Forestry Alumna Rises to Chief Position in Government
Chief of Natural Resources for the Army Corps of Engineers
1984 BS in ForestryCollege of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences
Mary Coulombe came to Northern Arizona University in an atypical manner. By the time she stepped foot on campus to earn a Bachelor of Science in Forestry, she already had a political science degree from Portland State University and years of land use planning work under her belt. But it was her education at NAU that catapulted her into her mid-career path, and, ultimately, to her current esteemed position as Chief of Natural Resources for the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Conquering the private and public arenas
Over the past nearly three decades, Coulombe has held a variety of job titles in both the private and public sectors. She has worked for the USDA Forest Service, where she was a planner, a District Ranger, a Forest Supervisor and Director of International Forest Policy. Leaving the Forest Service, she worked for the American Forest and Paper Association, where she worked on public forest lands and global forest policy issues. But eventually Coulombe jumped back into government and now works as the Chief of Natural Resources for the US Army Corps of Engineers, in which she directs land management and water-based recreation on the 12 million acres of Corps lands and waters. Her job functions range from collaborating with the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture to advancing initiatives from the President. Despite her busy schedule, every once in awhile she has the chance to enjoy the recreation herself.
"The Corps is the largest federal recreation provider of all the federal agencies," Coulombe said. "We get about 370 million recreation visits a year at 422 reservoirs and river areas. There is a lot of work associated with that-but my favorite thing is when I get to go out and visit some of these places because they are really spectacular and are kind of hidden jewels."
The climb to the top
Early into her post-undergraduate career as a planner, Coulombe had the chance to get a taste of life as a District Ranger for the Forest Service by working as an acting District Ranger in Alaska. But when it came time to apply for the permanent position, she lacked an essential requirement: a degree in the natural sciences.
"I realized that if I wanted to be a District Ranger I had to go back to school," Coulombe said. "I contacted a number of universities but ultimately I talked to Dick Behan, the former Dean of the School of Forestry, and he convinced me to come to NAU."
Beginning her second undergraduate education at 33 years old, Coulombe thought she wouldn't be learning much more than her work experience had already afforded her. She just knew she needed to earn that degree as quickly as possible to realize her dreams.
"I really thought I knew a lot-I'd done a lot of planning, I'd written environmental impact statements, and I'd talked to all the specialists," she said. "But once at NAU, I found out I knew a lot less than I thought. It's vital to have that science foundation to really understand the basics before you get into the bigger questions and bigger issues."
After securing a scientific foundation for herself and graduating in 1984, she was able to land a District Ranger position on the Lakeside Ranger District outside of Show Low, Arizona, where she served for three years. From there, Coulombe has climbed the ranks, successfully toggling back and forth between the public and private sectors.
Giving back to future foresters
Coulombe was honored as the Alumnus of the Year in 2000 by the university's School of Forestry-and for good reason. Her contributions not only to the public and private sectors but also to her alma mater have been considerable.
Coulombe has served as Chair of the School of Forestry Advisory Council, in which she and her fellow council members work to make the university's School of Forestry the number one forestry program in the nation.
"Even though the council members might be strung far and wide, there is a real commitment to being connected to the school, being connected to what is going on there, and developing ways that we might be able to help support it."
Coulombe chooses to stay connected to Northern Arizona University in particular because she believes it offers a well-rounded, holistic forestry program-one that she says she credits much of the success that has spanned her career.
"The quality of the faculty is excellent and they take personal interest in their students-that's kind of a rare gem," Coulombe said. "As time has gone on, the recognition of what I learned in two semesters at NAU has come back to me over and over. The education I got when I was there has always been the reason why I was able to accomplish what I have."