Eleanor “Ellie” Towns was the first African-American woman to serve as a Regional Forester in the Forest Service (1998-2002). She managed national forests within southwestern region of the United States, and was one of the first African-American foresters to work for the Forest Service. During her 24 years working for the Forest Service, she was also known for being a vocal Civil Rights advocate.
Eleanor Towns grew up in Rockford Illinois, and attended integrated schools throughout the late 1950’s. In an interview with Forest Archeologist Margaret Hangan, Eleanor stated that she had a “lifelong interest in biology and forestry, but was discouraged from pursuing a career in the sciences.” In the interview, she describes vividly remembering a highschool guidance counselor advising her to focus on a career in “trade jobs” or nursing.
You can read the full interview here: “What is he going to do about Ellie?” A conversation with Ellie Towns, Retired Southwest Regional Forester
She remained undeterred, and went on to collect a series of degrees in a variety of fields. In 1961, she got a B.A. in speech pathology from the University of Illinois. She went on to earn a master’s degree in counseling and guidance from the University of New Mexico, and a juris doctor degree from the University of Denver’s College of Law. During this time, she was a vocal Civil Rights activist on campus.
Her investment in the Civil Rights movement lead to her first job with the Forest Service in 1978, after graduating from law school. Her first position was the Director of The United States Forest Service Office of Civil Rights in Washington D.C. She was the first woman of color to hold this position, and made the Office of Civil Rights what it is today. She worked tirelessly to change the Forest Service into a more diverse and tolerant government agency, and was in charge of enforcing equal employment opportunity policies. She excelled at this position and continued to climb the ranks of the Forest Service “…I had a sense about what it would take to move up in the Forest Service. I decided that I was in charge of my life and that I needed to watch out for my own long-term interests.”
Towns became the director of lands, soils, water and minerals for the Rocky Mountain Region, and then became the director of lands for the Forest Service in the Washington office. Eleanor Towns was eventually promoted to Regional Forester for the southwestern region of the United States. During this time, she managed a workforce of 2,000 employees and 22 million acres in Arizona and New Mexico. She was highly regarded for her working relationships with members of Congress, and her collaborative efforts with cattlemen, environmental groups, industry representatives, and state, local, and pueblo governments.
She is the recipient of numerous awards from special acts and services, including the “Meritorious Presidential Rank” awarded by President Bill Clinton. Eleanor Towns was awarded for her “sustained superior accomplishment in the management of programs for the federal government.” This award recognized her for her “handling of the escaped prescribed Los Alamos fire, her work on restoration issues, addressing grazing clashes between ranchers and environmentalists, her work in diversifying the workforce.”
Her social justice work and inspiring career paved the way for people of color and women in forestry. She now tours as a motivational speaker, speaking on the need for diversity in STEM fields.