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Crayon portrait of Henry David Thoreau, 1854.

The bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau this month comes at an auspicious time. Given the political climate we live in, his essay “Civil Disobedience” resonates today more than it has in nearly a half-century. I break no new ground in saying that the man has much to say to us 155 years after his premature passing about our changing environment as well. As Gordon Whitney and William Davis noted thirty years ago in their article “Thoreau and the Forest History of Concord, Massachusetts”: “Although Thoreau was noted primarily for his philosophy, he was also an acute observer of the natural scene, much more than his self-appointed title, ‘inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms,’ might suggest.” And while Thoreau traveled and observed nature in different parts of New England, “As a practical ecologist, surveyor, and husbandman, Thoreau was intensely interested in the history and management of Concord’s woodlots in the nineteenth century.” Today, scientists—ecologists and forest researchers, among others—still use his observations as a baseline for their studies.

What makes him valued today as a forest historian can be traced in part to his experiences during the winter of 1856. His fascination with natural history increasing, Thoreau, according to Kurt Kehr, found himself trying to answer the question derived from the “observation common among New England farmers: when one cuts pine woods, the next generation is an oak woods, and vice versa.” In the essay “The Allegash and East Branch,” written in 1857 but posthumously published in the book The Maine Woods (1864), the 150th anniversary of its publication of which was celebrated elsewhere on this blog, Thoreau restated the question, saying that

no one has yet described for me the difference between the wild forest which once occupied the oldest townships, and the tame one which I find there to-day. The civilized man not only clears the land permanently to a great extent, and cultivates open fields, but he tames and cultivates to a certain extent the forest itself. By his mere presence, almost, he changes the nature of the trees as no other creature does.

To answer the question, he spent the winter and spring of 1856 watching and recording how natural forces dispersed tree seeds near and far. By mid-May, he had drawn his conclusions, and had “extrapolated a lesson in the principles of forest succession,” Kehr concludes in “Walden Three: Ecological Changes in the Landscape of Henry David Thoreau.” Pulling from several years’ worth of his journals, Thoreau presented a lecture in September 1860, “The Succession of Forest Trees,” a landmark work in forest history still worth reading today. Published in the New York Tribune and widely reprinted, it was the most widely read piece published in his lifetime.

Beginning the lecture with the farmers’ wisdom about oaks succeeding pines, continues Kehr, Thoreau then:

reasoned that while the wind is conveying the seeds of pines into hard woods, the squirrels and other animals are conveying the seeds of oaks and walnuts into the pine woods. He explained the successive alterations in tree populations (which he oversimplified a little here) in the following way: the oak seeds that are buried anew every year under the protection of the evergreen woods suffer less from the shading effect of the mature pines than do the pine seedlings. When the pine woods are cut down, the oak seedlings finally get a chance to develop into trees.

In short, he declared, all trees grow from seeds. They did not, as the dominant view held, spontaneously generate. Richard Higgins, in his recent book Thoreau and the Language of Trees, notes that “Thoreau also contributed to the understanding of the ages of trees and how to manage woodlands.” These were substantial contributions to forestry.

His ideas about forest succession echoed that of Charles Darwin and his work on evolution, published a year before Thoreau gave the lecture. Laura Dassow Walls, in her new biography Henry David Thoreau: A Life, says he was one of the first Americans to read On the Origin of Species on American soil. He was applying the principle of natural selection to the woods and fields of Concord for a new book—”Succession” was to be a chapter in it—though he would die before completing the work entitled “The Dispersion of Seeds.” His observations about humans as agents of environmental change (“When the pine woods are cut down…”) are found in that of George Perkins Marsh, who offered similar ones in his own influential book, published in 1864. Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, praised by Lewis Mumford as “the fountainhead of the conservation movement” and the book that led Gifford Pinchot and others to take up forestry, owes a debt to Thoreau “Succession.”

In George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of Conservation, biographer David Lowenthal makes clear Marsh read Thoreau. He praised The Maine Woods and drew from the younger man’s other works for his own, writing of Thoreau that “few men have personally noticed so many facts in natural history accessible to unscientific observation.” Both valued and praised wilderness as essential for humans, but also called for utilitarian conservation of natural resources. Like Thoreau, according to Lowenthal, Marsh “prescribed a balance of tilled land, meadow, and forest…. Indeed, the wildness Thoreau adored was no untouched terrain but a process of growth and decay, conquest and abandonment, in scenes made by both natural and human agency.” Thoreau’s conclusions, according to Higgins, were ignored by professional foresters and loggers. They “could not accept the work of a Transcendentalist, even a scientific one.” Thus, we find Thoreau in good intellectual company in 1864, but over time, his contributions to forest history became overshadowed by those of Marsh and others.

