McAllister girl makes good
Sonya Germann first woman to lead DNRC’s Forestry
MISSOULA – In late April, Sonya Germann was chosen to lead the state’s Forestry Division, the largest segment of the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC).
Germann is the first woman to spearhead this division, and her job is a big one: She will ramrod state forestry programs, timber harvesting contracts and fire suppression on state lands.
Germann is also hometown girl.
Despite having lived in Missoula for more than 20 years, when asked where she’s from Germann answers, “McAllister.”
“The other day,” Germann said, “I was visiting with a DNRC retiree and we both agreed that not many people can say that they have been working since they were 10. I can. “
“I was engaging on the ranch with my mom and dad since I could walk,” she continued. “I could ride a horse before I could take steps of my own and I honestly have been working since I was 10 years old.”
“I worked year-round with my parents and step-grandfather and worked especially hard during the summers atop haystacks, moving cows on the forest, cutting hay, or working in our half -acre garden with my mom.”
This work brought rewards.
“I can say that my upbringing on the ranch helped me develop a strong work ethic, but what it did the most was tie me to land and to sense of place,” Germann said.
She also credits family.
“Mother was a Title 1 teacher in Ennis for many years,” she said. “She passed away in 2015. My mom was one of the most influential people in my life. She was such a good person - she taught me to respect others, treat one another with kindness and fairness, and to believe in myself.
“I’m heartbroken that she is not here to see me get this job, but I draw on her teachings everyday. It’s those teachings that make me good at what I do. I know there are people who still live in Ennis who benefited from her kindness and care. “My dad lives in Missoula now and is one of my biggest supporters. My dad helped his stepfather run the ranch for almost 30 years before we all left.”
The family had a grazing lease on the National Forest system lands up North Meadow Creek, running cows on the forest between June and October.
“That experience connected me to some of our local USFS employees in Ennis who would become some of my early life mentors,”
Her step-grandfather also cut house logs in Jackson Hole that would be made into log cabins, and the family spent a fair amount of time in the forest getting firewood and post and pole material for the ranch.
Germann graduated from Ennis High School in 1993, class valedictorian.
She then pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Studies and a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Biology with the University of Montana.
The path to DNRC
Germann has worked for DNRC for the last 12 years, most recently as the Forest Management Bureau Chief for the Trust Land Management Division.
This job put her in charge of the management of forested state trust lands, a significant amount of acreage in the western third of the state.
Timber sales, she noted, generate revenue for Montana’s common schools and other endowed institutions.
This work had her working with the “top five elected officials in the state on a monthly basis,” she said.
“I didn’t get my start in forestry until my mid to late 20s,” Germann said.
She wanted to work on the family ranch in McAllister, but when she realized that wasn’t going to happen, she began looking for another life path to follow.
“I came to forestry via wildlife biology and natural resource policy,” she said, noting her B.S. degree in wildlife biology. “This program is one of the best in the nation and is a leader in understanding habitat management issues as they pertain to forested ecosystems.”
Living in Missoula – one of the nation’s first forestry centers – also enabled her to make the leap from ranching to forestry, she said.
“Many of the same principles I grew up with also applied to forestry - the stewardship and sustainable management of our resources leads to healthier ecosystems and produces renewable goods that support local economies,” she said.
“Those principles were what drove me to apply for this top post in DNRC. During my tenure at DNRC, I have come to realize that our foresters, firefighters, and specialists need management to ‘clear the path’ - to work with systems and people that design and decide policy that make it possible to get the job done on the ground. I believe that is where my skill set is - to work with people to take on big challenges and to develop effective and trusting relationships to ensure that sound decisions get made and that good policy is developed.
Connecting the past and present and going into the future, Germann said her strong work ethic and ties to the land – a sense of place – remain critical factors in her success.
“Many see me now as working on policy or in the political realm, but what they may not know about me is that I have a very deep tie to the land. That’s something I was born with and that I carry into every part of my work. It drives me in this work. I truly believe that we can earn a decent living and care for our natural resources at the same time. Forestry is amazing in that sense,” she said.
“I think growing up in rural Montana provided me with an understanding of this state that many others may not have.”
“When I think of forestry issues in the state, I do care about our larger municipalities, but where it really connects with me is in towns like Libby, Trout Creek, St. Regis.... and other more rural towns. Advancing forest health issues and getting more management on the ground can make all the difference to the well-being of these communities and the families who depend on a forest-products based economy.”
“I understand small town Montana - instead of it being cows and hay, it’s now trees.”
“I think I work for the greatest natural resource organization in Montana and the people in DNRC are the very best at what they do. And I’m so excited to be a part of what this administration wants to get done in the next couple of years when it comes to forestry in Montana,” she said.
“We have a lot to do together to advance our collective interests. This job isn’t just a profession to me, it’s my service to my state. I believe deeply in the mission of the agency and mostly in the people who advance that mission. Wildfires are getting bigger, the season is getting longer, and our forests continue to deteriorate. We have to work together to achieve healthy ecosystems to realize all of the various benefits from our forests - recreation, watershed health, improved fisheries and wildlife habitat, and a strong wood products-based economy. I’m up to the task and am excited to engage with Montanans on the critical issues that we face.
Germann is also currently working on her Master’s degree in Natural Resource Policy also from UM.
“I hope to be finishing up soon,” she said.