Meet our Guests: Mary O'Brien

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Mary O’Brien

Utah Forest Program Director, Grand Canyon Trust

Castle Valley, UT


Mary O’Brien, ecologist for the Grand Canyon Trust, sits with dusty, Chaco-clad feet outstretched under the shade of a pinon pine, explaining our assignment: an ecological assessment of a spring near Monroe Mountain in southern Utah. She’d like us to report on the spring’s habitat, its species and their relationships to each other and the spring. Simply stated, she wants us to observe. “I see science as a way to interview the world,” she explains. This sentiment represents Mary well. She possesses a curiosity and devotion to the natural world that is hard to come by. Melding biology with politics, activism, and passion, Mary understands the intersectional way that science merges with other disciplines.

Mary often wears a wide, eye-crinkled smile or an intensely serious frown. While showing us a dying aspen stand, she wears the latter. Leaning over a juvenile tree, she notes its buds have been browsed, explaining that its opportunity for growth this year has been stunted. It’s something most of us wouldn’t notice, but Mary is acutely aware of the destruction that ungulates, especially cattle, are inflicting upon our public lands. During our two weeks with her, she teaches us how to notice the signs of an ecosystem in trouble, from overgrazed bunchgrasses to murky brown creek water. But Mary doesn’t just immerse us in her world of ecology. On a crisp, sunny afternoon at the Koosharem Guard Station in the Fish Lake National Forest, she introduces us to two men she works with in a collaborative. The collaborative aims to bring people of different backgrounds together to decide how best to manage grazing on public lands. Mary is the only environmentalist and only woman in the group and uses her voice to “speak for the plants,” as she puts it. She is not intimidated to be in the minority: it fuels her fire.

One thing that’s clear about Mary is that she is tireless in her environmental efforts. For the past 35 years, she has worked sixty hours a week, pushing against the strong conservative forces that seek to destroy the land. After some wins, but many defeats, she still remains steadfast. Walking in an aspen grove, I asked Mary how she stays hopeful. “Well, if I feel defeated then they’ve won,” she replies, chuckling. Knowing Mary as I do now, I’m certain she won’t back down until she’s won.

By Abby Hill

Photo by Whitney Rich

Meet our Guests: Nils Christoffersen


Nils Christoffersen

Executive Director, Wallowa Resources

Wallowa County, OR


Nils Christoffersen’s smile comprises over half of his face. His frequent gesticulations and laughter make him gentle and approachable. His overall demeanor elevates his role as Executive Director of Wallowa Resources to one of an honest and genuinely passionate steward.  Nils is a jack-of-all-trades and an expert on the intersection between natural resource management and rural life.

Nils challenged the argumentation of strict conservation environmentalism. He changed the way students perceive the timber industry by describing the advantages of thinning forests. This thinning prevents more severe wildfires and provides material for Integrated Biomass Resources (IBR), a Wallowa Resources timber products subsidiary for small-diameter trees.

Nils’s ultimate goal is to see Wallowa County become a “robust and resilient” place in terms of economy and community. In other words, he would like to see this county be able to manage its recreational and natural resources in a manner that builds insulation from outside factors to the community that lasts for generations to come.

By: Isabel McNeill

Photo by: Mitch Cutter