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As the president of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation from 1995 to 2016, Alaric Sample worked closely with the U.S. Forest Service leadership, including Jack Ward Thomas, who served as chief from 1993 to 1996. He offers his reflections on Chief Thomas’ leadership style. 

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Jack Thomas’ formal chief’s portrait. A political appointee, he admitted he was uncomfortable in his role as chief.

As a veteran of many campfires, Jack Ward Thomas knew how to spin a good yarn. One story that he loved to tell involved an Army helicopter sent to transport him from a wildfire incident command center to an airport and back to Washington. As a young lieutenant scurried under the helicopter’s still-rotating blades to escort Jack, with his white hair whipping wildly in the prop wash, Jack noticed the four stars on the aircraft’s door. It had not taken long for the Army to ascertain the equivalent rank of the chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

“I see you brought the general’s chopper for me,” shouted Jack over the roar of the engines. “No, sir,” replied the lieutenant, “that’s your copter, sir.” Sensing an opening, the lieutenant asked, “Sir, permission to speak candidly, sir?” Bemused, Jack immediately answered, “Sure, son, what’s on your mind?” At sharp attention and with a crisp salute, the lieutenant stated, “Sir, you need a haircut, sir.”

Jack Ward Thomas never asked to be chief of the Forest Service. He didn’t seek the position, and he accepted it only reluctantly when it was offered. His wife Margaret was terminally ill with cancer at the time and he felt that his place was at home with her in La Grande, Oregon. It was only after her urging that he agreed, and he assumed the job after Margaret’s passing.

Jack was essentially drafted into the job by Vice President Al Gore following the 1993 Northwest Forest Summit. Jack had led a team of scientists and forest managers in the development of a range of planning options to protect the habitat of the northern spotted owl, with each option carrying a different probability of the species’ long-term viability. Facing questioning by the president of the United States, the vice president, and several members of President Clinton’s cabinet, Jack was just Jack. His responses to their carefully crafted questions were short, direct, and candid to the point of being blunt.

The politicos were smitten. “Why isn’t this guy chief of the Forest Service?” Gore asked. In a matter of a few weeks, Jack was on his way to Washington to serve as the 13th chief.

Being chief didn’t change Jack’s frank and direct style. To the employees of the Forest Service his basic policy admonition was “Tell the truth, and obey the law.” In the dozens of congressional hearings for which he was called to testify, he had little patience for politicians’ grandstanding, posturing, and theatrical attacks on the integrity of the men and women of the U.S. Forest Service—and he wasn’t shy about showing it. He bruised more than a few egos on the Hill, but it earned him the loyalty and admiration of the thousands of Forest Service scientists and land managers that he so capably and honestly represented.

So it was all the more poignant when toward the end of his tenure as chief in 1996, Jack stepped to the podium at one of the infamous 6 AM “Chief’s Breakfast” gatherings at the Society of American Foresters annual meeting, and opened with the words, “I’m here to apologize to all of you, because I’ve failed you.” In that large and crowded room, one could have heard a pin drop. “I know very well why I was brought in as chief,” he continued, “and since I had never managed more than a 20-person research team before, I knew it wasn’t because of my administrative skills.”

Jack felt he had been tapped at a critical juncture in the history of the Forest Service to be a visionary leader, to be someone who could effectuate a transformation of the agency and help restore its century-old reputation as the nation’s leading forest conservation organization. But in 1995, Congress had enacted a “timber salvage rider” to make salvage sales on the national forests immune from legal or administrative challenge. The rider was attached to an important and time-sensitive appropriations bill, and President Clinton felt compelled to sign it. Thus began a period of what many in the environmental community characterized as “logging without laws.” It was suspected that more than a few old timber sales that had been halted under the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, or the Endangered Species Act were being repackaged as salvage sales and pushed ahead.

