Merv George grew up next door to the Six Rivers National Forest on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, where he lives today. At 90,000 acres, it is the largest land-based reservation in California. Yet he and his family and friends knew very little about the U.S. Forest Service, something he is determined to change. Involved with the governance responsibilities for the Hoopa Tribe from an early age, George was elected the Tribe’s youngest tribal chairman at the age of 24 and gained a lot of practical and political experience as the reservation’s chief executive officer. Now, almost 40 years old, he is the deputy forest supervisor on the Six Rivers in northern California, roughly midway between San Francisco and Portland.
Why did you want to work for the Forest Service?
Outside the reservation, there’s another 200,000 acres of ancestral Hoopa land that the forest now manages. I was brought up in a cultural practitioner family – we hunt, gather special forest products and fish. We really try to take care of Mother Earth the best we can because Mother Earth takes care of us.
With my degree in Native American studies (Humboldt State University, 1997), I started learning more about the histories of the Indian reservations and the Tribes. I studied federal law as it pertains to natives – the treaties and executive orders. It became apparent to me that many in the native community didn’t understand the Forest Service and, conversely, that many in the Forest Service didn’t understand the native community’s needs, desires and laws. My role is to be a bridge to foster these relationships.
What excites you about your job? Are there any unique challenges?
It’s always exciting when you’re working in public service, but especially important when you’re working with public natural resources and resource issues. At the heart of the Forest Service mission of caring for the land and serving people, the public reflects a diversity of thought when it comes to managing the resources.
Equally exciting to me is employee longevity. There’s something about this Forest Service family that keeps employees working here. I’m working with people who have worked for the agency longer than I’ve been alive. I’m intrigued and attracted by their commitment. I am also motivated by the opportunity to build collaborative bridges that result in positive land management practices.
How do you think you’re making a difference?
Though I am fairly new to the Forest Service, I’m not new to leadership positions. I’m told on a regular basis that I’m kind of doing things differently. I joke that I’ve never been to line officer school but instead am following my heart and trying to treat others the way I want to be treated. It is extremely important that I get to know my teammates and what their passions are. I fully subscribe to transparent leadership.
I always look for small spheres of influence where I can make a difference. I want employees to know that their work is important and they are part of a very important mission. I take pride in introducing them to the community because it’s really important that our community gets to know our agency.
We have 13 Tribes that we repeatedly work with here on the Six Rivers, and I’m proud to say that I’ve got family and friends in all of them. When meeting with them, I always take the time to ask a tribal leader or an elder to introduce themselves to our employees and vice versa. Relationships are only as good as the people who use them. So it’s these little things that sometimes make the difference.
What unique challenges do you face?
The biggest criticism I get from the native community is that we need more prescribed fires. We also hear public comments that we both cut too much timber and don’t cut enough timber. Our multiple-use mission means we have a complicated mission at times. We have many opportunities for colorful relationships. But I think it all starts with good communication – both within our agency and with external folks who care very much about the community that we serve and the landscapes that we manage.
We’re appropriately named the Six Rivers because we have six major rivers on our forest. Each of these is a large salmon-producing watershed. Salmon are excellent indicator-species to the health of our ecosystems. When the fish are not healthy, nor are our communities.
You have a number of interesting and unusual experiences. What stands out on our journey through life so far?
It’s not every day that a person gets to have dinner with the President at the White House. When I was Tribal Chairman, I was invited to visit with Bill Clinton for a dinner meeting on employment concerns and tax issues. In addition to myself there were a few other Tribal Chairs and a dozen mayors from large cities which included the opportunity to meet Gov. Jerry Brown, who was mayor of Oakland at the time.
I’ve also been fortunate to be a river advocate and to have testified before Congress on Trinity River and Klamath River issues. I’ve always been taught that public service is important. I’m not the type of person to sit on the sidelines or be an armchair quarterback. I’m going to roll up my sleeves and try and help. As such, I feel that I’m right where I’m supposed to be at this time in my life.
I’ve also lived through three near-death experiences – a ruptured appendix at 14, a boat-racing accident and a hunting accident – which has helped my outlook on life. These experiences have calibrated my understanding of what is and what isn’t important and what’s worth spending energy on. I do think the Creator has plans for all of us that are sometimes outside of our control. Though I’ve only lived a short time, I’ve lived many lives. I treat every day as if it’s my last. If I have anything I’m afraid of, it’s probably the fear of missing out on something.
How are you grooming younger people coming into the agency and addressing their professional development?
I talk and share stories with people. My education process involved storytelling. The native community didn’t write things down and that was on purpose. Our elders used to say you could tell a lot about where someone is in their life by the questions they ask.
As a personal trainer, I use those opportunities to teach the younger generation a wellness philosophy as we’re lifting weights together. Living on my reservation, I’ve got a front row seat to hardship every day when I leave the office. You don’t have to live a life of drugs and alcohol if you don’t want it even though it’s prevalent in the community I live in. We as people always have choices.
It’s the same with my employees who are having a bad day and are navigating issues that impact morale. We talk it through and I try and put things in perspective. You know, at the end of it all, we all want the same things regardless of the background we come from. Everybody wants clean water and needs clean air. We all want to be safe and return home to our families at the end of the day. I’m really proud and humbled by the fact that our agency has a lot of influence over those outcomes.
What’s your most memorable memory of your Forest Service career?
That’s a tough one. Probably the first day I walked into the Pacific Southwest Regional Office as a new employee. It was with mixed emotions, and I was scared and didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know if they would accept me. Also my working knowledge of the Forest Service was limited. I am happy to report my fears were short lived after meeting many sincere, smiling faces. Many have become lifelong friends that I stay in regular contact with.
I owe my Forest Service career to Alaska Regional Forester Beth Pendleton and Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Randy Moore. Beth was my first boss when she was the Pacific Southwest deputy regional forester in Vallejo. She hired me as the Tribal Relations Program manager. At the time I applied for the job, I was living and working in Hoopa, living comfortably in my safety zone. After being offered the job, I was really trying to talk my way out of it. The thought of leaving “home” was terrifying to me and my wife and kids. At 35 years old, I had never left a 60-mile radius of where my people are from.
Randy took a chance on me, and I consider him not only my boss but a friend and great mentor. If it wasn’t for him and Beth I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable enough to leave the comfort zone of my Tribal world. Please know, I’ve enjoyed my career immensely with my Forest Service family and plan on making a full career of it.
Do you have any special heroes that have influenced you?
I’ll name a few heroes, people with a quality I admire:
- Evil Knievel – for having the courage to do what he did at a time when the technology didn’t offer the capabilities it does today. He was fearless!
- Johnny Cash – for being a true artist and not compromising his heart just to appease the music industry.
- Aldo Leopold – for promoting the concept of being able to live on a piece of land without spoiling it. Although this is a core value taught in the native communities, this message was not always heard in the non-native world at the time he was saying it.
- My grandmother who gave me the advice to find something that you love to do and figure out how to get paid for it.
- My own mother who has given me the strength and the skills to not be afraid of anything. She also stressed the importance of diplomacy and communications; and
- My wife for being an excellent mother and friend. For having the courage to stick it out with me through my Tribal political career and when I took her away from her parents and her safety net, as well as when we made the journey to Vallejo to join the Forest Service. She wasn’t afraid even though every time we went home to visit we were met with sad family members who lobbied us to come home.
All these people together factor in how I’ve developed – hopefully as a good, humble human being. I have two older sisters that have made sure of that.