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A Black Woman Who Tried To Survive In The Dark, White Forest

The Forest Service's first African-American woman forester reflects on sexual assault, justice denied, and racism in one of the country’s premier land management agencies

Melody Mobley and her "angel pup," Raina
Melody Mobley and her "angel pup," Raina
I still love the U.S. Forest Service. 


Actually, I should qualify that: as an American woman of color who has had a lifelong passion for ecology and conserving natural resources, I love the idea of the Forest Service. I love its unrealized potential.

It’s the institution  I have a problem with, how it has failed to live up to what Gifford Pinchot, the agency’s first chief forester, described as the Forest Service’s ethos: delivering “the greatest good to the greatest number of people for the longest time.”

I am certain that a large percentage of Americans aren’t familiar with what the Forest Service is, and that a small percentage of non-whites could ever imagine going to work for it. I find this most disappointing. 

You see, once upon a time, I believed the agency was sincere in its stated desire to be more welcoming of people not traditionally well represented in its ranks.

Everywhere we turn on social media these days, there are activist memes such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. They are supposed to represent the forward push of progress in breaking down barriers of exclusion and inequality.

I am writing this piece for Mountain Journal because readers need to know the hashtags are just slogans unless you can put a human face to them. Long before the public became aware of abuses in federal agencies, many people carried on struggles that might seem unfathomable to young people. 

I speak from experience. Yes, we hear a lot of talk about how government land management agencies like the Forest Service and National Park Service need to reflect the true diversity of our country. It’s the only way, after all, to guarantee public lands are perceived as relevant to Americans beyond those who have most benefitted. 

Half my life ago, I trusted in that vision. My perspective was born of idealism but it is tainted by a harsh reality that still exists. It makes people feel uncomfortable to talk about. My own agency remains in denial. It’s why I’ve chosen to title this piece “A Black Woman Who Tried To Survive In the Dark, White Forest.”

° ° °

In 1977, I was hired by the Forest Service as the first Black female professional forester in the history of the agency. It started with a summer internship. In 1979, I was the first African-American woman to graduate in forest management from the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. Throughout my 28-year Forest Service career, I was typically the first Black woman to do this or that because there were so few of us.  

I only wish those achievements were as auspicious and positively trailblazing as they sound.

While still in college, I entered a Forest Service training program and took jobs as a seasonal employee. During my second summer, as a 20-year-old, I was sexually assaulted by a colleague while staying in a Forest Service bunkhouse in Skykomish, Washington, a town surrounded by the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.  I was too afraid to report it, even though there was a witness.
During my second summer, as a 20-year-old, I was sexually assaulted by a colleague while staying in a Forest Service bunkhouse in Skykomish, Washington.  I was too afraid to report it, even though there was a witness.
Women in general had it hard to be treated with respect in those days. The Forest Service, like the military, has always been notoriously sexist, especially with its field jobs. Women were often objectified and condescended to by men. Being a woman of color was doubly jarring and because I was isolated and had no peers offering mutual support, I apparently represented a vulnerable target for my assailant.

Looking back, I realize my mere presence made people feel uncomfortable and it wasn’t long before their own insecurities expressed themselves in various forms.  The summer of my rape in Skykomish represented a shattering of innocence and the indescribable enthusiasm I had for wanting to make a positive ripple in the world.

White males may never appreciate what I am taking about. Townspeople in Skykomish treated me as an “other”; they made it clear they thought the Forest Service was no place for someone like me. “What is this African-American woman [they used harsher language than that] doing here?” 
White males may never appreciate what I am taking about. Townspeople in Skykomish treated me as an “other”; they made it clear they thought the Forest Service was no place for someone like me. “What is this African-American woman [they used harsher language than that] doing here?” 
Rumors circulated and I have no idea how they originated. I learned that people in town accused me behind my back of luring their husbands to engage in inappropriate behavior while working in the woods. As far as the rape, I really had no one I could confide in. 

My mother had died from cancer when I was 15. I didn’t want to tell my grandmother who was also sick at the time and protective; she would’ve insisted that I immediately quit and come home.

I knew that managers would never believe me.  As a survival mechanism, I tried to bury the psychological pain and I vowed that no one would make me quit because I was unwilling to give up my dream.