As a result, Jack observed, “every citizens group in the country had [Council of Environmental Quality director] Katy McGinty’s phone number on their speed dial.” Jack felt he had been expected to focus on the “blue sky,” the long-term, big-picture vision for the future of the national forests and the Forest Service. Instead he found himself summoned to the White House almost daily to personally review and approve or disapprove lists of individual salvage sales proposed under the terms of the timber salvage rider. And now, at the end of his term as chief, he felt he had never had the chance to articulate the inspiring vision that would carry this proud and capable agency into a successful future.

Presently the U.S. Forest Service is reviewing, evaluating, and revising the Northwest Forest Plan that Jack and the other members of the “Gang of Four” (and hundreds of agency staff) developed two decades ago. The changes taking place are a validation of the “adaptive management” approach they pioneered—taking actions, monitoring and evaluating the results, and then readjusting plans based on knowledge gained and “lessons learned.” The Forest Service and its multitude of stakeholders are gradually relinquishing their hold on old assumptions that forest ecosystems are stable and predictable, and embracing new models that acknowledge the variability of these ecosystems in response to human actions. Jack demonstrated that it was possible to provide strong and moral leadership, while still having the good sense to modify one’s prior views and adapt to new knowledge. His personal ethic became an organizational standard, and that will remain his legacy.

Jack served as chief of the Forest Service during three of the most tumultuous years in an agency whose century-long history is full of drama. As Jack mused near the end of his tenure, “Someone had to be the 13th chief, so I guess it was me.” In spite of his misgivings, Jack’s three years as chief were in fact a turning point for the agency. His unwavering commitment to ethical leadership was an inspiration to all who served under him or had the privilege of working with him. There are many young leaders in the Forest Service and beyond who benefit unknowingly from the high standard of professional integrity that Jack Ward Thomas demonstrated, even those who never had the privilege of reveling in one of Jack’s yarns around the campfire. 

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Jack Thomas on Shadow, in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, August 1996. He’d been going there for years with his friend Bill Brown while living in La Grande. After becoming chief, trips there provided escape from the pressures of the office.

 

The northern spotted owl: the bird that changed American forest history, and the life of Jack Ward Thomas. (Photo by Tom Iraci, US Forest Service)

The northern spotted owl: the bird that changed American forest history, and the life of Jack Ward Thomas. (Photo by Tom Iraci, US Forest Service)

Al Sample is a president emeritus of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation. You can learn more about Thomas on the Forest History Society’s U.S. Forest Service History website or by visiting Jack’s own website. You can read about Jack’s time as chief in his own words in The Journals of a Forest Service Chief.

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Jack Ward Thomas served as chief from 1994-1996. (FHS Photo)

Jack Ward Thomas served as chief from 1993-1996. (FHS Photo)

On May 26, 2016, Jack Ward Thomas lost his battle with cancer. Thomas started his U.S. Forest Service career as research wildlife biologist in 1966 and ended it in 1996 after serving for three years as Chief. Historian Char Miller offers this remembrance.

Jack Ward Thomas, the 13th Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, didn’t suffer fools gladly. That he managed to overlook my foolishness at Newark Airport is something of a minor miracle.

We were to have rendezvoused at that crazy-busy airport so that I could drive him to a symposium held at Grey Towers NHS, Gifford Pinchot’s former home in Milford, PA. This was shortly after President Bill Clinton had tapped Jack in 1993 to be the chief, and because the new chief had no interest in having law enforcement ferry him from place to place, someone on Jack’s staff had the bright idea that I’d make a fit chauffeur.

The driving part was simple; the connecting, not so much. We arrived at different terminals, at different times, and my ill-fated strategy was to pick up the rental car first and then meet Jack at the departures level. How I thought this was going to happen—I didn’t carry a cellphone, and knew enough to know that you couldn’t park in front of the terminal—is beyond me. As it was, it took me more than hour to break through the circling chaos of cars, taxis, and buses and locate a New Jersey State Police officer willing to let me illegally double park, despite his doubts: he had never heard of the Forest Service, let alone its chief, a consequence, perhaps, of the Garden State not having a national forest. In any event, I raced inside, found Jack, apologized profusely, and endured—well, let’s call it a sharp-edged, if bemused, stare.

Then we started to talk, a conversation that lasted for more than twenty years and only ended on May 26, with Jack’s death at age 81.

