County expands forester role, hires from within

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Lincoln County has expanded the role of county forester, making it a full-time staff position and filling it with a familiar face.

Jennifer Nelson, the county’s environmental health specialist since May 2014, is taking over for the retiring Ed Levert.

“There’s a lot of possibility in the (new) position,” Nelson said, describing it as a liaison among the county, private industry and state and federal agencies.

Previously, the county forester was a part-time, contracted position focused on wildfire fuels reduction and fire safety within the wildland-urban interface.

When Levert announced his plans to retire this year, the County Commission saw an opportunity to rethink the role.

Making the county forester a full-time staff position will enable the county to take a “more active role in timber management,” said Commissioner Mark Peck, who views it as a long-term investment in public safety and economic development.

The goal, Peck said, is for the county to establish “a more cohesive” timber management strategy, working “more collaboratively” with the U.S. Forest Service, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and private industry “to get projects out the door.”

Those projects could comprise reducing fire fuels and protecting communities from fire on a larger scale than what’s been done, as well fulfilling the county’s goal of enabling the establishment of a lumber mill, Peck said.

Peck said that the 2014 expansions of the Good Neighbor Authority — laws allowing the Forest Service to enter into agreements with states that allow states to perform forest management services on National Forest System lands — support what the county would like to do.

Nelson said it was hard deciding to leave a position she enjoyed and wasn’t looking to leave, but said the revamped county forester role is a great opportunity that syncs with her background, which includes degrees in natural resource management and forest ecology and almost 20 years of work for the U.S. Forest Service.

Nelson noted that when she was a senior at Libby High School and doing independent study in forestry, Levert was one of the foresters she worked with.

“I expect Jennifer to do a bang up job and I’m extremely pleased to see her hired into the position,” Levert said. “I have met with Jennifer about the job and am willing to do whatever I can to assist her in the transition.”

Peck likewise considered Nelson “a great fit” for the job, pointing to her “very good people skills” and how she “knows culturally where folks are at” because she grew up here.

“I’m excited about what the position is and can be, it’ll be interesting to watch it develop and be a part of it,” Nelson said.

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