In the Forest Service there’s an unofficial slogan which has bred a mentality deeply rooted in the agency’s inability to change. The slogan has to do with never making waves, never saying something your supervisor doesn’t want to hear, that you must “go along in order to get along.” 

Smart, wide-eyed and innocent, Melody Mobley, was euphoric about becoming the Forest Service's first-ever Black woman forester.  This photo was featured in a special brochure promoting diversity and it was taken around the same time Mobley was sexually attacked.
Smart, wide-eyed and innocent, Melody Mobley, was euphoric about becoming the Forest Service's first-ever Black woman forester. This photo was featured in a special brochure promoting diversity and it was taken around the same time Mobley was sexually attacked.
I’ve heard that women in various branches of the military and the National Park Service similarly have had to accept abuse if they wanted to move up. When it comes to sexual assault, you never “get over it.” It’s something you think would never happen at work.  It affects your ability to trust in other people. The incident was so traumatic that it continued to affect the way I thought about myself and how I interrelated with others. 

For the most part, I smiled at the slurs and insults, kept my mouth shut. And I rose up the ranks as a prized minority, but anxiety was building inside. I resented the submissive box I was placed inside. 

Finally, in 1996, 19 years after the incident in the bunkhouse and following encouragement from a few women friends, I decided to disclose the assault to the agency.  

I told my senior managers and those in human resources what happened and who the perpetrator was, even the name of the person who witnessed it. Nothing really became of it; in fact, precisely the opposite; I was thereafter considered a person making trouble.
Everybody knew about the abuses women endured, but nobody would stop it. I was told to keep quiet or my career would end.
I’m hardly the only woman in the Forest Service who was sexually assaulted. Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with other women. There are stories about some of the abusers being people in top leadership positions. At a professional conference, a fairly well known senior manager from another agency, a married family man, approached me and put his hands on my breasts.

Everybody knew about the abuses women endured, but nobody would stop it. I was told to keep quiet or my career would end.

° ° °

So here I should answer your question because I’m asked it often: if such things were happening, why didn’t I just leave?

Why do any of us stay in jobs?

Do you remember those first sparks as a teenager when it dawned on you what you could possibly become, how you were told that you can anything as long as you work hard and apply yourself? Teachers told me I was smart and had a scientific mind. They encouraged me.

Science, using facts and data to better understand how things fit together, is my great passion in life. 

I was born in 1958, in Louisville, Kentucky, a large, metropolitan area.  My mother, Coarvaedda Sawyers Mobley, would take us out in the woods in her 1963 Ford Falcon on weekends to explore and relax. I was always excited to leave the city and play in nature. I especially loved animals and seeing wildlife thrilled me. It still does. I fished as a girl and caught frogs and crawfish and watched birds and hiked and slept under the stars without a tent.

Like many reading this, I watched those National Geographic television specials featuring Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau. I learned about grizzly bears in Yellowstone and the research of the Craigheads.

In the last year before I became a teen, I celebrated the first Earth Day at my middle school.  Someone once told me that I could do anything I wanted, and I daydreamed about becoming a ranger or a biologist.  When my first year of college arrived, I studied zoology at the University of Louisville but hearing that the big animals were in the West, I transferred to the University of Washington to study wildlife management.    
Lyle Laverty was an early advocate who recruited Mobley into the Forest Service out of college. He was a district ranger on the Baker-Snoqualmie Forest at the time Mobley was raped. She never felt comfortable seeking his help. Later, Laverty rose to top positions at Interior and Agriculture and was reportedly a candidate to become Forest Service chief in the Trump Administration.
Lyle Laverty was an early advocate who recruited Mobley into the Forest Service out of college. He was a district ranger on the Baker-Snoqualmie Forest at the time Mobley was raped. She never felt comfortable seeking his help. Later, Laverty rose to top positions at Interior and Agriculture and was reportedly a candidate to become Forest Service chief in the Trump Administration.
The Wildlife Management program was taught at the university’s College of Forest Resources.  My first fall in Seattle I attended a Society of American Foresters meeting. There, I met professional forester, Lyle Laverty, who became a personal champion of sorts. He was instrumental in ensuring that the Forest Service offer me a position in their Cooperative Education program. 

