Nancy Lankford is a Forest Service employee with more than 34 years of federal service who believes she has just gotten her second wind when it comes to her job. One of her career highlights involved assisting research work on Pacific yew tree bark, an activity that has serendipitously benefitted her as well as many other medical patients.
How did your Forest Service career begin?
I began my career working my first summer out of high school as a volunteer wilderness ranger, at the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area in Darrington, Washington, which is part of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualime National Forest. My entire career has been in the Northwest with my early years working with the Youth Conservation Corps program as a crew leader teaching environmental education programs. I started my permanent career through a cooperative education intern program with the Umatilla National Forest while studying silviculture in college. My first full-time job on the forest involved working primarily in silviculture and timber. But working on small districts you do a little bit of everything so I also worked on fire as well as range assignments.
Then I moved to the Mount Hood National Forest as a tree improvement coordinator working on forest lands to maximize growth for timber production. I also became the forest’s Pacific yew harvest coordinator.
What is a Pacific yew harvest coordinator?
Well, it’s a pretty incredible story. Back in the early 1990s, we were finding out that the Pacific yew tree may have cancer fighting properties. Many people know about the ornamental yew trees in their yard. In Europe, they have big gardens of yew trees which they use to form dense hedges and then clip to create great mazes.
Here in the Northwest, we have native trees that grow in the understory of our forest. It’s a very slow growing tree, but research suggested the bark had the potential to be used as a cancer fighting drug. The Forest Service entered into a program with a major pharmaceutical company to harvest yew bark for further study and research.
The National Cancer Institute used the yew bark for research and clinical trials to develop a cancer fighting drug. That information helped develop the taxane anti-cancer agent in certain drugs which is used frequently today. I was fortunate to be in charge of both our harvesting and developing conservation guidelines for this remarkable tree.
The story has come full circle because a couple of years ago, I was the recipient of one of those drugs as I went through a journey with breast cancer.
You literally worked on the trees that ended up yielding your life saving medicine?
Yes, it helped to save my life. The whole connection to the medical community is not something I usually do. We’re the Forest Service and we typically grow trees. And that is still probably one of my more rewarding jobs over the years because I helped start the whole program from ground zero. I got to go out in the woods and work while contractors were harvesting the bark and helped develop conservation guidelines. I also served as a technical witness in Congress while they were developing some legislation regarding the yew tree
The program met a lot of criticism because the yew is a very slow growing tree and those operations wouldn’t have been sustainable over the long term. The whole idea was to do the research and clinical trials for the drug companies to figure out how to synthesize the drug or make a semi-synthetic product. It was actually set up to just be a short-term program. Fortunately, within just a few years, they were able to determine how to create the product in a sustainable way.
What was the next step in your career?
I worked in silviculture for many years. After my cancer journey, the transition was a little hard because I did not know what I wanted to do next. Then my dream job of a natural resources and planning staff officer opened up. I applied and was selected. I have this incredible job with a staff of 25 people; 10 of whom I supervise. I’m continuing to learn so much about natural resources with my fantastic team of people and it seems like I’ve gotten my second wind. I’m in more of an office setting, but consistently trying to find ways to get out in the woods more.
At a young age, did you like the forest or the outdoors?
Actually, I grew up in a more suburban environment in Bellevue, Washington, but as a child, we would always take day hikes or go to the San Juan Islands. In high school, I started backpacking and mountain climbing and joined the Seattle Mountaineers and began to find this whole new world out there. And yes, every weekend I was backpacking or climbing. I so enjoyed the outdoors and mountains that I volunteered as a wilderness ranger once I graduated. That love carried into my early college life where I enrolled into some forest resources courses and never looked back. The rest is history and I’m still at it.
Do you have hobbies outside of hugging and loving trees?
I pretty much love anything outdoors, like running, skiing, swimming, camping and hiking with friends. I’ve done a half-marathon and I’ve participated in a relay race called Hood to Coast. It starts at Timber Line Lodge on Mt. Hood with a group of 12 runners. The group runs essentially 200 miles to the coast, with each participant completing anywhere from 4 to 8-mile sections, handing off to the next relay person until a van of six participants is complete. Then, the next van of six completes the relay to the finish line. Everyone gets rest in between and you travel all night long. My team is slow, so it takes us about 32 hours to complete. Our group generally each runs three times each within the rotation. This is my 10th year racing and I have a goal of running all 12 different sets of legs. You complete the race at the beach and then its rest and party time -- if you can still move.
I’m also involved in the Clackamas County 4-H Camp. My oldest daughter is the co-director of the camp and my youngest daughter helps run the dining hall. My children grew up going to this camp and now we all are part of managing the camp. A week-long summer program, we grew to 130 children last year which is our highest number to-date. We try to get the campers hooked on the outdoors by doing basic camp things: horseback riding, crafts, skits, singing, swimming, canoeing, crafts, and hopefully start them on the path to life-changing experiences. We offer grants and scholarship monies in hope of preventing Nature Deficit Disorder.
What one thing are you most proud of - either work or personal?
Well, I think, the 4-H camp is near and dear to my heart, in part because my two daughters, who are 29 and 27, essentially run the camp and then they asked me to participate. I really enjoy doing this for the campers, but also working with my daughters. It’s a small core group and we train and teach the counselors in leadership skills all winter long. It's a heartwarming and rewarding experience.
On the work side, I’ve already shared the particular story that is very dear to me and my life. Right now, I’m so proud of the work that the natural resource professionals are doing and so honored to have the pleasure to work with and continue to learn from.
If there was one word to describe you, what do you think it would be?
Well, the most important words would be passionate and vigilant. I am very passionate in everything that I do and to have vigilance with your health screenings and listen to your body. Because, regardless of genetics, there’s too high of a percentage of women getting breast cancer, but if you catch it early, it’s very treatable. I’m very thankful that mine was detected early and through that adventure, I have met so many women who were at more advanced stages. Using taxane - containing drugs did help many and I’m honored to have had a small part in that.
Last question, what do you like about working for the Forest Service?
It has been an incredible trail to travel. There is always such a variety of things to do. I’ve done things in my career that I would have never dreamed of. And the people and resources we work with are amazing. At times, it’s just plain fun such as having the opportunity to hike up on Timberline Trail to help collect cones of the white bark pine tree to help restore that species. You take a moment and say “wow, I get paid to do this.”