Warner Alumni Pioneers for Women in Natural Resources

 
 
 
Sisters Mary McAfee Sealing (B.S., 75’, M.S., 77’) and Gina McAfee (B.S., 77’) fell in love with nature early in life thanks to numerous outdoor experiences with their family. Their parents valued education greatly, and made it clear to the girls that they would attend college. When it came time to set a course of study the choice was clear; study the environment they’d enjoyed on the camping trips and hikes they’d taken so often. So they both decided to study natural resources at Colorado State University.
 
While that may not seem remarkable today, in the 1970s young women weren’t well represented in natural resource fields. These Warner College alumni were pioneers for women in their fields, and they continued to be trailblazers throughout their successful careers.
Sealing graduated with a B.S. in Fisheries Biology in 1975, and continued on to become the first woman at CSU to earn a M.S. in Fisheries Biology in 1977. “I wanted to have an impact on the things that were happening to our natural resources,” reflected Sealing. “I also wanted to avoid having a job where I’d be sitting at a desk most of the time!”
Sealing took summer fieldwork with various state and federal agencies that gave her great insights into agency careers. When she was finished with her bachelors, she got an opportunity to continue her education with a research assistantship studying the effects of reservoir drawdown on fish that lived in the reservoirs.
Just as she was finishing her master’s degree the Colorado Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife) was seeking researchers in their Aquatic Research and she worked as a fisheries biologist from 1977 until 2001. In addition to her work on alpine lakes, fish stocking rates and timing, and whirling disease she helped the Division with strategic planning and establishing an environmental philosophy.
 
 
“The most important thing I did with the DOW was help frame the agency’s perspective around ecosystems and their role in how people interact with wildlife,” she explained. “I wanted the agency to have a broader perspective than just hunters and anglers to remain relevant.”
Sealing hasn’t slowed down at all since retiring from the Division in 2001, and now in addition to backpacking and hiking she dedicates her time to political activism centered on money in politics. 
McAfee would follow her older sister to CSU to study forestry and eventually recreation and landscape architecture in the College. In the spring of 1974 Professor Don Crews turned McAfee onto an opportunity for a seasonal position with the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, an agency that at the time wanted to add more women to their workforce. Gina was up to the task and planned to put the money towards her education. By her admission she may not have realized what a task it would be.
When she reported for duty for her summer position at the Naches Ranger District in Washington it became clear that she was in for a challenging summer as the first, and only, woman on a forestry crew in the entire Forest.
She was paired with a crew that marked timber for cutting, performed survey work, and served as a standby unit for fighting wildfires. Things got off to a rocky start when her crew boss refused to come to work on her first day in protest of having the only woman on his crew. Though he returned to work the following day, McAfee recalls his attitude took quite a while to improve.
McAfee worked with the crew doing regular assignments, but was excluded from fire crews, which was the most lucrative work anyone could get during the summer. When she spoke up she was told that those crews all just slept out on the side of a hill, without tents or bathrooms so they didn’t think she would be comfortable. McAfee, the avid backpacker and hiker, responded, “I don’t care about that!”
She continued to break ground when they sent her out to the fire camps in various parts of Washington and Oregon’s forests. The men she interacted with were very curious about her presence, but she dug in alongside them building fire lines and mopping up hot spots.
She recalled one instance when she responded to a nightly check-in. “I responded to a call and then saw the headlamp start to move in my direction. When the guy got to me he shined the light on my face and said, ‘I thought that was a girl. I didn’t expect to see a girl out here!’ before moving on.”



McAfee recalls that it took some time but she did gain acceptance among the men when they started lending her a hand standing watch at the fire camp shower while she washed up to be sure she wouldn’t be bothered. “It was clear when that started to happen that we really were part of the same crew.” Her efforts sunk in even more when she returned to the Naches Ranger District for work the following summer and there were more women there. “I didn’t realize that this was groundbreaking at the time, it was just something I did for money,” she explained. “It was hard, but I didn’t want to give up on it. I didn’t want them to feel like women couldn’t do this kind of work.” She had paved the way for women to work in the districts and fire camps.
McAfee was able to support her education with her summer earnings, and eventually graduated from the College of Forestry and Natural Resources with a degree in Landscape Architecture in 1977.
Following graduation she worked as a Landscape Architect for a local environmental consulting firm, and parlayed her experience and expertise into a long and successful career as an expert in project management and the National Environmental Policy Act requirements for projects.
Now she is an Environmental Planning Program Manager for HDR Engineering in Denver, continuing work in NEPA compliance and mentoring young women in their professions.
Today many more young women study and consider careers in natural resources, following in the footsteps of pioneers like Sealing and McAfee.
McAfee offered this advice to young women breaking into their careers, “There’s no substitute for hard work and applying yourself. When you find yourself questioning whether you can do something, that’s when you know you need to push harder and have confidence in yourself.”