Not many of us know what we want to do as adults while still in our teenage years—if ever. This is not the case with Katie Armstrong. From high school on she has pursued her love of forestry and has never looked back. Starting out with the U.S. Forest Service as a natural resources specialist in Detroit, Katie is now a legislative affairs specialist working with staffers on Capitol Hill to help the Forest Service present its perspective in the national legislative process. She is currently on temporary assignment as acting deputy chief of staff at the national headquarters in the District of Columbia.
Did you always want to work in forestry?
I decided I wanted be a forester in high school. Somehow I got my hands on a publication, “So you want to be a forester?” and after attending a summer forestry camp at Michigan Tech I was hooked. I studied forestry at Michigan State with a minor in agricultural and natural resources communication. One of my professors introduced me to urban forestry. I loved it so much I went back for a master’s degree in forestry and urban studies.
How did you begin your Forest Service career?
When one thinks of working “in the field” for the Forest Service, the Detroit area probably doesn’t immediately come to mind, but that’s where I began my career with the agency. I was hired on in 2003 as the Emerald Ash Borer liaison for the Northeastern Area just outside of Detroit. It was an exciting time as this invasive species had just been identified and I was able to play a role in the multi-agency program to eradicate the beetle in its early days.
My next move was to serve as the Urban Connections Detroit Coordinator for the agency’s Eastern Region. This rewarding work involved encouraging Detroit youth to pursue careers in natural resources, as well as raising their awareness and appreciation of the multiple missions of our national forests and grasslands.
In 2009, I transitioned to Washington, D.C., with a position in the Office of Communication. One of the great highlights of my time there involved the opportunity to serve on the team that developed the agency’s new Planning Rule which involves an adaptive land management planning process to promote healthy, resilient, diverse and productive national forests and grasslands. I’ve been with the Legislative Affairs staff since 2012.
What are your responsibilities in your current position?
Working in Legislative Affairs offers the opportunity to be involved in the legislative process and to better understand the relationship between Congress, the Executive Branch and the Forest Service.
We have a variety of responsibilities including preparing our leadership for congressional hearings by drafting and clearing testimony through the agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture which is our reporting agency, and the White House. The level of preparation can vary widely depending on the scope of the hearing. For example, the hearing prep for a bill to name a trail would be less extensive than the preparation for a hearing on the president’s proposed budget for the Forest Service.
A lot of my job involves interacting with Hill staffers and arranging and participating in briefings for members and congressional staffs on current issues. Congress also sends us inquiries on Forest Service issues and possible legislative actions related to those issues which require our response. Another aspect involves working with program staffs to develop legislative priorities, draft legislative proposals and track pertinent legislation. For all of these services, we rely on the experts from our program staffs and the leadership at all levels of the agency, whether here in the Washington Office or out in the field.
How did you develop your legislative affairs skills?
I was fortunate to start on the staff at the same time as two other new employees. We relied a lot on each other and leaned heavily on the more experienced staff. Even after over two years on the job, I’m still constantly learning. The fact that no two days are exactly alike is a big part of what I love about the work.
Do you have any special interests or hobbies that you enjoy?
I love to travel. I always try to have a trip planned on the horizon. For me the anticipation and pre-trip research really is half the fun. When I’m not thinking about travel, I enjoy reading about current events, foreign policy, history and of course taking in the many cultural offerings here in the District. I still get a little thrill every morning that I walk up to the Yates Building, our headquarters building located on the National Mall, and see the Washington Monument.
Who has had the greatest influence on your life and why?
It would be impossible for me to narrow that down to one person. Of course my parents have always provided me with a wonderful example and unwavering support. Professionally, I have been very fortunate in my career to have had many positive influences, mentors and friends to guide me along the way. These interactions have steered me in directions I never anticipated.
Do you have any advice to young professionals who want to work in forestry?
Follow your curiosity and don’t worry too much if you don’t have a plan. I also make a point of encouraging young people to consider a career in federal service. Throughout my Forest Service career it’s been my pleasure to work with smart, dedicated people who are passionate about our mission. To me, that’s real public service.