The next one hundred years saw appreciation of Thoreau’s forestry work recede, ignored by plant ecologists and foresters. The rise of the environmental movement and its embrace of Thoreau as naturalist-poet pushed his late-life scientific work out of the public’s mind, and with it his rightful place in forest history. The works cited here, and others coming out this year for the bicentennial, are balancing the scales of forest history. “In the last analysis,” observed Kehr, “Thoreau’s contribution to forestry was his readiness to combine careful methodology with an appreciation for man’s place in the ecology of the forest.” If his grasp of human and forest ecology are his contribution to forestry, then his writings about those topics are his contribution to forest history.

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July 1 marks the anniversary of the U.S. Forest Service’s establishment of the National Forest System in 1907—the day the “federal forest reserves” were renamed “national forests.” Historian Char Miller wants to share his birthday wishes for them.

Not every anniversary deserves commemoration. Ordinarily, the 110th birthday of anything would not merit much attention, but there is little about our time that is ordinary, particularly not for those deeply concerned about the protection and maintenance of some of America’s most beloved landscapes—the 193 million acres that constitute our system of national forests, a system that was born in March 1907.

So, head to the kitchen, bake a (big) cake and dot it with 110 birthday candles; light’em up; and just before you extinguish the blaze, make a wish.

Add 100 more candles to this cake, baked for the tenth anniversary of the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act in 1970. From left to right: Bill Bacon, Dick Droege, Burnie Payne, Ed Schulty, Chief Cliff, Red Nelson, Art Greeley, John McGuire, John Sandor (Assistant to Chief), and H. R. Josephson. (Forest History Society Photo Collection, FHS7035)

Mine is simple: that these public lands will remain public. That their management will become ever-more collaborative, inclusive, and resilient, and that that these alterations in management might insure that these treasured terrains will be around to greet their 220th.

Ok, that’s a lot of wishing (but then there are a lot of candles to blow out). Admittedly, too, there is little about these intertwined aspirations that is straightforward. This befits the occasion, though, for the establishment of America’s national forests was a complex and contested process—every bit as complicated as the contemporary debate over their presence and purpose. The traditional political history of their birth draws on the ideas of a three-generation set of academics, critics, scientists, and educators who, beginning in the mid-19th century, recognized that an industrializing United States was so rapidly exploiting its bountiful resources—whether timber, mineral, grass, or water—that the nation’s future was in doubt.

George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature (1864) is the iconic expression of this insight (and associated anxieties) and it served as the foundational text for much to the subsequent debate about how to regulate the land (and the people) to sustain the United States over time.(1) Twenty years later, George Bird Grinnell picked up Marsh’s mantle, arguing that setting aside what he dubbed “forest reservations” would help regenerate cutover lands and rebuild the economies that depended on these woodland-based resources.(2) In 1905, Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service’s founding chief, reaffirmed the concept of sustainability embedded in Marsh’s and Grinnell’s vision when he announced the new agency’s mission: “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”(3)

Rangers gather around to look at The Use Book. The book, designed to fit in a shirt pocket, included the text of Secretary Wilson’s letter and the quote “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”

To make the case for durable management over time required moving heaven and earth, otherwise known as Congress. Its members had to embrace the notion that a portion of the federal public domain should remain in government ownership—a radical notion for many who believed that the best use of those acres was to get rid of them. Politicos also needed to accept that the best cabinet secretariat in which to locate these lands was not Interior, where they had been situated since the American Revolution, but Agriculture. Adding to the complexity of this drawn-out process was the need for a new social type—the forest ranger—and the development of laws and expertise that would enable these stalwart individuals to more effectively and conservatively manage our resources. There is much more to this story, of course, but many of the relevant legislative initiatives, executive actions, and judicial decrees tell the same tale: The institutionalization of the Marsh’s principles was a top-down affair.

Yet without bottom-up pressure from countless communities located in and around what would become first known as forest reserves, and after 1907, national forests, there would have been no political will to enact these important changes. The small Ashland (Oregon) Forest Reserve, like the sprawling San Gabriel Timberland Reserve framing Los Angeles to its north and South Dakota’s Black Hills Forest Reserve, and any number of others straddling the Rockies, came into being because of staunch local support that drew on an intersecting array of on-the-ground interests. Their vocal engagement caught the ear of representatives, senators, and presidents, shifting the political dynamic.

