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How One Forest Service Leader is Inspiring a New Generation

Posted by Krista Dooley at Jun 30, 2022 03:30 PM |

For over two decades, Aleta Eng has been working to connect people to public lands and inspiring the next generation of U.S. Forest Service leaders. As the partnership specialist for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Aleta has been thoughtful, innovative and creative in building a strong youth and community engagement program.

For over two decades, Aleta Eng has been working to connect people to public lands and inspiring the next generation of U.S. Forest Service leaders. As the partnership specialist for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Aleta has been thoughtful, innovative and creative in building a strong youth and community engagement program.

Aleta Eng at an event in 2017 with Latino Outdoors and InterIm WILD at Gold Creek Pond. Photo courtesy of Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
Aleta Eng at an event in 2017 with Latino Outdoors and InterIm WILD at Gold Creek Pond. Photo courtesy of Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The Lasting Impacts of Mentorship

Early in Aleta’s career, she had the good fortune to find a mentor in the USFS. As a college student in the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources (now the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences), Aleta met Jim Chu, biological scientist with USFS International Program, at an environmental careers event and he hired her as a USFS intern in 2001.

Although she started with limited field experience, Aleta still remembers that “Jim shared that I would gain the technical skills in time, but a foundation that includes strong work ethic and motivation to learn is fundamental.”

That first summer as an intern was transformative — Aleta experienced her first backpacking trip, firefighting assignment, wildlife survey work, trail restoration activities and salmon education interpretation. She appreciated the USFS staff who took the time to mentor and train her. Aleta soon realized she wanted to pursue a career with the U.S. Forest Service.

Over the years, Aleta has continued to use the advice from Jim Chu and others in her own mentorship opportunities and it shines through when former employees talk about their time working with Aleta.

“Aleta’s mentorship guided me towards establishing a personal connection first, learning about one another’s values and life experiences in order to find meaningful opportunities for collaboration, which is something that continues to inform how I approach community engagement,” said Kelsey Chun, the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie youth and community engagement coordinator from 2019-2021.  

“One thing I learned (and am still learning) from Aleta is the kind of passion and dedication it takes to build lasting relationships. She has cultivated partnerships with organizations over years — even decades — which I really admire.”

Another former employee, Casey Andrews, was the Seattle Every Kid in a Park Collaborative project coordinator from 2016-2018. Casey said that Aleta has had an impact on her life as a whole.

I continue to reach out to Aleta, well beyond my time on her team, for advice and mentorship as I continue in my career with the U.S. Forest Service,” she said. “I can only hope for the future up and coming U.S. Forest Service employees are able to find a mentor like Aleta.”

Aleta Eng, USFS partnership specialist, holds up a shard of Asian serving ware with a distinct bamboo pattern found during an archaeological exploration with the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Photo courtesy of Mt. Baker- Snoqualmie National Forest.
Aleta Eng, USFS partnership specialist, holds up a shard of Asian serving ware with a distinct bamboo pattern found during an archaeological exploration with the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Photo courtesy of Mt. Baker- Snoqualmie National Forest.

Innovative Partnerships

Aleta says that her personal experiences have guided her to develop intentional programs and innovative partnerships with communities through the U.S. Forest Service. She grew up in Seattle’s International District, where her family owned a small grocery store.   

“It has been a highlight of my career to connect community organizations based in the International District to public land experiences in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest,” she said. 

Since 2008, part of her work to form connections has been with the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, to preserve diverse cultural histories and narratives on public lands. In particular, she has been focusing on the experiences and contributions of Chinese and Japanese immigrants in mining and the railroad at locations near Monte Cristo on the National Forest.

“Through archaeological exploration, we have been able to uncover items including ceramic shards, a hair dye bottle, a rubber shoe, clam shells that helped to tell the story of their everyday lives,” she said.  

Her approach to community engagement also acknowledges that “all lands in present day Washington, including national forests, are the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples. As a trustee of national forest lands, the USFS has the honor to co-steward [these lands] with tribes. We are committed to recognizing Indigenous presence and history in relation to public lands and incorporating these narratives into our work with school groups, community organizations and the general public.”

Aleta Eng (center) and Kelsey Chun teach InterImWILD about how animals adapt to winter. Photo by Britt Le
Aleta Eng (center) and Kelsey Chun teach InterImWILD about how animals adapt to winter. Photo by Britt Lê

Inspiring the next generation

Through a variety of programs, Aleta explained her creative approach to engaging early career professionals. By partnering with several organizations and other agencies to create multiple intern coordinator positions within the last 10 years; the cohort of coordinators have engaged thousands of people in the Puget Sound area in culturally responsive outdoor opportunities. Aleta shared, “Each individual has come with tremendous passion, talent and creativity. The coordinators have the freedom to utilize the latest methods in program delivery, put their ideas into action and actively evaluate program impacts.”

“Our goal is to build an agency that represents the rich diversity of the communities we serve,” Aleta said. “I’m proud that seven coordinators have transitioned to permanent careers in the U.S. Forest Service!  They are in leadership and supervisory roles with the agency — building programs through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. They are changemakers moving the agency forward.”

It’s obvious from previous interns just how much the experience working with Aleta impacted the way they approach their work years later.  

“This approach of partnering with and centering community led organizations is at the core of my work today…so much so that in my new role I’ve been asked to replicate the community engagement program Aleta built on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie on the Olympic National Forest,” said Cori Rendon, the 2014 youth and community engagement coordinator.

“I think [Aleta] provided us all with not only confidence to highly prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion, but also the tools to do so,” Casey said.

“There is a delicate bridge to cross when outreaching to historically underrepresented populations as a government employee. You represent all the good and bad impacts that the government, as a whole, has had on a community. It takes sensitivity, being humble, and the ability to listen and learn to gain trust. Aleta taught us how to identify and employ our own personal strengths to make individual relationships with all community groups we were striving to work with. She also provided training to ensure we became aware of our own unconscious bias and worked on ourselves so that we could learn, grow and help connect all communities with their public lands.”

“I absolutely love my job and have the honor of supporting youth and community engagement programming in the Puget Sound region,” Aleta said. “I continue to be inspired by the efforts of USFS (staff, volunteers, interns), Tribes, and partners to preserve the legacy of public lands.”

Since WTA launched our youth programs in 2007, we have had the honor of collaborating with Aleta and many of the interns she has inspired over the years. We have seen the amazing work they have done to reduce barriers and increase access to get youth and communities outdoors to experience Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. We celebrate this work to truly make Trails (and Public Lands) for Everyone.

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