The Story of Juan Palma: How a Mexican Migrant Boy Became a BLM State Director (Part I)

I was born in a rural village in the state of Guanajuato, México.  Remarkably, I went from being an immigrant boy employed as a migrant worker in the agricultural fields of the West, to becoming a manager of our public lands, for both the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  Recently, after I retired from federal government service, I signed on to become the Chief Conservation Officer for HECHO.  My life’s journey has taken me to places I never imagined, and I would like to share my story so that you too might join the cause to connect your families and friends to nature, and protect the future of our nation’s natural resources and wonders.

Life as a Migrant Worker

I come from a family of 12 kids.  We were no strangers to the harsh realities of poverty in Mexico that forced us to the agricultural fields of America.  Life in the United States was not much of an improvement for us.  At the young age of 8, I began my backbreaking work as a migrant worker.

Nine-year-old Juan Palma with his father epifanio and sisters Maria Elena and aida

Nine-year-old Juan Palma with his father epifanio and sisters Maria Elena and aida

I will never forget those days.  As the late winter sun rose over the Rio Grande Valley, we would leave the south Texas fields and pile into the bed of a truck, and head west to southern California to pick oranges and lemons.  By early summer we would head further north to the San Joaquin Valley where the peppers, tomatoes, peaches, and grapes awaited.  By summer’s end it was time to head to the Yakima Valley in the State of Washington to pick hops, sugar beets, and apples.  For a boy, the migrant lifestyle was challenging, but my travels inspired my young imagination.

As we rumbled down the highway early each morning, I remember looking out through the slats on the back of the truck, gazing east from the Central Valley in California, and being in awe of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  I often wondered what it would be like to touch those beautiful mountains.  Compared to the miserable migrant camps where I lived, I could only imagine that those mountains must be what heaven is like.

My Journey to Managing Public Lands

During my childhood, I was lucky enough to have help from many mentors at school, family, church, and my community that encouraged me to get an education.  A migrant worker’s calendar doesn’t match up nicely with the school system’s calendar, so fulfilling school requirements was a challenge.  In spite of the difficulties, I was able to graduate from high school.

After high school I volunteered to be a missionary for my church for two years in Peru.  It was during those days in the jungles of the Amazon, the streets of Lima, and the high valleys of the Andes that I saw within myself the ability to accomplish anything I set my mind to.  I had seen people in despair, poverty, and injustice, and this only strengthened my desire to help, rather than be cynically impacted. I knew that I had the ability to make a difference.

When I returned to America I held a job as a salesman for a few years.  But eventually I went back to farming -- driving a fertilizer tractor and working on a corn and wheat alcohol plant (for “gasohol”) in rural Oregon.  It was here that I first noticed an official-looking vehicle on a dirt road in an Oregon forest with a little symbol of trees on the door.  I was curious, and eventually learned that this was a U.S. Forest Service vehicle. I was fascinated to learn that people had jobs managing these forests and protecting archeological resources.  As soon as I found this out, I knew that was what I truly wanted to do with my life.  

Juan Palma addressing media in lake tahoe, ca during the 1997 president clinton visit. His son JOnathan looks on.

Juan Palma addressing media in lake tahoe, ca during the 1997 president clinton visit. His son JOnathan looks on.

The main office for the U.S. Forest Service in my area was in John Day, Oregon in the Malheur National Forest.  At the age of 29, I went into the office and nervously asked how I could get a job.  It took a few months of learning how to apply and talking to people, but I kept asking, and eventually got a job as an entry-level typist.  I used to volunteer for as many extra tasks as I could.  Some of my favorite memories of volunteering were fighting wild fires, hooting for spotted owls and feeding them mice -- anything to be outdoors.

As I began my employment with the U.S. Forest Service, I was also finishing up a business management degree at Oregon State University.  Several years later I would get a master’s degree in Environmental Sciences from the University of Nevada, Reno.  My education, coupled with hard work and experience, has been key to my success in managing our public lands.

As the years passed, I quickly went from typist to budget analyst to budget officer to National Forest Administrator and, finally, to Forest Supervisor.  I then transitioned my career to work for the BLM, where I became a District Manager and then a State Director for the state of Utah.

Juan Palma with Vice President Al Gore during the 1997 presidential visit to lake tahoe, ca. Nevada senator harry reid looks on.

Juan Palma with Vice President Al Gore during the 1997 presidential visit to lake tahoe, ca. Nevada senator harry reid looks on.

My journey of managing public lands began 30 years ago, and I have been blessed to manage some of the most iconic landscapes in the west, including the Redwood Forests of Northern California, the tops of the Sierra Nevada in Lake Tahoe, the Mojave Deserts of Southern Nevada, the lighthouses of the Eastern States, and the iconic Red Rock country of Utah. 

Only in America could a migrant boy from Mexico picking tomatoes look up toward the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, and 30 years later, manage those same magnificent lands.

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Stay tuned for Part II of Juan Palma’s inspiring life story coming next week.