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Green Frontier Hmong women find their calling with the U.S. Forest Service.

By: Michael Doyle, BEE WASHINGTON BUREAU, January 26, 2001

Bao Vue's ambitions are both simple and profound.

She wants to be the country's first Hmong Forest Service ranger.  But first, her parents needed convincing.

"When I told my mom I wanted to be a forest ranger, it was tough for them to understand," the 19-year-old Fresno resident said Thursday. "They thought I was going into the wrong field; they wanted me to become a doctor."

But as Vue told an enraptured and occasionally tearful government audience Thursday, an unusual Forest Service program has been the lifeline to her chosen future. Funded by the agency's Office of Civil Rights, the $200,000-a-year program serving the area between Modesto and Bakersfield is trying to draw young minority students into a better life.

Wearing donated wool coats to protect them from the Washington chill, and spruced up by makeovers donated by Macy's, Vue and four other San Joaquin Valley participants brought their stories this week to Forest Service headquarters. It was political marketing, in part; showing the Office of Civil Rights' new director what works, and what other regions might want to copy.

"Really, these are life-changing experiences," said program director James Oftedal, a pony-tailed Fresno resident and 20-year veteran of the Forest Service. "We're nurturing and mentoring, and trying to introduce students to natural resources. ... We're out building a pipeline to the under-served community."

Oftedal oversees the Central California Consortium, begun in 1995 as an alliance between the Forest Service and the Valley's Hispanic community. More recently, the program has expanded to target Asian-Americans. But with a new administration in town, and with his program's funding already cut by one-third this year, Oftedal wanted a chance to showcase his talent.

The Forest Service is a distinctive career choice for program participants such as Vue, a Reedley Community College student. Though the Forest Service employs about 17,000 workers nationwide, including more than 5,000 in California, the agency has not been known for employing minorities.

Nor have young Hmong women, many whose families came to the San Joaquin Valley after the Vietnam War, typically considered the Forest Service for work. Zoua Her, for instance, is a 17-year-old student at Fresno's Duncan Polytechnical High School. The bookish student-body vice president fell in love with botany while looking at plant cells in the eighth grade.

One problem: Her tradition-minded parents didn't want her entering the Forest Service's botany heaven.

"They needed to know I wasn't the only one going into this field," Her said. So Oftedal flew out a Hmong Forest Service accountant from Idaho, who met with Her's parents to convince them young Hmong women could find respectable work in the agency.

More typically, the Central California Consortium sponsors education programs for students. It is still works largely outside the Forest Service's traditional role, and Oftedal finds himself competing for funds with the agency firefighting unit.

But Oftedal offers the emotional counterweight of a Claudia Robledo, an 18-year-old senior at Reedley High School in Fresno County. She is the youngest of nine children, raised by a single mother.

"They see me," Robledo said, "as the one that's not going to work in the packinghouse ... the one that's going to get out."

The reporter can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or (202) 383-0006. GRAPHIC: Bao Vue wants to be the nation's first Hmong Forest Service ranger. Zoua Her had to convince her parents the forest service would be a good fit.