However democratic, this groundswell of opinion dovetailed with the oft-violent dispossession of native peoples from their ancestral lands. Justification for the wholesale appropriation of tens of millions of acres, as revealed in the path-breaking work of historians Mark David Spence, Karl Jacoby, and Theodore Catton, depended on the Doctrine of Discovery (a European conceit that exploration and conquest produced sovereignty) and Manifest Destiny (an American version of the same disruptive claim). For Native Americans, Jacoby writes, conservation “was inextricably bound up with conquest—with a larger conflict over land and resources that predated conservation’s rise.” The United States forcibly removed some people so that others might flourish. The establishment of the national forests, then, codified this brutal process of settler colonialism.(4)

That the indigenous nations were written out of the narrative of the public lands is captured in a small booklet—The Use of the National Forest Reserves—the Forest Service published on July 1, 1905. It speaks glowingly of how settlers and homesteaders can utilize these new forests. It details the permitting process that will allow prospectors, miners, grazers, and loggers to exploit the relevant resources they require. It identifies the mechanism by which counties will receive ten percent of the tax receipts these forests would generate to underwrite local school and other community needs. It extolls the conservation ethic that undergirds the Forest Service’s objectives:

The vital importance of forest reserves to the great industries of the Western states will be largely increased in the near future by the continued steady advancement in settlement and development. The permanence of the resources of the reserves is therefore indispensable to continued prosperity, and the policy of this Department [of Agriculture] for their protection and use will invariably be guided by this fact, always bearing in mind that the conservative use of these resources in no way conflicts with their permanence.(5)

That said, not everyone would enjoy the bounty of that projected future. Evidence for this is manifest in the fact that there is nary a word about those who had managed these landscapes for millennia, those whose stewardship practices the Use Book now criminalized. A penalizing, Beth Rose Middleton observes, that has had “ongoing consequence for indigenous identity, culture, and survival.”(6)

This erasure and the resulting inequalities of access and power was reified two years later when the forest reserves were officially renamed national forests. To mark the occasion, on June 14, 1907, the agency issued a newly retitled Use Book to reflect this shift in nomenclature. Still, like its predecessor, The Use of the National Forests makes a case for democratic participation in these forests’ management that could have significant implications for reengaging with Native American stewardship models. “There are many great interests on the National Forests which sometimes conflict a little,” the 1907 Use Book affirms. “They must all be made to fit into one another so that the machine runs smoothly as a whole,” a desired harmony that often made it “necessary for one man to give way a little here, another a little bit there.” Acknowledging that “National Forests are new in the United States, and the management of the vast resources is a very difficult task,” the text admits that “[m]istakes are bound to be made at first, and have been made. It is the users themselves who can be of chief assistance in doing away with bad methods.”(7)

Menominee Indians prepare for a river drive in Wisconsin, 1909. The federal government’s relationship with the Menominee over lumbering and forestry dates to 1871. It has evolved from one of conflict to one of collaboration. (FHS Photo Collection: Native Americans, Folder #2)

Among those who have been pushing back against some of these “bad methods” are Native American tribes, who Theodore Catton in his recent book American Indians and National Forests (2016) characterizes as the “most marginalized minority group in the United States.”(8) He tracks their determined efforts beginning in the mid-20th century to reclaim access to ancestral territory, secure long-ignored treaty rights to riparian and terrestrial resources, and, in some cases, demand the opportunity to co-manage forests and grasslands under the Forest Service’s purview. Among its other positive responses to this growing pressure, Catton explores a small set of cooperative projects in the field and, within the Washington office, two noteworthy initiatives: in 2006 the agency established The Office of Tribal Relations and soon thereafter incorporated “Native knowledge in the new planning rule.”(9)

These are baby steps, to be sure, as Catton’s tentative conclusions suggest. But they are worth lighting a candle (if not 110)—in cautious celebration of and as steadfast encouragement for much greater, collaborative-driven change in the years ahead.

Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, a Fellow of the Forest History Society, and author of America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands (2016), Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream (2016), and editor of Gifford Pinchot: Selected Writings (2017).

NOTES

(1) George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature; Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (New York: Charles Scribner, 1864).

(2) George Bird Grinnell, “Spare the Trees,” quoted in John Rieger, “Pathbreaking Conservationist: George Bird Grinnell (1849-1938),” Forest History Today, Spring/Fall 2005: 19.

