Marilyn Wildey, a hydrology technician with the Bitterroot National Forest, shared life lessons and career opportunities Friday with Hamilton Middle School eighth-grade students.
“I started my forestry-type career in college because of the television show ‘Lassie,’” Wildey said. “When I watched it as a kid I admired this forest ranger guy who had a collie dog and did all these cool things.”
She started at the bottom, building fences in the summers for the Forest Service. She loved it.
“We lived in a cabin and worked all day,” she said. “It was a dream job – we didn’t have power, or flushing toilets, and radio communication was emergency-only. We didn’t have television but brought books and our guitars.”
In college she kept working for the Forest Service every summer, and every year she liked it more.
Wildey became a teacher, but after a year of teaching in Guam she realized teaching was not for her and went full time with the Forest Service.
Wildey said if she had taken more difficult classes in college she could be earning $12,000 more per year.
“Don’t take the easy way out. Take more rigorous classes,” she said.
As a hydrology technician working in Sula, Wildey said she feels she has job security.
“There’s about a 10 percent chance that my job would be eliminated - budgets change,” she said. “But the nice thing about working for the Forest Service is they help you find another job.”
Students suggested things that happen in the National Forest; forest fires, timber sales, pollution, recreation.
“Every time we do a project in the National Forest we have to evaluate the effects on the land,” Wildey said. “The law on that is called the National Environmental Policy Act and was signed in 1970 by President Nixon. It assures that federal agencies consider environmental effects of actions and decisions.”
Wildey said she conducts many environmental analyses. She showed the students a two-page document for a simple project, a one-inch thick one about a timber sale, and a five-inch thick one of a bigger timber sale. A wide range of skills are used on local forest projects, which means it’s important to take a wide range of classes, including Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
“So, not only was it important that I took math classes but I had to pay attention in my English classes and learn to be a good writer,” she said. “I get to go into the forest and look at stream conditions, erosion sources and evaluate existing conditions of the landscape.”
She writes reports and works with a team to develop every project, then the forest supervisor decides on the project.
One student asked if they did an environmental analysis for Painted Rocks Lake. Wildey said probably not because the dam was built in 1930s – 40 years before NEPA.
“If they were to build that dam today, that environmental analysis would probably be three-feet thick,” she said.
Wildey said there are many types of jobs in the Forest Service. Her job is to ensure water quality and the best habitat for fish. Sediment is the biggest cause of pollution drastically affecting water quality. She works to stop erosion that causes sediments by planting shrubbery and stabilizing stream banks and roads.
She showed the students photographs of projects.
“A lot of my work is deciding which roads we may not need, then mitigating erosion,” she said. “Some roads are compacted and don’t allow the water to be absorbed.”
After a process with public comment and Forest Service decisions, her team returns the natural slope of the hill, de-compacts the road, and covers it with natural debris, fertilizer and seeds. That work prevents sediments from streams, which in turn protects native fish species.
Wildey said after each project her team reviews the work to determine if all goals were accomplished.
“There’s a really great resource of public land out there that we can all go out and enjoy,” she said. “It is important for us to remember we have the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states. We should take advantage of it. It extends from north of Stanley to north of Highway 12.”
She said she enjoys being in the forest and appreciates the views.
“My life as a hydrologist is always challenging and I always have to learn something new,” she said. “If you’re interested in the outdoors consider it, because it is a great life.”
Wildey said her favorite part of her job is the people she works with.
“Everyone wants to keep the National Forest a great place and we have a common goal,” she said.