During that initial car ride, I mostly asked lots of questions; after our awkward introduction, how much more foolish did I wish to appear? Thankfully, Jack liked to talk, and he was by turns funny, insightful, and blunt. What I was most interested in was how and why he had been selected as chief. The president’s choice had been controversial inside the agency and beyond the Beltway, and I was curious about the transition. Not that I put it so directly, instead tiptoeing up to the issue: Jack was having none of that, asked me what I wanted to know, and over the next hour laid out who said what to whom and why. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, he had been keeping a detailed diary, an astonishing record that several years later he asked me to evaluate for its potential for publication. There, in rough form, was the basis for his incisive discussion that afternoon of the policy goals and political maneuverings that led to his becoming chief.

Once published, The Journals of a Forest Service Chief (2004) became the indispensable, insider’s guide to environmental politics in the Clinton Administration. Even more significantly, and why I continue to assign it in my U.S. public lands class, the book exposes the enduring tensions between the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, much as Harold Ickes’ Secret Diaries (1953) did for the Roosevelt and Truman years. My students are as stunned by Jack’s revelations about DC power dynamics as they are moved by his emotional responses to such traumas as the deadly 1994 South Canyon fire in which 14 firefighters lost their lives. One moment stands out: while Jack talked to the grieving fire crew boss, and assured him that he “was not alone in this thing,” the firefighter “put his face in my chest, and when my arms encircled him, he began to sob uncontrollably, and so did I.” Jack wore his heart on his sleeve.

He was loyal to the core, too, as I discovered in 1995 after publishing a column urging the directors of federal land-management agencies to “come out swinging” in response to mounting right-wing attacks on them, some verbal, some violent. Within days, I received a lengthy, handwritten rebuttal from Jack: he understood my frustration but took umbrage at my suggestion that he and his colleagues were silent, that they did not have their employees’ backs. In taut prose, he outlined how wrong I was. Point taken.

His other writing was just as tight, just as pointed. That comes through loud and clear as you leaf through the three-volume set of his prose that the Boone & Crockett Club published in 2015: one contains Jack’s memoir-like reflections on his life and activism, another his experiences riding in the “high lonesome,” and the third is filled with hunting yarns from around the world. In print, he comes across as he did in the flesh: keen and curious, well and deeply read, self-assured. Jack did not tie himself, or his sentences, in knots.

Like this declarative insight, which he borrowed from botanist Frank Egler: “Ecosystems are not only more complex than we know, they are more complex than we can know.” That our knowledge will always be partial, incomplete, did not mean, as Jack stressed in speech after speech, that it was a mistake to expand our understanding of nature’s infinite variations. As a wildlife biologist he had spent a lifetime studying the impenetrable, and had loved every minute of it. Neither did he think that we should hesitate to revise our policies as new data emerged about the environment’s complexity; his tenure as chief was spent in good measure pressing the concept of ecosystem management into the Forest Service’s stewardship practices.

What Jack insisted on was that we not kid ourselves about our capacities. “Of all people,” he once argued, “scientists should be acutely aware that we know so little and that there is no final truth.” To believe otherwise was just plain foolish.

President Bill Clinton shakes hands with Chief Thomas. In the background, from left to right, are Brian Burke, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture, Richard Bacon, Deputy Regional Forester of Region 1, and Dave Garber, forest supervisor of the Gallatin National Forest. The photo was taken in August 1996 in Yellowstone National Park.

President Bill Clinton shakes hands with Chief Thomas during a photo op in August 1996 in Yellowstone National Park. In the background, from left to right, are Brian Burke, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture; Richard Bacon, Deputy Regional Forester of Region 1; and Dave Garber, forest supervisor of the Gallatin National Forest.

 

In this undated photo, Jack shows his playful side by hiding behind a sauguaro cactus.

In this undated photo from his time as chief, Jack shows his playful side by hiding behind a sauguaro cactus.

 

Thomas with Jim Lyons, Undersecretary of Agriculture, in the Eagle Cap Wilderness on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in August 1996. On occasion Jack brought along political leaders and others on his backcountry trips to show them the importance of wilderness.

