On The Trail With Miranda Leconte
Words & Photos by Miranda Leconte; Interview by Jaymie Shearer
Miranda was 19 years old when she first began to work for the United States Forest Service. From a young age, she was instilled with a love for the outdoors and now her job is to protect the places she loves most and teach people how to do the same. In the interview to follow, we hear from Miranda what working in this environment is like, stories from the trail, and her advice to people wanting to do their part in protecting the outdoors.
Update: Miranda recently decided to leave the USFS due to health reasons, but she still does everything she can to support the USFS and educate others. Learn more from her and other women in the She Explores podcast episode, “Fresh Air on the Job.”
Tell us about yourself—have you always get wanted to work in the outdoors?
I’m a 22 year old environmentalist, conservationist, and total dweeb. I was lucky enough to be raised in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe, California. My parents took my siblings and I camping a few times every summer, but surprisingly I’m the only one in the family who backpacks, camps, is into science and the environment, etc. I had actually never thought about working in the outdoors until I was 19, and within a couple of months I landed my first job on the Eldorado National Forest educating others about the environment and planning backcountry trips for people visiting the most heavily visited Wilderness Area in the United States—Desolation Wilderness!
What led you to the United States Forest Service?
When my mom and dad were living in France, they visited the Tahoe area. My dad – having lived in Paris his whole life – was blown away by the scenery (particularly the view of the Crystal Range in Desolation Wilderness) and decided that he wanted his future children to grow up near the Sierra Nevada. Soon after, they moved to the Tahoe area and now I work for the Forest Service protecting that very same Crystal Range in Desolation Wilderness! That being said, I think it was just in the cards for me. The mountains that made my parents move across the world are the mountains that I now live, work, and play in – not bad eh?
For those of us who do not know, what does working for the USFS entail?
There’s a ton of different jobs within the Forest Service. For example, last season I lived with, worked with, and/or went to trivia nights with: timber dudes, helicopter pilots, hydrologists, wildland firefighters, botanists, fire patrols and chiefs, GIS dudes, fuels specialists, law enforcement, recreation techs, archaeologists, wilderness rangers, social media interns, dispatchers, and so on. We have a variety of employees, and there’s a huge emphasis on those in the scientific fields. Not everybody is a ranger- in fact there’s only a few positions within the FS that make someone a “ranger.” I think the rangers people most often refer to are the front country recreation techs who are specially trained so they’re able to write tickets and stuff. Basically, working for the USFS entails having a lot of fun, being ready to learn a ton each day you go to work, and being patient with pretty much everything (am I right, feds?).
What has been one of the most rewarding parts of your job?
Learning how to responsibly enjoy the outdoors- undoubtedly. It’s surprising how many people don’t know how to respect the environment. I’d say about 9 out of 10 outdoor enthusiasts that I contact don’t know the first Leave No Trace ethic! Rather than learning how to take care of the land from a “normal person’s” perspective, I’ve learned through the eyes of an agency that exists solely to protect these lands. It’s bittersweet because I now notice every little thing that people do that hurts the environment, but I also know how to teach them how to be responsible, lead by example, and do my part in protecting wild places as well.
Have you ever been in a situation while in the backcountry where you’ve had one of those “oh no, this isn’t good” moments? Any stories you can share?
Hahaha, so many stories come to mind. The best one was during my 2014 season when I was hiking into Desolation Wilderness on a project with two of my co-workers, Dustin and David. We were only about 2 miles from camp (where our head ranger and work crew had already been for a couple days) when a crazy hailstorm-turned-downpour happened. We threw on our rain gear and kept going, but then lightning started striking right above us so we raced off the ridge we had to get over, made our way to camp, and immediately took cover.
The three of us completely drenched, laughing like hell, and huddling in a group of small trees is a memory I won’t soon forget. Once the storm had passed, someone noticed smoke coming from a nearby ridge so we radioed our fire crew and they flew their helicopter over it while Dustin, David, and I hiked up. Turns out a giant ponderosa pine had been struck by lightning and the top had fallen to the forest floor and started a wildfire. On my way out the next day to go do office work, I passed our fire crew on their way to put out the fire. Also on that same day a perfectly healthy, grown man drowned in a lake minutes before I got to it … so that was scary (his body essentially shut down when he swam too far out and the water became cripplingly cold). Things are wild in the backcountry.
What’s your favorite spot in the Sierra Nevada?
Desolation Wilderness and Yosemite Valley. These places are special to me not because of the scenery, but because of what I’ve learned about myself while being present within them. Luckily for me, I have constant access to both.
You gain a perspective of the outdoors a lot of us see only a fraction of, what would you like people to know when it comes to spending time in and protecting the wilderness?
I would just want people to brush up on their Leave No Trace (LNT) ethics. If someone truly believes in and practices LNT ethics, they will fully respect the environment… but like I said earlier, only 1 out of 10 people I contact actually know the first trace. I hope to change that by continually educating the masses on environmental ethics via Instagram, Facebook, word of mouth, etc.
There are no excuses for not being able to do the work that the guys do, and the working environment is unbeatable.
The floor is yours, have anything you’d like to share that I may have missed?
I think a pretty cool thing to mention is what it’s like being a small girl – I’m 110lbs and 5’3” – on crews full of big, strong men. I’ve worked on a Timber crew and a Wilderness crew, and I was always the smallest one and almost always the only woman. I love it! My boss on the Timber crew, Andrew, is absolutely the burliest man I’ve ever known and he teaches me everything I will ever need to know about trees. My boss on the Wilderness crew, Jon, has been backpacking for decades and is never too busy to explain environmental ethics to anyone who wants to know.
There are no excuses for not being able to do the work that the guys do, and the working environment is unbeatable. We’re all working toward a common goal: to protect, maintain, and keep wild places healthy. Of course, I have to stay in shape in order to keep up, but considering I hike and backpack in my free time as well as for work, it’s not a problem. I like to get dirty, and I don’t feel as if I’ve done a good enough job until I fall asleep the minute my head hits the stuff-sack full of clothes.