WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW IN WYOMING: New State Forester First Woman to Assume Role
Kelly Norris plans improvements, hopes other women follow in her forestry footsteps
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Aug 23, 2023
Kelly Norris, the newly appointed state forester, stands in front of a burn pile while working in her previous role as a district forester. Norris works to eliminate fuel for wildfires in Wyoming's forests. (Courtesy photo from Kelly Norris)
By Elizabeth Sampson
Special to the Wyoming Truth
Onlookers could never have guessed how tense Cheyenne’s Kelly Norris felt as she prepared to testify in front of the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in June. Seven senators and their many staffers trained their eyes on Norris, as she sat forward with a confident smile and began speaking into the microphone.
She explained how Wyoming manages wildfires to the committee grappling with a federal response to the nation’s escalating wildfires.
“It was absolutely nerve-wracking,” Norris recalled. “It was my first time ever doing something like that…but I put myself out there. Sometimes you’ve just got to do that.”
Norris, who was appointed by Gov. Mark Gordon as the first female state forester in June, was invited to speak at the hearing in Washington, D.C. by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo).
“When we walked in that day with Barrasso’s staff, they asked, ‘Have you ever been here before?’” Norris recalled. “I was like, ‘No. I was up in the woods less than six months ago.’”
She wasn’t joking.
In fact, Norris, 40, has spent her entire career up in the woods. Before being appointed as the state forester, she was assistant state forester and interim state forester. In 2010, she started as an assistant district forester in Wyoming’s District 5, which includes Johnson, Sheridan and Campbell counties, before going on to serve as the area’s district forester for about eight years. Previously, she worked for the U.S. Forest Service on the Unita-Wasatch–Cache National Forest and lived in Evanston.
“[Norris] has years’ worth of critical on-the-ground knowledge and is a valuable resource for the many issues that we’re going to be discussing here today,” Barrasso said, introducing her at the hearing.
As the state forester, Norris now spends more time in meetings than the woods. She misses being in the field, but has always wanted to improve forest health for future generations. Now she does that on a larger scale.
“We’re really making a difference,” Norris said about her 50-member team. “We are a very small but mighty crew.”
Serving as a spokesperson for Wyoming’s forests, Norris helps her staff adhere to their mission of conserving, enhancing and protecting the forests on 3.6 million acres of state trust land, as well as assisting with management of private and federal lands. Norris also oversees a $40 million budget.
One of the department’s chief tasks is managing the timber available in the forests. Wildfire suppression and management is another. While this year’s rainy summer has made the fire season milder than recent years, Norris said the fire season is far from over.
Norris’ department is staying on top of fuel mitigation, especially within the wildland/urban interface, collaborating with other state and federal agencies, conservation districts and firefighting entities.
“We really all are in a team together, and the state gets to take that leadership role in what’s best for our forests,” she said. “The state forester is designated to oversee all matters of forestry in Wyoming.”
Norris is pleased to continue her work with the Good Neighbor Authority, which fosters cooperation between state forestry agencies and the U.S. Forest Service, and a department program allowing inmates to do fire suppression work on state lands.
Forests at the forefront
Norris has been enchanted with forests since she first went camping as a young girl. Her family often traveled from their hometown of Lake Mills, Wisconsin to the Mountain West, visiting places like Glacier National Park and the Bighorn Mountains.
“I fell in love with the forests of the West, the wide expanse,” she said. “When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be a forester.”
Norris attended the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where she double majored in forest ecosystem restoration and management and forest management.
While working as a district forester, she handled everything from setting up timber sales to long days managing the logistics and resources for teams battling wildfires.
Some days were great, like when she saw giant bull elk and visited forest areas few people ever see. Other days were challenging, like working hard to make a forest healthy, only to come back and see it had been devoured by western spruce budworm.
Not to mention that sometimes the wildlife encounters weren’t so fun.
“The most unnerving time in the field was when I came across a very large bear—over 400 pounds” deep in the southern Bighorns, she said, laughing as she described quickly turning around and walking away. “I was so scared. It’s kind of a running joke to this day.”
As a district forester, she earned the respect of her co-workers and the public. Joe Landsiedel, a logger from Buffalo, met Norris on her first day in District 5. Over the years, he was impressed with her work ethic and understanding of the logging industry.
“I told her five, six years ago she’d be state forester someday,” he said. “I told Mark Gordon years ago she’s the one you want to get if you can get her.”
Landsiedel also was proud of the way Norris spoke about wildland firefighting and removing some of the fuel from the forests at the senate hearing.
“You watch,” he said. “She’ll have programs in place in the next few years, and they will be calling her and wanting to know how you got that done.”
Jacob McCarthy, who was Norris’s assistant district forester, noticed her collaborative efforts on the 2001 Roadless Rule, which prohibits road construction, reconstruction and timber harvesting in certain forest areas. McCarthy said some people oppose the rule, while others support it.
“When you’re working with those two extremes, it’s very important to be able to take the middle ground and play the facilitator, and Kelly did an excellent job during that whole process to facilitate and make sure everybody’s voice was heard,” McCarthy said. “She definitely wants to make sure our forest systems are passed along to future generations in a condition that’s healthy and resilient, and she recognizes the need to actively listen to all parties to try to make that happen.”
Not only is Norris the first woman to hold the top forester job in Wyoming, but she also was the state’s first female forester and district forester, too.
“Forestry is equal opportunity—there’s just not many women in forestry,” she said. “Just because I’m the first doesn’t mean that it’s hard to be there…It’s hard for women when they don’t see themselves in a role to go and do it. [I hope] my impact is—you can do that. I have two kids, and I’m a working mom. I wanted all my staff to see themselves in that. I hope other women will see that as well.”
Norris encourages everyone to consider a career in forestry: “We desperately need people who are passionate about our forests, and we’d love to have them here in Wyoming with us.”