(3) James Wilson to Gifford Pinchot, July 1, 1905, reprinted in Char Miller, ed. Gifford Pinchot: Selected Writings (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017), 39–42; Pinchot drafted the letter—which was really a job description—that Wilson, as Secretary of Agriculture, signed and sent back to his subordinate.

(4) Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), quote: 151; Theodore Catton, American Indians and National Forests (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2016), 15–22; Beth Rose Middleton, Trust in the Land: New Directions in Tribal Conservation (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011), 36–41. Ian Tyrell, in Crisis of a Wasteful Nation: Empire and Conservation in Theodore Roosevelt’s America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), links the domestic application of conservation to its role in framing American imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

(5) The Use of the National Forest Reserves: Regulations and Instructions (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1905), 10–11.

(6) Middleton, Trust in the Land, 37.

(7) The Use of the National Forests (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1907), 25.

(8) Catton, American Indians and National Forests, 302.

(9) Ibid., 303–04; Middleton, Trust in the Land, offers a much more robust critique of the Forest Service’s interactions with the tribes and a fuller assessment of the tribes’ own application of Traditional Ecological Knowledge on their lands; her review of Catton’s book appeared in Environmental History 22(3): 534–36.

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BFernowIf you find yourself in New York’s Adirondack Park, be sure to add a walk through Fernow Forest to the Forest History Bucket List of things to do while there. It’s a nice place to spend an hour or so stretching your legs and learning about Bernhard Fernow, an important yet underappreciated figure in North American forest history, while looking at a sample of his work in New York.

Make no mistake: visiting either forest in the United States named for Bernhard Fernow is worthwhile. In West Virginia is the Fernow Experimental Forest on the Monongahela National Forest, operated by the U.S. Forest Service. This 4,300-acre forest offers mountain biking trails and other recreational activities. I’ve not been there yet, but it’s on my bucket list. The one in the Adirondacks is under the control of the state’s department of natural resources.

It’s fitting that Fernow has two forests named for him. As chief of the U.S. Division, predecessor to the U.S. Forest Service, of Forestry he placed the small bureau firmly on scientific footing, writing scores of reports and conducting and coordinating research. Such efforts during his twelve years with the division (1886–1898) make him one of the founding fathers of American forest research, something he rarely receives recognition for. He is better known as the father of professional forestry education in North America. A long-time advocate for forestry education in the America, in 1898, he left the Division of Forestry to establish the New York State College of Forestry at Cornell University. It was the first professional forestry school in the United States (meaning, the first school to offer a college degree). After the school shut down in 1903 (see below), he taught at Yale’s forestry school and elsewhere for a few years. In 1907, he founded the forestry program at Pennsylvania State College’s main campus, teaching there in the spring of 1907 before heading to the University of Toronto and establishing Canada’s first forestry school, where he stayed until his retirement in 1920. The Fernow Forest in West Virginia is a nod to his research leadership; the one in the Adirondacks is one to his work in forestry education.

Fernow located Cornell’s experimental forest on 30,000 acres in the heart of the Adirondack State Park, a decision that would contribute to the demise of the school just five years after it opened. He clearcut the hardwood forest and ordered the planting of the commercially valuable species of white pine and Norway spruce as part of his effort to demonstrate that good forest management could pay. The school sold the lumber to the Brooklyn Cooperage Company, which had set up a mill on the site. Unfortunately, the operation was near several wealthy landowners who didn’t care for the noise and smoke coming from the school’s woods and petitioned the governor to shut down the school. He complied by eliminating funding for the school in 1903, effectively killing it.

Don't blink or you'll miss the sign.

Don’t blink or you’ll miss the sign.

But walking the Fernow Forest Trail in the Adirondacks can help a visitor understand what he was trying to accomplish. It was no small goal he had in mind, trying to teach his students the fundamentals of forestry and demonstrate to an indifferent country that forest management could turn a profit and produce a steady supply of lumber.

Located on a 68-acre tract that was once part of the school forest, the trail is a under a mile long, a well-groomed dirt path that’s fairly level and easily navigated. Much like Fernow the historic figure, it’s easy to overlook the trail along the road. Marked by an underwhelming sign, with parking in a pullout on the shoulder of NY 3, you have to pay attention when looking for it or you’ll go right by it. Unlike the Carl Schenck Redwood Grove in California, which is a good distance from the road, you never quite get away from the sound of cars in Fernow Forest.

