Self-analysis, courage to change and developing one’s leadership skills are the guided footsteps that Vaughan Marable decided to follow as he has blazed his trail in the Forest Service. He has worked for the agency nearly 27 years but feels like it was just yesterday when he began his varied career on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington as a cooperative education student before becoming a wildlife biologist for the agency.
He has also served as a district ranger, an acting civil rights director, an acting deputy forest supervisor, and currently serves as a national budget coordinator in the agency’s Washington Office. Add in some of his hobbies and interests - reading, socializing, biking, and time with family - and you’ll find a well-groomed trail for balancing life, the inevitable challenges and career growth.
How did you begin your Forest Service career?
During my junior year in 1986 at Humboldt State University in northern California, I heard about a cooperative education program, which involved working for the Forest Service while pursuing a degree. I was accepted into the program and worked a couple of seasons before graduating with degrees in wildlife management and environmental biology. After graduation, I accepted a permanent full-time position. My training included multiple two-week stints working with various programs on the ranger district which offered broad exposure to the agency’s mission. So while I studied wildlife management and biology, the agency provided me with an opportunity to witness how various uses occur on the national forests and grasslands through timber harvest, mineral removal, recreation activities, and other special land uses.
It was the variety of activities that caught my eye including the administrative side. Through the coop-ed program I developed a good understanding of what the agency was about and how the programs and departments interacted with one another to achieve goals at all levels of the organization.
What was your next step?
I spent 12 years on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, starting in the late 80s and was hired under the “get ahead” program. The forest was developing a “shelf stock” of forest stands that had analysis completed and were therefore ready for harvest. Additional resource specialists were hired to help complete this process. However within four or five years, the employment outlook switched from increasing the staff size to downsizing as a number of animal species were proposed for listing as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, including the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest. So as a series of reorganizations ensued, the running joke became if you stayed around long enough you might find your position no longer funded.
At the time I had a young family, was comfortable working on the forest, and was not looking for career development opportunities. I had thoughts of staying on the district and at some point possibly finishing my career as the forest’s wildlife biologist. As I should have suspected, my position eventually was unfunded. The “surplussing” process included matching skills to positions elsewhere within the agency. I was matched with a position on the Buffalo Gap Grassland in South Dakota. However, wanting to be proactive in my next placement, I found a month-long temporary assignment on the Olympic National Forest. Subsequently, a position as the district wildlife biologist for theHood Canal Ranger District became vacant. I applied, was selected, and actually received a promotion. I cannot imagine a better outcome from being in an unfunded position: taking personal responsibility of the circumstance and then being promoted to a new position!
How did you develop your leadership skills?
When I served as the district wildlife biologist, the district ranger recognized qualities in me that I had not. That led to various discussions on career development opportunities. With his recommendation, I attended the middle leadership program in the Pacific Northwest Region and after completing the program started taking on more staff responsibilities. My interest in the administrative side of the agency and line positions increased and I began applying for ranger positions with the support of the forest supervisor, another mentor.
Midway through my career I kept hearing about a coming surge of retirements. People I’d begun my career with as well as mentors and leaders were retiring and moving on. So the leadership classes helped me with the self-analysis, and finding the inner strength to take on more leadership challenges.
In my next position as the district ranger on to the Wenatchee River Ranger District in Leavenworth, Wash., on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest I found one of if not the biggest challenge in my career. I found myself addressing complex issues: How do I operate when you don’t have all the information, and feel overwhelmed especially when many things are happening all at once and are outside your realm of control? That job was exposing all my strengths and weaknesses. But it also helped me understand how to grow outside my comfort zone. This agency has many opportunities to test your growth and help one develop as a leader. It is hard to believe that at one time I would have been satisfied to remain in the place that I started.
What are your responsibilities in your current position as a budget coordinator?
I’m part of a team that develops our budget program. My areas of specialty are the range management, vegetation ecology, and forest management staff areas. Basically, this involves a two-part process: helping to develop the agency’s yearly appropriation requests for Congressional approval and then implementing the congressionally approved funds to Forest Service regions.
Our budget request forecasts how the agency will operate to meet our mission. Once the agency receives an appropriation, I help determine the funding levels in my assigned programs for each of the agency’s nine regions, which helps us meet our national goals.
What are the unique challenges of your job?
My number one challenge is working in a fast paced environment where answers have to be made almost instantaneously without having all the information available that you believe you need. You think about ramifications – about whether the people who work on a district will be able to finish a project or how funding will affect project scheduling. You are looking for balance – enough information to get the job done right and avoid unforeseen consequences.
You have to keep the ball moving, be cooperative, build and rely on teamwork and seek the most accurate information possible. A good attitude, being able to relax and seeking balance is key.
Do you have any special interests or hobbies that you enjoy?
I enjoy being outdoors and being active. I’m an avid cyclist and have participated in an organized tandem ride in Boston, Mass. and New York City. When the weather is good, I commute by bike and ride on the weekends also. At one time, I was an avid runner but since I want to walk when I’m 70, I’ve cut back on the running. The opportunity to experience both the cultural and natural history in any location is fun and I’m taking advantage of that here on the East Coast.
Who has had the greatest influence on your life and why?
My mom and my dad. Both my parents did a tremendous amount of work to keep our family together. I am honored to have both as my parents. Since my father was in the Navy, he was typically gone six months at a time during various deployments. So for extended periods my mother carried the weight of the family as a military wife. I have three other siblings so for her to keep the family together was pretty impressive - holding a job when we were older, making sure we were well cared for, and teaching us good values. She did it all for us. I have a lot of respect for both of them.
This is Black History Month. How significant is it that we recognize this celebration?
We say black history but this is a central part of American history too and I think it is a part that we cannot lose sight of. Everything that has happened both good and bad has molded us and made us the society that we are today.
There are some issues that we are dealing with as a society that involve questions of how we see and value one another – as one nation. I am hopeful that we can see ourselves as individuals united in one country with an understanding of what each of us has endured to reach where we are today.
To me, observing Black History Month is to acknowledge the good and bad of the past and move forward to a better future.