This program was perfect for me because it secured a permanent job with the Forest Service once I graduated. But to participate I had to switch my major to Forest Management.  The Forest Service, I was told, desperately wanted to find and groom its first Black female forester. It would send a signal. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Forest Management and achieved what appeared to be a win-win for both me and the agency. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Click here to read a profile of Mobley in the UW alumni magazine].

There were some who thought I didn’t deserve to have a job. Because the Forest Service is typically located in remote areas, I often felt like I was living in a fish bowl with few, if any, other people of color. It was unnerving never being able to be anonymous or private, especially as a young woman. 

My preferred place of worship was not available. There was no one within distance of public transportation who “did Afro hair.”  In Skykomish there was not even a grocery store and I did not own a vehicle. 

People who owned cars rarely reached out to help me meet my needs although white colleagues were regularly loaned vehicles by the locals.  Myths about the inability of women and people of color to do forestry work were also pervasive.  

I have heard it stated that “Black people don’t go into the forest” because we allegedly associate it with terror, either out of fear of nature or the history of white lynch mobs that acted with impunity in the South and other rural places. 
I have heard it stated that “Black people don’t go into the forest” because we allegedly associate it with terror, either out of fear of nature or the history of white lynch mobs that acted with impunity in the South and other rural places. 
The former is an erroneous cultural construct meant to suggest that Blacks do not see a place for themselves or feel comfortable in nature inside or outside of cities; the latter may hold some degree of truth but it too is used to derogatorily stereotype an entire group of people. 

I felt at home in nature. During my childhood it was imprinted upon me as a refuge. It was a place where I could be me. When you are in the outdoors, where the natural world does not exert prejudice, you feel free.

Back in the Forest Service offices, that was never the case. I take pride in the fact that I was tasked with important assignments and became part of very talented teams. We worked on a national watershed assessment system for the Forest Service. Did you know that national forests represent catchment areas for rain and snow that are the source of clean drinking water for more than 60 million people? While working in Denver and other cities nationwide, I also worked with state and local foresters as a consultant in devising strategies for sustainable forest management. I have fond memories of traveling through forests of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
During my childhood it was imprinted upon me as a refuge. It was a place where I could be me. When you are in the outdoors, where the natural world does not exert prejudice, you feel free.
I will never forget the look of surprise whenever I walked into a room. My credentials were routinely challenged by my colleagues and supervisors.  I was usually the only person of color and often the only woman at meetings and training sessions.  

° ° °

In a recent essay for Mountain Journal, former Forest Service wilderness specialist Susan Marsh described what she called “the Forest Service’s good old boy” culture. Her story really resonated with me. Not long after her story appeared, Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke resigned amid reports of inappropriate behavior with subordinates. The agency, flooded with reports of abuses throughout its ranks, announced it was starting a new program called 
Stand Up For Each Other" in the wake of a special report on sexual misconduct in the Forest Service which aired on PBS NewsHour.

I applaud the effort. Let’s see if it has positive impact. But it isn’t only a problem of sexism, sexual misconduct and misogyny in the Forest Service and Park Service but racial prejudice, too. 

I heard many times over the years that “Black women are only good for one thing” and they weren’t talking about forestry work or compiling ecological inventories. 

As I moved up, I was given different assignments that took me across several western states to Florida, South America, Africa and collaborations with the Smithsonian, World Wildlife Fund and National Zoo. I even joined law enforcement, while armed with a semiautomatic rifle, during a crackdown on illegal marijuana growers in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest of Nevada.

Racism abounded in a variety of forms—forms that may seem invisible to others. In the Washington D.C. Office, a colleague who worked in Information Technology once hit me so hard with his fist that I fell into a partition and fractured a vertebra in my spine. It was I who got blamed because I held my ground in a discussion we were having. I was given a “Letter of Caution” for “causing an employee to lose his temper.”  

Mobley toting a semi-automatic rifle while on a team to locate illegal marijuana growers on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada.
Mobley toting a semi-automatic rifle while on a team to locate illegal marijuana growers on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada.
There were many subtle and not so subtle incidents. Another time, a woman I supervised in the Washington Office assaulted me with a book cart. I got no assistance from the Forest Service so I called the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police and the incident was labelled a simple assault. It did not endear me to management. The attacker, meanwhile, soon received a promotion. 