Thomas with Jim Lyons, Undersecretary of Agriculture, in the Eagle Cap Wilderness on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in August 1996. On occasion Jack brought along political leaders and others on his backcountry trips to show them the importance of wilderness and “do a little politicking.”

***

Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College and author of America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands. He wrote the foreword to Jack Ward Thomas’ Forks in the Trail (2015) and discussed his career in Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot (2013). You can learn more about Thomas on the Forest History Society’s U.S. Forest Service History website or by visiting Jack’s own website. You can read Chief Tom Tidwell’s reflections about Thomas’s impact on the Forest Service in this article by columnist Rick Landers of Spokane’s Spokesman-Review.

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In just two short paragraphs, the Edmonton newspaper account captured the destruction and relief felt that all were safe after a wildfire overwhelmed the town:

Swept away in the maelstrom of a raging forest fire which descended upon the place like a furnace blast on Monday afternoon, the little village … is today a mere smouldering mass of ruin and desolation, and its entire population is homeless and bereft of all personal effects, save scant articles of clothing which could be worn through the nerve-wracking struggle the people were forced to make to preserve their lives.

The absence of a death toll in the catastrophe is due to the heroic measures taken by the citizens, who rushed into the waters of the lake and defied suffocating heat and smoke by means of wet blankets. Only such measures saved many of the women and little children, the intensity of the fire being shown by the burning of the very reeds along the shore and surface of the lake.

That report may sound like the Fort McMurray fire that’s forced the evacuation of tens of thousands in Alberta. But it is not. It’s from the Edmonton Bulletin, dated May 21, 1919. The article was recounting the wildfire that burned over the village of Lac La Biche about 200 km (120 miles) northeast of Edmonton. In time, historians labeled it the Great Fire of 1919, and later still forget that it even happened. It’s rather remarkable that a fire that burned about 2 million hectares (5 million acres) and transformed a region’s landscape and culture could be forgotten, but it was. (If people can forget a forest, then forgetting a fire seems plausible.)

Fortunately, historians Peter J. Murphy, Cordy Tymstra, and Merle Massie document the Great Fire and its impact and legacy—and why it faded from memory—in “The Great Fire of 1919: People and A Shared Firestorm in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada,” available in the most recent issue of Forest History TodayThe Great Fire is not the largest on record. That honor belongs to The Chinchaga Firestorm, the largest wildfire ever documented in North America. But what sets it apart from others is the fire’s lasting impact on the landscape and soil, fire policy, and ownership of public lands—impacts the “The Great Fire of 1919” details.

The parallels between the Great Fire and Fort McMurray fire are striking: dry conditions “that desiccated the surrounding region and created a tinder-dry powder keg”; it was not one fire but a complex of many fires; the source of the fire is unknown; and that residents of one village—in 1919, it was Lac La Biche; today it’s Fort McMurray—managed to get out of harm’s way. But in 1919, not all were so lucky. In one instance, a group of 23 Cree were camping at Sekip Lake when the fire overran them in a matter of minutes. Eleven died, including a father who’s quick action saved his wife and children, though “the 12 survivors ‘bore the marks of their burns for life.'” Massie explained in a blog post written during last year’s fire season how the family might have been caught unaware of the approaching fire: “A boreal forest fire is deadly, a conflagration along the ground. Crowning, climbing up the trees to burn the tops like matches, a crowned forest fire is even more deadly. When whipped by vicious gale force winds, or across a boreal landscape dried to tinder, such a forest fire moves faster than either humans or animals.”

