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Lenise Lago headshot

Alumni spotlight: Lenise Lago (BSFR ’83, MFR ’85)


Studying forestry helped land Lenise Lago a thriving career in the industry. But ultimately it was people who helped her find her true calling, deep within America’s forests.

As a Warnell student, Lago spent her summers at Union Camp and Weyerhaeuser. After receiving her Master of Forest Resources, the Container Corporation of America sent her to its corporate headquarters in Chicago where she handled financial reporting for the timber division.

She loved Chicago and working for a large, diverse company. But a visit from her brother, who was on tour with the AIDS memorial quilt from The Names Project, gave her pause.

“He invited me to come to the ceremony. I saw all these people and how it changed their lives—and I was profoundly affected by the fact that he had changed his life to do something meaningful,” said Lago. She knew her background in natural resources could create meaningful change. “So, I left my job, moved to Washington, D.C., and went around interviewing and sharing my resume on Capitol Hill.”

She landed a position with the U.S. Forest Service and moved to Montana—another huge change for a girl raised in Winterville, Georgia, but one she embraced. Over the next 31 years, her career at the Forest Service took her back to Washington and then to the Pacific Northwest as she leveraged her skills in communication and analytical thinking.

“It was luck—luck and saying yes to opportunities are the biggest things that impacted how I ended up being associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service,” she said. “When something comes up, say yes. And I know not everybody can do that, but if you can, amazing things happen.”

About 15 years into her time with the Forest Service, Lago returned to Washington, D.C., to become its budget director. It was during the height of the Great Recession and, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Lago leveraged her contacts to compile a list of shovel-ready projects that satisfied the budget act’s requirements.

But she wanted to understand more about how decisions were made and requested a move to a deputy regional forester position. The physical transition to the Pacific Northwest was easier than the mental transition, she said, until a friend pointed out Lago’s strengths—analytics and communications.

“I started spending my time listening to people,” she said. She began to better understand the process of decision-making. Sometimes, people just needed to feel heard. Lago became that sounding board.

Then, Washington called. She was needed to manage business operations for the Forest Service. What she thought would be a two-year stint turned into eight years. When Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen was appointed, everything clicked. “I’ve had a number of great partnerships in the Forest Service, and my greatest partnership was being associate to Vicki’s chief.”

Lago retired in 2020 and moved back to Montana. Reflecting on her career, she said the most important skill she learned was being a leader. “When there are challenging things, the most important part is showing up, even if you can’t fix it.”


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