June 2020 edition of The Forestry Source here.