The boreal forest is a fire-based ecological regime, explains Massie in her book Forest Prairie Edge. “When a dry season hits, the boreal forest contains a magnitude of flammable timber and debris, peat and moss, shrubs and grasses…. In general, fire hazard is highest in jack pine stands, intermediate in spruce or fir stands, and low in hardwood (primarily trembling aspen) stands, except in a dry spring, when forest floor debris is particularly flammable.” According to Stephen Pyne in Awful Splendour, his history of fire in Canada, “The boreal region is home to Canada’s largest fires, its greatest fire problems, and its most distinctive fire regimes, the ones that define Canada as a fire nation…. Over 90 percent of the country’s big fires, which account for over 97 percent of its burned area, lie within the boreal belt.” Additionally, as Peter Murphy pointed out in an email today, the Fort McMurray fire reminds us “that the boreal forest complex can support the growth of large and high-intensity fires with its continuity of flammable fuels; and that spring can be a particularly hazardous time between ‘break-up and green-up’—that period after the snow is gone, ice breaks up, and before new leaves and needles are fully formed.” Perhaps looking at the calendar and realizing it’s only the first week of May, Cordy Tymstra, the Wildfire Science Coordinator with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry in Edmonton and author of The Chinchaga Firestorm offered this via email: “There is a lot of fire season remaining and a lot of fire still on the landscape around Fort McMurray.”

To read more about about the 1919 fire or other major Canadian fires, see: https://www.facebook.com/HyloVeniceCentenary/posts/257744001047212 http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/what-can-we-learn-from-the-worst-fires-in-canadian-history/

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We’ve asked Karen Schoenewaldt, Registrar at The Center for Art in Wood, to share with us the exciting work going between the Center and Bartram’s Gardens following a storm that took down many trees at the Gardens. The resulting art exhibition will be touring for the next two years and the Center is soliciting ideas for venues to host the exhibition.

A violent rain and wind storm was the catalyst that brought two Philadelphia organizations together — Bartram’s Gardens, the home of famed 18th-century explorer and botanist John Bartram, and The Center for Art in Wood, a museum and research library with a rapidly growing collection of wood art. When the storm devastated the grounds at Bartram’s in June 2010, local wood turner and past Center board member Brad Whitman wondered if this loss could form the basis of an art project. Within six months the Center put out a call for artists to propose and create works that incorporate thirteen types of trees felled by the high winds.

Mitch Ryerson, United States | Bartram's Bench, 2013 | Cast stone, black locust | 42” x 16 feet x 36”

Mitch Ryerson, United States | Bartram’s Bench, 2013 | Cast stone, black locust | 42” x 16 feet x 36”

The initiative afforded artists a unique opportunity to “remix” the history, inspirations, and materials from one of America’s oldest gardens into sculptural objects and installations. Bartram’s Boxes Remix challenges artists to free themselves and make unexpected work that they had not yet time to create.

The title was inspired by the boxes John Bartram designed and shipped to colleagues in England starting in 1735, which contained seeds, plants, and curiosities that he had gathered in his travels through the eastern American colonies.

His practice and the designed gardens he created on the outskirts of Philadelphia became an international hub of plant knowledge and diffusion, preserved now as a historic site.

The Center’s call for entries attracted over 100 responses from artists around the world. Fifty-eight artists attended two retreats the Center sponsored at the Garden. On these visits, the artists explored the site for inspiration, were briefed on the Bartram archives, and examined the refuse wood available to be recycled into art.

Christopher Weiland, United States | Seed Collector, 2013 | Poplar, fountain grass seed | 9 x 4 x 4”

Christopher Weiland, United States | Seed Collector, 2013 | Poplar, fountain grass seed | 9 x 4 x 4”

This unique exhibition brings together 36 projects by 39 artists and will run May 2 through July 19, 2014, at The Center for Art in Wood and Bartram’s Gardens and then travel for two years. Each artist’s proposals and finished work can be seen online at Center’s website under “Traveling Exhibitions.” A lavishly illustrated catalog will accompany the show.

The organizers are currently planning the tour schedule and welcome ideas for venues that could host the exhibition for any period through 2016. Details about the tour are available on the “Traveling Exhibitions” page. For more information about the Center and Bartram’s Garden please visit the Center’s website or that of Bartram Garden’s.

Some examples of the art produced are below. The works are as diverse as the materials they worked with.