In my last position with the Forest Service, my director said she felt physically threatened by me during our many discussions, some of them contentious. 

Just me being Black made her nervous.  It was so similar to the story we have all heard about a woman suddenly clutching her purse on an elevator when there are no other passengers and a Black male enters. 

I remember administering a timber sale contract on the Seminole Ranger District in Eustis, Florida, and having the contractor say they were “working like niggers” when I casually asked how things were going, and having my colleagues, whom I supervised, laugh.  I think they expected me to laugh along.  Would you if you had been me?

It was during these times, when I was at my lowest, I took strength in the fact that I am a spiritual person. My relationship with God kept me going when others, by their words and actions, sent a message that being Black is lesser. I told myself as a young woman and sincerely believed that “God does not make junk,” that I would never truly be alone, and “if God is with us, who can succeed against us?”

Skin color does not always guarantee like-mindedness, friendship or support.  In 1996, when I had finally reached my limit in tolerating discrimination based on my race, gender, and age and filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, it was my Black brothers and sisters inside civil service who were afraid to be seen with or associate with me in public because of the stigma associated with filing complaints and the retaliation and reprisal that comes with it. 

I understood, but it taught me a valuable lesson I have never forgotten.  My real friends stood with me, and they were predominantly white.  

One could say that they could afford to stand with me because they generally had higher grade levels within the agency and more power and authority.  They could withstand most retribution.  But, they chose to support me and even helped protect me from some of the punishment that would come my way for speaking out against discrimination.  This is the only kind of courage that can bring real change when doing the right thing means possessing color blindness. And it applies to administrations run by both Republicans and Democrats.

I learned a painful lesson in hypocrisy too.  A member of senior management who tried to dismiss the issues I raised in one of my complaints (a panel ultimately ruled in my favor) later received a cash award for outstanding leadership, with one of the criterions used to assess his performance as having to do with his alleged promotion of “civil rights.”

° ° °  

One individual can’t prevail over a bureaucracy or institutionalized attitudes or a culture that is averse to change. I told myself that if I chose my battles and developed a thick skin I could persevere.

I always tried to prepare myself for the next assignment, be the best and the brightest so that no one could claim I was merely a token Black female hired to broaden their employment profile.  I convinced myself I was retained and promoted because my work was exemplary. I knew my science and was articulate. 
Mobley after conducting a survey of forest health and watersheds. Photo courtesy the author
Mobley after conducting a survey of forest health and watersheds. Photo courtesy the author
Many point to the esprit de corps of the Forest Service. It does exist; still, I always longed for a community. I did not like moving around the nation about every 1.5 years and being isolated in towns with populations as low as 100 people, but I knew that being knowledgeable about a wide range of ecoregions would give me broader expertise that many of my colleagues did not possess.

I knew that as a lower grade, entry level employee I had little power or influence within the agency; but years later, as a GS-14 (then salary $114,000 annually) in senior management responsible for national programs, I knew that, only then, could I successfully file credible formal complaints.

I had no “skeletons in my closet” but the sexual assault action was treated as betraying the reputation of the Forest Service and it left me stigmatized.  The agency, as much as it wanted, could not easily get rid of me. 

Because I didn’t keep my mouth shut, opportunities for reaching GS-15 were stymied. Work assignments were taken away and given to other staff members.  Eventually, I negotiated a work-at-home agreement based on two federally-recognized disabilities—forms of post-traumatic stress disorder— that doctors certified were directly related to being in a hostile work environment for a sustained period. But work at home was cancelled.

In 2005, at age 46, I retired with full benefits.

° ° °

Sometimes, I am still overcome with emotion and grief.

On the day of my sexual assault, it was early evening. Another woman and I were staying in a bunkhouse normally reserved for firefighters. I had my own room. It was just the two of us. I had settled in after spending a day in the field working with a timber crew. My door was suddenly forced open. My assailant, who was part of a recreation crew, burst in and shut the door as the other woman sat at a desk outside.

He slapped me across the face and violently threw me down, trying to rip my clothes off. I was fighting and screaming, asking him, “Why are you doing this to me?” I yelled for help. None arrived. He hit me again. I had been a virgin.

