Ranger Lynell Schalk being delegated with federal law enforcement authority by California State Director Ed Hasty in April 1978,in Riverside, California.  (Collection of Lynell Schalk/BLM)
BLM Ranger Lynell Schalk being delegated with federal law enforcement authority 
by California State Director Ed Hasty in April 1978, in Riverside, California.  
(Collection of Lynell Schalk/BLM)

The Sagebrush Ceiling

By Lynell Schalk

Lynell Schalk will strap a .357-magnum revolver on her hip this weekend, climb into a jeep and, like a marshal of the old West, begin enforcing the law in a wild and desolate territory aflame with a new kind of frontier warfare.  The 28-year-old Miss Schalk received her badge and gun yesterday, becoming one of the nation’s first desert peace officers.

Robert Lindsey, The New York Times, 
April 9, 1978

Deserts are fragile environments.  I learned this firsthand during my time as a seasonal ranger in the Four Corners region for the National Park Service and the BLM.  When I transferred to BLM’s California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) in 1976, the agency was overwhelmed by millions of public land visitors.  I became one of the agency’s first 13 uniformed law enforcement rangers delegated with federal authority to protect the CDCA.  I was also the BLM’s first female officer.

The BLM launched the CDCA ranger program after the passage of FLPMA.  BLM rangers were then trained at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.  Out of more than 800 trainees representing nearly 80 federal agencies at the center, there were fewer than 30 females, which put a lot of pressure on us to succeed.  I ended up graduating in the top 5 percent of my class.

Photo As a Special Agent in 1985, Schalk and her BLM canine during a marijuana raid conducted on BLM land in western Oregon.  (Collection of Lynell Schalk/BLM)
As a Special Agent in 1985, Schalk and her BLM canine during a marijuana raid conducted on BLM land in western Oregon.  (Collection of Lynell Schalk/BLM)
In the beginning, there was controversy over what a female law enforcement ranger uniform should look like.  The California State Office had me pose for photographs in a variety of uniform components: a chocolate brown above-the-knee polyester skirt, a woman’s ascot tie, a man’s full length tie, a pair of chocolate brown men’s slacks, and a belt and holster.  Deciding how to anchor the gun holster over the short brown beltless skirt was my biggest challenge, as the gun belt rose up under my armpits each time I withdrew my firearm.  After weeks of debate, the agency finally authorized me to wear the same uniform as the male officers.

There was also controversy over the carrying of firearms.  Concerned about public reaction, Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus was reluctant to arm BLM rangers, despite the FLPMA mandate, and was urged to place parameters on the rangers’ authority.  In February 1978, the 13 of us reported to the BLM California State Office to receive our delegations.  The national press had been called in to record the momentous event.  In full dress uniform, minus our defensive equipment and badges, we joined the state director for a conference call with the (acting) director of the BLM in Washington, DC.  The director told us of a January 24, 1978, memo in which the Secretary had approved the deployment of rangers with the stipulation “that they not wear side arms unless engaged in active search of violators.  Arms should be kept in the patrol vehicle and out of sight of the public when conditions permit.”  Another stipulation restricted our enforcement area to the CDCA.

When the director then suggested that we keep our “side arms” locked in our glove boxes or briefcases, we reacted with visible outrage.  We were extremely dedicated to the protection of the public lands and concerned for the safety of the public, other employees, and ourselves.  Incensed, we spontaneously got up from our chairs and advised the director we would not accept the delegation under such restrictions.  The swearing-in ceremony was cancelled and the BLM’s public affairs staff was left to face the media’s many questions about why the undelegated rangers were driving out of the parking lot.

By February 16, 1978, the Secretary had rescinded his earlier restrictions and the 13 of us were sworn in on April 7, 1978, with full federal law enforcement authority.  Our actions were described by Paul D. Berkowitz in his book, “U.S. Rangers:  The Law of the Land”:

It’s likely that the actions of these first thirteen Rangers—and their resolve to be treated as professionals, and to retain and carry essential defensive equipment—has helped them and their successors to avoid any number of violent assaults and other challenges to their authority that they would otherwise have experienced.

After a 27-year career with the BLM, I retired in 2001 as the special agent-in-charge for Oregon and Washington, the first woman officer to serve in this position.  I had hoped that my efforts had lifted the “sagebrush ceiling” for future women officers.  By 2011, however, out of BLM’s 216 delegated rangers, only 18 were women.  The sagebrush ceiling was only slightly cracked.

Lynell Schalk worked as a ranger in the Monticello District and the El Centro Resource Area.  She was a special agent in the Oregon State Office and retired as the special agent-in-charge in 2001.