Nita Wornom says she has 30 years of the best kind of federal service – working with the U.S. Forest Service. For the past 12 years, she has worked as an equal employment specialist working primarily on the human dynamic side of the Forest Service. She helps people understand the agency’s civil rights program and their roles and responsibilities. She currently works in the Pacific Northwest Region’s civil rights office in Portland, Ore. During her first 18 years, she served in timber, fire and seasonal work field offices across the country. Her career has also involved engineering, business operations, purchasing, trails, recreation/recreation planning and special use administration duties. A forester by trade, she has worked in three Forest Service regions and seven national forests, has worked 11 stints as a seasonal employee and has weathered three unplanned agency furloughs. Nita Wornom knows how to experience seasons – of many, many kinds.
You’ve certainly experienced a variety of jobs. Which one was the most fun?
Well, I’d have to say working as a special-use permit administrator on the White Mountain National Forest in Gorham, N.H. Living and working in New England was a huge cultural experience for me. I relished every day I had there. I learned so much from local communities on how to respect people. They taught me that their public land was extremely important to them and that relationships with public land managers were integral to their way of life.
The forest is stunning both in beauty and history. At every corner of that forest is a new piece of history or culture waiting to be explored and known. I will never forget the landscapes of trees, flora, granite, and water and how they all blend with one another to create an awe-inspiring experience.
I wore my uniform everyday on the White Mountain and was proud to be seen in it. The White Mountain has something for everyone any time of year. There are tons of trails to hike on, ski areas, hut-to-hut hiking, solitude and serenity if one chooses to be away from it all. And those trees in the fall…. it’s like watching paint-by-numbers unfold in front of you. No one need go anywhere else to learn first-hand the power and beauty of nature.
What does a special use permit administrator do?
We work with partners to deliver recreation services to the public through a permit system. For instance, a large, non-profit has a permit to operate huts in the forest that the public can enjoy for their outings. It is my responsibility to make sure they are following the stated guidelines of the permit by giving the public what they need and want while ensuring their safety.
Another large area of my work duties involved ski areas. As a ski area permit administrator, I put on my forest service uniform, slap on my purple skis, enjoy the great outdoors and go skiing, and I even get paid for it! Since most of the ski areas in the nation are on national forests, our job is to ensure that the permit is being adhered to. A permit is like a contract, but more partnership/relationship building than an actual contract.
As a child, did you know that you wanted to work outdoors?
I knew when I was eight years old what I wanted to do, probably before that actually, so I just set my sights on it. I grew up on the outskirts of theLos Padres National Forest in California. Known as the Central Coast, it served as my backyard. So I played, hiked, camped, fished – anything I could do to stay outdoors.
I was captivated with all of the Forest Service employees who would drive up in a green pickup with a green uniform on, and I knew then that’s what I was going to do. I had the opportunity to start fulfilling that dream when I was in the Youth Conservation Corps on the Olympic National Forest in Washington State back in the day. I got to spend a summer “testing the waters”, then went to college, and then worked summers for the Forest Service in the West.
I was then fortunate to become a permanent employee in a business operations position at the most remote duty station in the Pacific Northwest Region. I was hoping to find something more related to natural resources, but I started as a resource assistant. It was cool because I’ve just been living the dream. I’ve been able to put on and step out in the Forest Service uniform and serve the public in meaningful ways.
You can be anything you want to be, and I have literally done almost everything. And it’s because the opportunity was there and there was support to chase the dream.
Why do your coworkers describe you as interesting?
Well, I always wear rose-colored glasses and view things optimistically. Maybe people say that because I’m not average in that I don’t follow a set pattern. I’m not a follower. I’m a leader. I don’t think in a box, and I look for ways to expand our mission and outreach. I am extremely resourceful and find connections that make the world more connected.
Let’s take the Girl Scouts as an example. We maintain a national permit with the Girls Scouts of America so I’m always thinking of how the group could support the Forest Service as well as the public. I look for connections with conservation education programs and/or camping experiences and how to leverage these activities for more exposure and getting people involved in the great outdoors. It’s really easy for me to see angles and just run with them; make them something more than what most people would see them as. I don’t color within the lines. I’ll put it that way.
What were your favorite books, movies or singers?
I was and continue to be an avid reader. I remember reading “Where the Red Fern Grows,” which I read over and over. In fact, I read it to my classmates in fifth grade. I was struck by the story and the connection it made to the environment with emotion. It’s a story about a little boy who was disadvantaged, but worked really, really hard for two or three years to get two hound puppies. There was a lesson in that story that I remember today – work hard toward what you want and it will help you to realize your dreams. I wouldn’t say I was really influenced by any movies, but I was influenced by John Denver a lot. His song lyrics are so related to nature, and I was a big nature kid.
If you could have dinner with some famous people from history, who would they be and why?
Abraham Lincoln would top my list. Andrew Jackson would also be there; then Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Keller. I have to reach back in TV time also to the Shirley Temple movies. I’m still pretty gaga over Shirley Temple even today. After all these years, she’s continued to be someone I look up to. She still makes a difference in human rights in the world. I felt the influence with that kind of example, how people touched other people’s lives and paved a way forward at a very young age. I was influenced by people like that. I didn’t know at the time how I could ever be like them, but I certainly looked up to people like that.
What was the happiest day in your professional career?
I think I’ll go back to the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire for one of my happiest days. I was the lead on the restoration of a Civilian Conservation Corps picnic pavilion, the Dolly Coppon on the Androscoggin Ranger District. We spent a couple of months on pre-work; locating resources, finding partners and determining cost. When everything fell into place with the rebuilding it made so many people happy in the community, it galvanized a polarized community in the City of Gorham in New Hampshire. It was a huge accomplishment and it was an amazing project. It gave me a real lift both professionally and personally. I met so many wonderful people that I continue to stay in touch with today from that one project.
In fact, when I left the forest in 1997, I had only been there for three years. The City of Gorham was not very happy with the Forest Service at the time because the picnic pavilion had to be closed due to disrepair and structural issues. But the completion of that project restored so many memories and relationships for people in the community. At my going away party, I was so touched when the City of Gorham presented me with a gift for my work on that project.
Is there something that most people might not know about you?
Well, I grow my own hops and make my own beer. I like to garden, but because of bugs, weeds and so much rain, I haven’t been able to get a lot to grow here in Portland. I am a farm girl at heart and used to raise pigs, chickens, and turkeys and had a huge garden, but since I moved here to Portland, I have a small flower and vegetable garden since I’m on a city lot now.
How would you like to be remembered?
Probably number one in my mind would be paving the way for other women in the organization; paving the way for people who aren’t like everybody else because I’m not. I hope that some of the things that I worked on have contributed to a culture of more acceptance and embracing than not. I’m living my dream and don’t have any regrets at all. I went kicking and screaming several times when I was furloughed but it ended up being the best thing for me both personally and professionally.
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location and a bit about to Faces of the Forest.