Hilary Lundgren is the program coordinator for the Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network. This photo shows Hilary in high school, practicing tree climbing in preparation for a logging-sports competition. Connect the dots of Hilary's past by reading her "Day in the Life" essay. Photo credit: Mike Monaco

Redefining Environmentalism: A Day in the Life with Hilary Lundgren

By: Hilary Lundgren

Topic: Wildfire

Type: Essay

Growing up, my family piled into our FJ55 Toyota Landcruiser for “safaris.” We drove to the forest, into the Blue Mountains, which are tucked in northeast Oregon. We drove on roads until we hit a washout. We drove until we got stuck. We drove until dark. We drove to look at elk, count golden eagle nests, find owl nests, pick mushrooms and search for huckleberries. We drove to rivers and lakes, to old mines, to lookouts and to wildfires (just to watch them, don’t worry, we weren’t that kind of family). My dad always knew the best viewpoint.

Hilary's family car on snowy rocks

“Growing up, my family piled into our FJ55 Toyota Landcruiser for ‘safaris.’ We drove to the forest, into the Blue Mountains, which are tucked in northeast Oregon. We drove on roads until we hit a washout. We drove until we got stuck.” Photo: Hilary’s family Landcruiser in action. Credit: Michael Wilson

By high school, I knew that I wanted to work in the forest. At the time, I wanted to save every tree from being cut and every animal from being hunted; I wanted to “save our forests.” I signed up for a forestry class. It was about logging … and logging sports. Although the class was a conduit for employment at the local mill for many of my peers, it was my chance to learn the tools of the trade. We learned to identify trees and plants, navigate the forest using a chain and compass, calculate board feet, and everything in between.

I joined the competitive logging-sports team. We had a practice area next to the track field, complete with two climbing poles, a log-rolling station, and a chunk of an old growth tree (to practice choker setting), which was taller than me. After several competitions, I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a logger, or even to chop wood. But I did know that this class and the team was teaching me things that my future-self could use. I stuck with it.

As soon as I turned 18, I was hired to work for the USDA Forest Service on a silviculture project. I ended up working in that role for four summers, while obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Forest Management. During those summers, our silviculture crew received red cards, and we were integrated into 10–20-person crews to battle local blazes. Along the way, I learned that a lack of management does not equate to “saving the world” and that our forests need disturbance.

Twelve years later (including a quick stint with a private timber company, eight years with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, and bearing children), I found myself sitting in front of the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition (CWSC) Steering Committee in Leavenworth, Washington, for an interview as the assistant director. I don’t remember much about the first 30 minutes of the interview, but somehow my high school logging-sports team experience emerged as a topic and for some reason, I think that sealed the deal. About six months later, the executive director at the time, Annie Schmidt, loosely mentioned something about a transition and that she was working on “another project.” In late 2015, I became CWSC’s executive director and learned from Annie about the formation of the Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (WAFAC).

Although CWSC is a locally based collaborative, as a member of FAC Net, I had the opportunity to learn from FAC practitioners nationwide. I applied many of the concepts that I learned about from FAC Net members within my own community. We tried (or “piloted,” as we like to say) various strategies and were successful with some (and “fantastically failed” others). These strategies included fuel reduction and chipping projects, outreach events, business-continuity-planning workshops, partnership building with religious and community-based organizations, and a prescribed fire and smoke outreach campaign. There is no way that we could have made these strides without the network concept of doing everything with someone, not alone. For us, that proposition translated to working with FAC Net partners and relying on their experiences and support, time and time again. For example, the Pacific Northwest Learning Exchanges (with Project Wildfire, Ashland Fire and Rescue, and the Southern Oregon Forest Collaborative) were inspiring and instrumental in helping CWSC refine its work. Now as the WAFAC program coordinator, I have the same opportunity to feed WAFAC lessons learned and resources into FAC Net, and vice versa.

Even though my view on what it takes to “save the forest” has changed, I still find myself driving. (Remember how my parents used to drive us around in the woods?)

Hilary's dad next to the remains of a former mine and their family cars

Another family photo from the past – on a drive to an abandoned mine in the Blue Mountains. Credit: Michael Wilson

I drive to continue to learn about forests and their surrounding landscapes. But now, I also drive to learn about people and communities threatened by wildfire. I drive to answer questions and share resources, to understand how others are advancing fire adaptation. I drive to represent WAFAC at post-disaster workshops. I’m working with San Juan Island Conservation District, a WAFAC member to advance mobile biochar kilns as a means of fuel reduction and forest restoration. I’m also working with Seattle City Light, another WAFAC member, who has received the National Hydropower Association’s Outstanding Stewards of America’s Waters Award for wildfire preparedness. I drive to Spokane, Washington, to learn about the challenges facing Four Mound and to help them develop an agenda for their first Firewise USA™ site workshop. I drive to Cle Elum, in central Washington, to see the impacts of the 2017 Jolly Mountain Fire and to understand how individuals are mitigating their risk, and what work remains.

The more I travel, the more I understand the complexities of community fire adaptation, and the complexities of “saving the forest.” No one approach can work in isolation, so I continue to discover, refine and transfer approaches. I continue to learn what it looks like when people work to simultaneously save their forests and themselves — maybe that’s my fire-adapted spin on environmentalism.

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5 thoughts on “Redefining Environmentalism: A Day in the Life with Hilary Lundgren”

  1. Terry Lawhead says:

    Geez, Hilary, what a great story! Thank you for telling it. We all should know each other by what we’ve done, not by quick on the fly perceptions and assumptions. Love your story. Hoping we can all share each of ours in such clear, inspiring yet humble narratives. Very cool!

  2. Esme Cadiente says:

    Nice Hilary! I enjoyed reading this and getting to know a little of your history. It reminds me a lot of mine!

  3. Gloria Erickson says:

    Wonderful blog, Hillary. I so enjoyed your story and a chance to get to know you a little better. Thank you!

  4. Liz Davy says:

    Hilary, what a great story, I appreciate your background and how you have applied it. I too thought and still do that being an environmentalist can mean cutting and burning trees for the sake of restoration. very inspiring. I continue to be inspired with WAFAC and think about an Idaho FAC. I love your energy and how it inspires me to keep on trucking

  5. Dan Holman says:

    Wow. What a life story…that continues. Thanks for writing Hilary. I would like to know your Dad. You are a lucky person to have lived that childhood. Thank You for your continuing efforts to help many Communities learn to live with wildfire. Dan

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