Fred Rose, United States | Sassy Sassafras all Mittens and Gloves Root Beer Roots, Filé Gumbo Leaves the fragrant cousins of Family Lauraceae Avocado, Camphor, Bay Laurel, Cinnamon, 2013 | Sassafras albidum – Sassafras, wood and log from Bartram’s Garden Persea – Avocado, wood from Los Angeles Hire’s Root Beer Improved Extract bottle Iron, Glass, Illustration by Mary Jo Rado. | 40 x 14 x 8”

Fred Rose, United States | Sassy Sassafras all Mittens and Gloves Root Beer Roots, Filé Gumbo Leaves the fragrant cousins of Family Lauraceae Avocado, Camphor, Bay Laurel, Cinnamon, 2013 | Sassafras albidum – Sassafras, wood and log from Bartram’s Garden Persea – Avocado, wood from Los Angeles Hire’s Root Beer Improved Extract bottle Iron, Glass, Illustration by Mary Jo Rado. | 40 x 14 x 8”

Nathan Hansen, United States | 131 Rings, 2013 | Aluminum, bark, motor | 42 x 42 x 42”

Nathan Hansen, United States | 131 Rings, 2013 | Aluminum, bark, motor | 42 x 42 x 42”

Some artists chose to collaborate, as is seen in the following two pieces (four photos).

Amy Forsyth with Katie Hudnall, United States | Seed Cabinet, 2013 | Oak, walnut, mahogany, maple, ash, basswood, drawings (watercolor and color pencil on paper) Wood surfaces are varnished, milk-painted, and/or ebonized | Closed: 60 x 29 x 24"

Amy Forsyth with Katie Hudnall, United States | Seed Cabinet, 2013 | Oak, walnut, mahogany, maple, ash, basswood, drawings (watercolor and color pencil on paper) Wood surfaces are varnished, milk-painted, and/or ebonized | Closed: 60 x 29 x 24″

Amy Forsyth with Katie Hudnall, United States | Seed Cabinet, 2013 | Oak, walnut, mahogany, maple, ash, basswood, drawings (watercolor and color pencil on paper) Wood surfaces are varnished, milk-painted, and/or ebonized | Open: (door open, lid up, bridge down) 72 x 47 x 48”

Amy Forsyth with Katie Hudnall, United States | Seed Cabinet, 2013 | Oak, walnut, mahogany, maple, ash, basswood, drawings (watercolor and color pencil on paper) Wood surfaces are varnished, milk-painted, and/or ebonized | Open: (door open, lid up, bridge down) 72 x 47 x 48”

Katie Hudnall with Amy Forsyth, United States | The Cataloger’s Desk, 2013 | Plywoods, found materials, salvaged wood, hardware | 60 x 15 x 18”

Hudnall_cataloging desk front open 2 copy - Copy

Katie Hudnall with Amy Forsyth, United States | The Cataloger’s Desk, 2013 | Plywoods, found materials, salvaged wood, hardware | 60 x 15 x 18” [open]

Ron Fleming, United States | Franklin Tree, 2012 | Tulip wood from Bartram's Garden | 12 x 9½”

Ron Fleming, United States | Franklin Tree, 2012 | Tulip wood from Bartram’s Garden | 12 x 9½”

Neil Donovan & John Vahanian, United States | Precarious Crossing, 2013 | Stump- Wood from Bartram Garden. Disk - Maple, Wisteria Vine, Boat - Ash, Seed form (integrated into the Wisteria Vine) Cherry, Grind stone | 51 x 58 x 36” Wood Disk Dia. 26"

Neil Donovan & John Vahanian, United States | Precarious Crossing, 2013 | Stump – Wood from Bartram Garden. Disk – Maple, Wisteria Vine. Boat – Ash, Seed form (integrated into the Wisteria Vine) Cherry, Grind stone | 51 x 58 x 36” Wood Disk Dia. 26″

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The following post comes to us courtesy of Stephen J. Pyne, an environmental historian who has written extensively about the history of fire and fire policy and is the author of the FHS Issues Series book America’s Fires. This posting originally appeared on the website AZCentral.com on July 5. It was written after the Yarnell Fire incident that killed 19 hotshot firefighters on June 30, 2013.

