Communication is the Key: A public service perspective with Maggie Schenk

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, I had the opportunity to be surrounded by amazing nationally and internationally recognized natural resource leaders. If you’re from Montana, you’ve likely heard these names: Walter Hook - famous landscape artist from Montana was a close family friend; Smoke Elser - legendary outfitter and backpacker was my neighbor; Linda McCulloch – former Montana Secretary of State and senior member of the State Board of Land Commissioners was my school librarian; and Steve Running - internationally known climate change scientist was my adviser in college.  

Another locally known figure was actually my close friend’s mom and little did I know growing up in high school that 12 years later I would be contacting her to ask about her philosophy in the natural resource landscape.  Her name is Maggie Schenk (Pittman) and she, in my mind, is a game changer in the natural resource world with 32 years of experience with the Forest Service working on a wide array of issues. What I’ve come to admire about her life’s work is her enormous reach to work with the public to inform them about management issues, her authentic approach to collaboration and her passionate ideals about engaging people to solve complex land management issues with interest, compassion, and most important, effective dialogue - “Communication”.  I would like to highlight her ambitious career as a public servant. From a trails technician on Mount St. Helens to a Deputy Forest Supervisor, she has done it all.

Maggie’s career included positions as trail crew boss, forester, public affairs officer, district ranger, deputy forest supervisor and acting forest supervisor.  Much of her agency work relied on her ability to lead employees, team and organizations to successful outcomes through developing, coaching, and facilitating quality interpersonal processes and interactions.

I’ve asked Maggie several questions about her approach and life philosophy. Here is what she had to say:

Question: Can you explain your Philosophy about communication and why it is so important in the natural resource landscape?

I believe that natural resource management is mostly about people.  And I believe that people who have an interest in natural resources and public land management enjoy knowing that agency and industry leaders are able and willing to communicate openly and clearly about their work and how it affects people."

Question: Personal and professional lessons learned about working with various organizations.

“We don’t know all the answers. Asking questions seems better than telling how it’s going to be. Be the first to tell bad news.  The public we serve is smart and will know if we are not being straight forward about an issue.”

Question: Helpful advice for current and future land managers?

Ask. Listen. Give credit away. Accept help. Share the workload with the public. Clearly define the decision space so that partners will know what the boundaries are.”

Question: What was it like as a powerful woman in a mostly male dominated workplace?

I worked hard to be good at my job.  I learned not to second-guess myself, to work as hard as or harder than my male counterparts did, and to keep a positive attitude.  I accepted new assignments gladly, even when it meant working extra time or juggling multiple top priorities.  I mentored other women and men who were trying to navigate their career paths in confusing times.”

Question: What was the most challenging time in your 32 year career? 

“The 1990’s introduced the notion of collaborating with the public and interest groups to solve natural resource issues.   This was also the time of transition from an emphasis on timber production to one of restoration and recreation. There was distrust from external groups who wanted to have a seat at the table and confusion by agency folks who were not sure how to include outside interests in their decision-making.  It was all about resolving differences and that meant all sides needed to listen to each other and work to understand diverse perspectives.
We were seeing communities across the West being affected by lumber mills closing and timber-related jobs going away.  During this challenging time, woods workers and conservationists were finding areas of agreement that proved very helpful to Forest Service managers. Those agreements paved the way for many local collaborative efforts that I was involved in my years as a line officer.”

Question: What are a few organizational changes that need to occur in the Forest Service to adapt future external pressures?  

“The external pressures on those in high leadership positions are greater now than at any time I saw in my career.  I was fortunate to have held positions at local levels where I felt a connection to the people and the communities in which I lived. 

High-level leaders are tasked with juggling so many diverse and often disjointed issues today.  If they can continue to see the value of connecting with ground-level employees, user groups and communities, I believe they can weather this uncertain time.  The stakes are high for our public lands and agency leaders should not lose sight of their social and environmental responsibilities. I hope they are able to keep their focus on the land and the people who care for it.”

Wow, what a great deal of passion and information to digest. Now more than ever does our Forest Service have a societal opportunity/need to actively manage our lands for the Environment, Social and Economic pillars that involve long term sustainable management. Thank you, Maggie, and so many others for your service and with this general philosophy anything is possible! Communication, Communication, Communication!!!

Maggie is now a consultant in the industry, contracting with the Forest Service and non-profit organizations in meeting facilitation and providing sessions in strategic planning, and team cohesion, and leadership coaching.  Her website is here https://www.msfacilitation.com/ .

Charles Gale1 Comment