Her Job Is to Make Backcountry Ski Runs for the U.S. Government

And by ‘U.S. government,’ that means she’s improving access to dakine pow for We the People–in Vermont, no less.


Holly Knox has a lot of reasons to be stoked about her job. She works in Vermont, for one. And her title is recreation program manager–think “chief adventure officer”–for the U.S. Forest Service’s Rochester and Middlebury ranger districts. And with the snow season fast approaching, her most imperative work is developing a new backcountry skiing zone in the Green Mountain National Forest–the first project of its kind in the country. Yep, Uncle Sam is getting in the business of face shots.

If someone sitting next to you on an airplane asks you what you do for work, what would you tell them?
I work for the Forest Service, providing opportunities for recreation–to which many people respond,”So you’re a park ranger?” I love to educate people about the difference between the Forest Service and the Park Service and the complexities associated with managing public lands for multiple uses. I also talk to people about working with partners–it’s what makes my job interesting, challenging, and rewarding. Although my background is in ecology, I work in the field of recreation because it allows me to work more with volunteers, partners, and the public. I love having a pulse on how people feel about the Green Mountain National Forest.

One of Knox's duties is overseeing the new backcountry skiing zone on Brandon Gap.

One of Knox’s duties is overseeing the new backcountry skiing zone on Brandon Gap.

What is a typical day like for you, starting when you got to work and ending when you got home for the day?
No two days are the same, and it is rare that I get to plan something and not have my day veer off course at some point. We have a small recreation staff on the Rochester and Middlebury ranger districts where I work–currently only three of us–and we manage over 150,000 acres.

When I get to work, our staff typically touches base with what’s happening that day, and to see if we can help each other when we go separate directions. We rely on our partner and volunteer network to assist us, but we have daily reports of unexpected issues and emergencies that we have to address. I may plan to spend a day writing a grant and find myself in the field addressing a concern or acting as a forest protection officer.

In general, I wear a variety of hats, but I try to spend at least one day a week working in the field. I spend a lot of time communicating and coordinating with over 15 partner groups–trying to understand how the Forest Service can improve our recreation opportunities in addition to ensuring we are maintaining what we have. As an example, this week I spent a day in the field reviewing our Brandon Gap backcountry skiing project with RASTA [Rochester Area Sports Trail Alliance] and Dartmouth College, and last week I hosted over 20 Vermont state employees at this site to share our project design. I may spend a day writing National Environmental Policy Act reports, reviewing a trail project, speaking at a public meeting, searching for a lost hiker, and picking up trash…we have to be jack-of-all-trades, continually jumping from one task to another.

As for ending the day, sometimes it can be late, such as if I have an evening meeting, or it can include phone calls at home from partners, campground hosts, or volunteers if something comes up. I try to save my evening time for family but I know that volunteers aren’t on an 8-5 schedule.

How does your job affect someone’s day?
I am very proud of our staff and our projects, and I hope that locals and visitors leave the national forest more excited about playing outside in Vermont than about returning to their electronic devices. Some projects I have worked on, such as the Blueberry Lake and Killington mountain bike trail designations, enable people to try a new sport because we have beginner trails–I love seeing young kids on their Strider bikes taking on the Tootsie Roll trail! In this way, I hope we affect more than someone’s day; I hope we are creating lifelong outdoor enthusiasts.

Our projects also affect local communities. For example, working with snowmobile clubs to continue to repair trail damage from flood events provides economic contributions to local businesses. The backcountry recreation project at Brandon Gap is expected to draw new users to our small towns and also allows us to be innovative and share what we are learning with our collaborative community.

Finally, at the heart of why I love my job, I have the opportunity to affect young adults and their view of public lands and natural resource management. I am enormously proud of my partnership with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC) as well as the Lexington School for the Deaf. Our work together has exposed many young people to an agency they knew little-to-nothing about.

holly-knox-portrait

What was your first job in the outdoor industry?
I spent many summers working as a camp counselor at Camp Fitch–a YMCA camp near Erie, Pennsylvania. Some of my dearest friends were gained while working at this camp and it shaped who I am as a person when it comes to my love for working with a variety of people and talking to anyone and everyone. My children now spend a week at Camp Fitch every year, and it makes me a very happy mom to see them there!

How does someone get your job?
Work hard! I started as a trail crew volunteer on the Wayne National Forest in Ohio, working long hours and accepting any task with no pay. I caught the attention of staff there, who provided references for my first paid job with the Forest Service as a botanist in the Tahoe National Forest. My boss in California noticed my dedication and picked me up as a student hire, paying for my masters degree in exchange for a climate change thesis.

In addition to being a hard worker and catching the attention of seasoned staff, be flexible. I meet with VYCC crew members to talk about careers, and I recommend that if they want to work in our agency, they should consider that their first job may not be the perfect position, nor in the perfect location, but it will get their foot in the door. The Forest Service recently developed new policies that allows annually returning seasonal staff to have hiring privileges…so be willing to put in your time. Additionally, our agency is becoming more and more competitive, and a strong educational background is needed.

What are the pros of your job?
On days when I am hiking a project with a partner, I look around and think, “I’m getting paid to be here and this is my office!” Then I text a picture to my brother in Brooklyn to rub it in. Working next to volunteers who devote countless hours of their time reminds me that I am lucky to be paid to do what I love. The energy of partners is contagious and a day in the field with someone like [trails advocate] Angus McCusker, [Killington’s] Amy Morrison, or [Pittsfield’s] Dot Williamson makes me want to be better at my job.

I also love hearing people talk about our projects in a positive way. I am thrilled when I see social media posts about places I manage. I am very thankful for my job and proud to be a public servant, so I do my best to show that appreciation through hard work.

What are the cons?
There aren’t enough hours in the day. I am often pulled in so many directions that I can’t ever check everything off my list. I am my biggest critic, and am disappointed when I am not in communication with my partners enough. Also, witnessing the trash left behind or the damage that some people cause is never fun. It amazes me that people take the time to visit our beautiful forest, yet find it acceptable to leave behind garbage. Bring back the Woodsy Owl public service announcements!

Photos by Brian Mohr/Ember Photo

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  • NatefromStowe
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    VYCC – one of the best jobs I ever had growing up. Summer Crew 94′ – Somerset Reservoir Crew.

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