“AFTER THE FIRE”

This time it feels personal.

All day I had noticed a film of smoke, and before dinner I watched to the north as the pall thickened and sky roughened into blue cloud, and wondered if there was a fire there, and if the clouds meant the winds would be squirrely, and if they might affect any burn under way. There was and they did.

The news passes, the mourning goes on. So will the contentious interpretation of what happened, and why, and what we might do about it. It does no dishonor to the fallen to note that we’ve seen this too often before and that little new is likely to emerge beyond the sickening particulars. Still, it’s worth rehearsing the basics.

Over the past 140 years we have created, by missteps and unintended consequences, a firescape that threatens both our natural habitat and our built landscape. The problem is systemic, the result of how we live on the land. In many respects it resembles our health care system. Horrors like the Yarnell Hill fire are part of the usually hidden costs.

We know a lot about the issues. We know we need to replace feral fire with tame fire. We know how to keep houses from burning. We know that we face an ecological insurgency that we can’t carpet bomb out of existence or beat down with summer surges of engines and crews, that we have to control the countryside. We know the scene is spiraling out faster than we can scale up our responses: we would need the equivalent of a new Civilian Conservation Corps program to catch up. Every contributing cause points in the same worsening direction.

The political landscape seems an equal shambles. The fundamental issues are not policies, but politics, and not just inadequate funding but an inability to reach consensus about what we want and how to do it. Disaster fires get hijacked to advance other agendas, too many of which are stalemated.

We’ve lost our middle ground, literally—the middle landscape between the extremes, the wild and the urban, that have defined the American West for the past 50 years. The landscape is polarizing as much as society, splitting between green fire and red. We can’t slow sprawl except by recessions. We can’t reconcile wild and working landscapes.  Instead we ask fire crews to plug the gaps. There is little reason to believe that fire casualties in Arizona will jolt the system to self-correct any more than mass killings in Colorado and Connecticut led to gun reform.

Two trends are worth watching. A National Cohesive Strategy for wildland fire that seeks to reconcile resources with risks is in its final development phase. If it succeeds it will serve as a fire constitution, a messy mechanism by which the hundreds of competing interests might work through the necessary compromises with some political legitimacy. We could move fire management beyond emergency response.

The second is that the agencies may adjust internally. They have learned to declare fire-vulnerable houses indefensible and to refuse to commit crews to some high-risk firescapes with limited values. They are often adopting a big-box model in which they pull back to some defensible barrier and burn out. They may expand the notion of defensibility to include whole communities and landscapes when conditions are extreme—exactly the time the bad fires are likely to rage. At such moments communities would have to rely on their own preparations.

We would move toward a hurricane model of protection. You’re warned. You board up the windows and either leave or stay. The fire blows through. The crews move back and hit hot spots. The community returns.  In the case of natural landscapes, the mountain burns over.  We try to rebuild more resilient fire regimes out of the aftermath. A troubling prospect, but we’ve lost the chance to get ahead of the burn rate, and the gears of the Cohesive Strategy could easily freeze up when the time comes for real money and decisions.

Once the flame of grief passes, the shouting will begin again. But maybe this time we can make the political personal. We can fix what is within our hands. We can look inside and ask if we are ready to have others pay the price for how we live on the land. We can at least pause and in a moment of silence listen to the still small voice that comes after the fire.

Steve Pyne

School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University

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A parade, a pageant, and Paul Bunyan. These may not be the first three things that come to mind when you think about fire prevention, but residents of Mason County, Washington, back in 1945 had their own unique ideas. To help combat the destructive wildfires in the region — while also promoting the importance of forests to the local economy — Mason County hosted a forest festival in the spring of 1945. The festival featured a parade through downtown Shelton, a beauty pageant, a Paul Bunyan impersonator, and various other events and activities. The idea proved even more successful than imagined. This weekend Shelton hosts the 69th annual Mason County Forest Festival, which still prominently features a parade, pageant, and Paul Bunyan, just like back in 1945.

