The Girl Who Broke the Sagebrush Ceiling

Bluff, Utah

Ed Abbey called her a “girl ranger” and she was—the very first.  She began her federal career tracking grave robbers and pothunters in southeast Utah and ended it catching pot growers in western Oregon.  Lynell Schalk broke through the sagebrush ceiling as the first female armed ranger and Special-Agent-in-Charge for the Bureau of Land Management and the first female special-agent-in-charge for any federal agency in the Western United States. For those of us in Southern Utah she helped preserve and protect our Native American cultural heritage.

She winters in Bluff, Utah and spends summers in Oregon. Retired now, Schalk still volunteers for the BLM as a site-steward-at-large monitoring for pot hunters and documenting illegal activities on public lands including the construction of ATV trails. A University of Washington philosophy graduate from a family whose ancestors came west on the Oregon Trail, Schalk had been working as a swimming instructor/lifeguard when she read Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitare. It changed her life. She gave two weeks’ notice, packed her 1973 Plymouth Scamp, and at 23 headed towards the Southwest and a love affair with the landscape.

Schalk drove old Utah highway 95 through the cut in Comb Ridge and arrived at Natural Bridges National Monument where she worked as a V.I.P. —or volunteer in the park at no pay but $3 a day per diem. Thus began her introduction to women’s work in male-dominated federal agencies with inequities in housing, uniforms, and salary.

Lynell Schalk learned about the Southwest in the best way—from the bottom up, working as a receptionist at the Museum of Northern Arizona and a seasonal ranger at Walnut Canyon National Monument: her uniform was a white polyester knit dress, with a hem slightly above the knees, a round neckline, and a half-size National Park Service logo arrowhead. She hated the half-size emblems women had to wear, but she didn’t like the skunks, either.

No one had warned her about mating season for the Arizona striped-skunk. In her NPS trailer, Schalk recalls, “It was still really cold and I had the heat turned on while I read a book. I heard a commotion under the floor and they squirted just as the floor vents opened.” The smell permeated all her clothes.

As a seasonal at Navajo National Monument south of Kayenta, Arizona she spent days alone at Kiet Siel, the second largest cliff dwelling in the United States. She’d walk in 6.5 miles one way for a ten day shift. In the oppressive heat of full summer, she’d see an occasional visitor but more often than not she had the magnificent ruin all to herself. Schalk says, “It was always hot and once it got dark there was a constant pitter patter of rats and mice. You couldn’t sleep because of the night noises.” Back at monument headquarters her housing consisted of

a 1930’s hogan by the horse corrals, a pit toilet, a shower in building maintenance, and a communal washing machine next to the hide-a-bed where she slept.

By fall 1974 she had made her way to Grand Gulch as a seasonal ranger living in a 16’ trailer on the south rim of Bullet Canyon. She’ll never forget a fellow ranger caught in a boulder fall in Road Canyon who lost his leg. Schalk remembers the helicopter crash that severely injured other BLM employees in the ongoing effort to curtail pothunting on Cedar Mesa in some of the most remote Ancestral Puebloan sites in the Southwest.

Because of rampant pothunting, the BLM funded a special Congressional appropriation for a Grand Gulch Ranger Protection Program and Schalk became one of the first rangers. They patrolled in pickups, helicopters, on foot and on horseback. One morning rounding up horses in a tight corral, she got kicked in her lower back and lay screaming in agony sprawled in horse manure. After a 1.5 hour wait for an ambulance she was finally taken to the Monticello, Utah hospital only to be placed on a cold stainless steel table and given nothing for her pain.

Finally a physician arrived from the predominantly Mormon town, and though it’s been over three decades, Schalk will never forget the doctor’s words: “Well, young lady, I understand you’ve been kicked by a horse. I hope it knocked some sense in you and you will quit this job and get married.” Instead, she got a gun.

In January 1978 Schalk became one of the first high profile uniformed members of the BLM authorized by the Secretary of the Interior to carry a service revolver in the line of duty. She was the first female officer. But the BLM had never had armed rangers before and administrators thought that sidearms should be locked in truck gloveboxes and rangers should wear an empty holster on their duty belts. Schalk and others protested in a story that eventually made the New York Times. She stated, “You’re putting our lives at risk because we are dressed as officers and that’s how the public perceives us. We wear a badge and we need to be able to enforce it.” Unable to wear their weapons, the officers initially refused their commissions.

Even rabble-rouser Edward Abbey demanded of Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus, “give these people the enforcement authority they need to protect the public lands of the American West.” The Secretary rescinded his gun-in-the-glovebox memo, and Lynell got her revolver.

She went on to work in Utah, California, Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon—sometimes under cover, sometimes alone. Schalk investigated the second case that went to trial after Congressional passage of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, and taught hundreds of federal and Indian officers and archaeologists about ARPA as an instructor for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC). She retired after 28 years with a Superior Service Award.  In one case, she helped recover 150 Anasazi artifacts now at the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding. She’s been profiled in High Country News and Archaeology, and is working on her own book titled Plunder on the Plateau.

            Retired U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon Kris Olson states, “Lynell Schalk was the best case agent I ever had in trial. She was a meticulous and creative investigator, a careful listener, and she never got rattled on cross-examination. Lynell was fearless, but not reckless, in pursuit of her duties.” The irreplaceable Ancestral Puebloan artifacts she recovered have been brought back to southern Utah.

Strongly supported by locals in Blanding and San Juan County, and visited by tourists from around the globe, Edge of the Cedars has world-class collections publicly accessible. Where else can you see the only Macaw feather sash ever discovered in the Southwest? Or how about a unique beaver tail rattle or an ancient Basketmaker, or early Ancestral Puebloan, necklace made from shiny insect legs? The rattle and necklace had been stolen by pothunters but Schalk recovered them. Many of us who hike in the back country have seen petroglyphs of crook-necked canes. Edge of the Cedars has a cane on display along with mint condition ancient sandals and turkey feather blankets.

In her straw-bale house in Bluff, Schalk is finishing her manuscript about arresting pothunters. I can’t wait to read the book or to see the movie that will surely be made from it. The Old West abounds with stories of sheriffs with big hats and handlebar mustaches. Now it’s the New West and time to learn about “girl rangers” who saved thousand-year old artifacts for us all.


Andrew Gulliford is a professor of History at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at

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