After the attack, he left and I staggered to my feet, looking myself in the mirror. My face was badly swollen, my lip bloody from him slapping and biting me. I had bruises on my legs where he kicked and kneed me. I hobbled out of the room and the woman who heard what had happened said, “Well, sounded like you had a good time.”  

She had heard me screaming for help. She saw my torn clothes and my bruised body and when she realized what had really happened, she turned away. 
For the rest of the summer, I saw my assailant. Once, I confronted him and asked him why? He smiled and gave a crude reply, knowing there was nothing I could do. It was the epitome of powerlessness.
Again, prior to the attack, I had never had sex with anyone. I was never interested in sex and at college I focused on trying to get good grades to insure I’d get hired by the Forest Service. I’ve spent years in therapy trying to deal with chronic floods of depression caused by being brutally violated. I had dreams of one day having a family but it has been difficult for me to have relationships with men. I carry guilt and shame, wondering if I wasn’t tough enough to stop it.

For the rest of the summer, I saw my assailant. Once, I confronted him and asked him why? He smiled and gave a crude reply, knowing there was nothing I could do. It was the epitome of powerlessness.

Almost two decades later, after I reported the incident, two investigators with the Forest Service showed up at my house. In 2005, they said the statute of limitations in Washington State had not expired but they couldn’t find my assailant. They told me that if I wanted to pursue it more I could hire a private detective who might be able to do a better job of tracking the perpetrator down and that if I wanted justice I would have to pursue it as a civil matter. 

° ° °
So, where am I today?

I’d like to share with you a few things I learned along the way.

I love the Forest Service. The majority of its employees are good people.  And, I am grateful for the life lessons my career afforded me. I only hope that by my actions and my words I can make it a little easier for the next person who comes along.  

I keep telling myself that I was fortunate to be involved with protecting America’s public lands. Even in the worst situations there is always good. I spent a lot of my career living in tiny towns, located in some of the most beautiful places on earth. And I made some of the strongest imaginable friendships.  

Outsiders often look at federal and state land management agencies, or the ranks of conservation organizations, and they wonder why they don’t receive more applicants from people of color. They assume that all they need to do is advertise a position. First they need to reform the culture.

I have been involved with mentoring young people and volunteering through organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science to get them fired up about science. After Black mothers and dads learn that I had a career in the Forest Service they ask me if I would recommend their child entering civil service. 
Melody Mobley  Photo courtesy the author
Melody Mobley Photo courtesy the author
I tell them don’t do it because the Forest Service isn’t ready to fully appreciate them and their talent. To be the best you can be requires being three times as good as anybody else and, even then, you’ll be treated different. 

If they do choose to don the uniform, I hope that my actions and words will serve as an example for people of color to always maintain their professionalism, and to choose their battles wisely. I hope too that whites I worked with over the years learned from me that their prejudices against Blacks and other people of color and women were unfounded.  

People of color do care about natural resources and the environment.  People of color do enjoy working and pursuing recreation in the outdoors. It varies with the person not the color of one’s skin.  And, I hope that you, the reader, better understand the struggles of people of color in the Forest Service and other agencies. 

As a "trailblazing pioneer," do I think things are “better?”

In 2017, I asked the Forest Service how many Black women foresters were employed by the agency.  Eventually I was told that to get the information I would need to file a formal Freedom of Information Act request, a very cumbersome, bureaucratic process.  

There is such a backlog of FOIA requests in the agency that responses require months or even years.  And, the agency is not required by law to answer these requests. Frustrated, especially at how standoffish they were to one of their own, I reached out to Congressman Don Beyer in my home state of Virginia.  I could not believe that the Forest Service had no idea, in an agency with 30,000 employees, how many Black female foresters there were. 

There is no accurate way to monitor progress without a starting figure, yet the agency purports to value diversity in its workforce. Congressman Beyer was told the number of Black women foresters is six. After 40 years of recruiting and working on retention the agency has only managed to employ and retain six Black female foresters? Is that progress? How can you have progress where there is no justice?
Melody S. Mobley
About Melody S. Mobley

Melody S. Mobley holds distinction as being the first professional forester of African-American descent being hired by the U.S. Forest Service. She retired in 2005 just shy of becoming a GS-15. She spent 28 years with the agency. Among her many special assignments was working with foresters at the state and local levels, and assisting with the Forest Service's first nationwide strategy for approaching watershed management.
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