Paul Bunyan leads parade (FHS773)

Wayne Allen as Paul Bunyan leads the parade through Shelton, 1954.

The history of Shelton is closely tied with the history of logging operations in the area. In 1853, Michael T. Simmons built the first sawmill in Mason County on Mill Creek just south of present-day Shelton. Around this same time, David Shelton (the town’s namesake) staked a settlement claim on a nearby inlet off Puget Sound. As the town grew, its connections to the forest industry only strengthened. Sol G. Simpson came to the area and founded the Simpson Logging Company in the 1890s. The Simpson Company would eventually grow and expand throughout the country, but Shelton served as an important center of operations for much of the following century. The area was also notable for being the home of the Shelton Cooperative Sustained-Yield Unit, which became active in 1946 and ended in 2002.

The first Mason County Forest Festival in 1945 honored the area’s logging history by showcasing the value of timber to the community, while demonstrating the importance of safeguarding the forests against destructive fires. Fire prevention was a prominent theme, as the Mason County Forest Festival Association was at this time operated as an auxiliary of the local chapter of the Keep Washington Green Committee.

Following that first festival – in which Lois Gibler was crowned Festival Queen and Gus Anderson played the part of Paul Bunyan – the event only grew. People from the northwestern Washington region flocked to Shelton to see, in the words of an ad for the 12th annual Forest Festival, “the dramatic Forest Pageant, the thrilling parade and the exciting contests in which loggers demonstrate their skills at falling, bucking, tree topping and truck driving. For three memorable days, the communities participate in a program which you can’t afford to miss.” The idea of a forest festival quickly spread across the country along with the Keep Green program. “You have in Shelton, in my opinion, the best all-around forest festival in the United States,” read a quote from a mid-1950s article on the event. “It has been the inspiration of many forest communities throughout the U.S.”

Carving Shelton Log Sign 1953

Artist Clarence Beauchamp (right) carving Douglas fir log sign, 1953.

The ninth annual Forest Festival in 1953 was one for the ages. The monumental event celebrated the 100th anniversary of logging operations in Mason County, and a large sign carved into a piece of Douglas fir was permanently dedicated (the log sign still welcomes visitors to Shelton today). On the festival’s final day 30,000 people — about six times the regular population of the town — crowded into Shelton to watch the Paul Bunyan Parade through downtown.

The 1953 event was an early high point for the festival, but there have been many other great moments throughout the years. Continue below to see featured images from the FHS Archives documenting the long history of the Mason County Forest Festival. (more…)

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We’ve asked Leila Pinchot, a Research Fellow at the Pinchot Institute for Conservation (PIC) and a descendant of Gifford Pinchot, to share her thoughts as the premiere date of a new film about Gifford Pinchot approaches. 

Starting in March, keep your eyes peeled for Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot on your local PBS affiliate (check your local listings here). Seeking the Greatest Good is a documentary produced by the public television station WVIA that links Gifford Pinchot’s conservation philosophy with the Pinchot Institute for Conservation’s (PIC) efforts to address contemporary environmental issues.

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I was involved with the film early in its development, as a Pinchot family member, and later became involved with the project as a PIC staff member. As a new member of the PIC staff, the film introduced me to my colleagues’ efforts to preserve water quality in the Delaware River by investing in forest management in the river’s headwaters; their innovative project to link sustainable family forests and affordable healthcare; and community-building through sustainable forestry in Ecuador. In the hour it took me to watch the film, I was able to really grasp how PIC is building on Gifford Pinchot’s conservation philosophy of “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run” to develop innovative on-the-ground conservation programs. And I learned a thing or two about my great–grandfather during the biography portion that opens the film.

I’m very happy to be able to share that experience with middle school and high school students by developing a Seeking the Greatest Good curriculum guide with WVIA. The guide shows teachers how to use the documentary as part of interactive lesson plans to teach their students about conservation, its history, and current applications. To purchase the DVD or to learn more about the curriculum guide visit: http://www.seekinggreatestgood.org/. To read more about Grey Towersits residents, and the Pinchot Institute, please visit the FHS website. You can view the film trailer below.

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