Also unlike Schenck Grove, which celebrates the man and his ebullient spirit, Fernow’s trail is like him—all business, with an emphasis on education. This trail not only informs you about Fernow and the school, but also how and why he was managing the land, what has occurred on the land since the school’s demise, and a bit about the geological history of the land. The forest is no longer actively managed except for trail maintenance done by students from nearby Paul Smith’s College (also worth visiting). With that background, let’s get going.

When you start the walk, be sure to sign in at the trailhead so the state knows how many people use it. Borrow a laminated trail map, which interprets the different stops along the trail.

2-trailhead

Be sure to peruse the sign-in sheets to see where others visited from. Someone from France had visited not long before I did.

20160417_152610_Richtone(HDR)

Click on the image to read the pamphlet.

At stop #1, you learn that you’ve been walking through a northern hardwood forest and are about to transition to the softwoods of the Fernow Forest (which begins at stop #2). It consists largely of Norway spruce and eastern white pines (indicated with signs at stops 4 and 5, respectively) planted at Fernow’s direction in rows. Most rows are still visible, running perpendicular to the trail.

4-Stop2

Stop #3 commemorates the man himself with a tablet attached to a massive boulder.

6a-tablet

The tablet reads: “This Forest Plantation and Trail Dedicated to BERNHARD E. FERNOW 1851 – 1923.” It includes this quote from Fernow: “I have been unusually lucky to see the results of my work. I have been a plowman who hardly expected to see the crop greening, yet fate has been good to me in letting me catch at least a glimpse of the ripening harvest.”

(more…)

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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. 

JWT_portrait

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. 

JWT_packing_solo

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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Below is an extended version of a review of Jack Ward Thomas’s new set of books originally written for the Journal of Forestry by FHS historian Jamie Lewis. All three books were published in 2015 by the Boone and Crockett Club and each retails for $24.95.

Forks in the Trail: A Conservationist’s Trek to the Pinnacles of Natural Resource Leadership, foreword by Char Miller

Wilderness Journals: Wandering the High Lonesome, foreword by John Maclean

Hunting Around the World: Fair Chase Pursuits from Backcountry Wilderness to the Scottish Highlands, foreword by Robert Model

 

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

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

“My idea of heaven would be to, simply, do it all over again.” Jack Ward Thomas, a wildlife biologist who concluded thirty years with the U.S. Forest Service by serving as chief from 1993 to 1996, closes the author’s acknowledgements at the end of each of his three books with that line. After reading the accounts of his career and hunting trips drawn from journals written over a sixty-five year period, I have little doubt about why he feels that way. I feel similarly about the books, in particular Forks in the Trail and Wilderness Journals in their entirety and parts of Hunting Around the World. When I finished, I wanted to read them again.

In all three, Thomas makes you feel as if you are there with him—and at times, that you want to be there with him—whether deep in the snow hunting elk or recording the day’s events in his journal by fire light. You sympathize over the loss of his first wife Meg and then his long-time hunting companion and mentor Bill Brown, the long-time regional director of the Northwest Region of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, who helped Thomas better understand the emotional and political values of wilderness areas. Thomas is open and honest about these losses and the impact of the ravages of time and hard work on his body and how it affects each new venture into the wilderness. (Older readers will be able to relate; younger ones should take heed!) Each book, in its own way, is an elegy to an outdoorsman’s life well lived and an ode to some beautiful places. Thomas has no regrets that he has hung up his gun because of age and infirmities; he has his memories to look back upon, and now so do we.

Each book is designed to stand alone, but I suggest reading Forks in the Trail first because it covers from childhood through his second retirement and provides the framework and background to better understand events in the other books. It is for all intents and purposes his memoir (which can be rounded out with Journals of a Forest Service Chief, published in 2004 by the Forest History Society). Forks in the Trail—Thomas’s phrase for turning points in his life—covers his childhood in Texas during the Great Depression to the “pinnacles of natural resource leadership”—his appointment as Forest Service chief and then his time as the Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Montana.

JWT_FitRStarting with Forks will introduce you to deepen the reader’s understanding of why his packhorse trips with Brown into “the High Lonesome” backcountry area—the Eagle Cap and Hells Canyon Wilderness Areas in eastern Oregon—that are the focus of much of Wilderness Journals brought him such joy and unleashed the naturalist-poet inside. Furthermore, in Forks Thomas helpfully explains and discusses the historical background or significance of a fork in the trail, such as a law or policy change, when necessary. The forewords and prefaces of Wilderness Journals and Hunting lack enough information or context for deeply understanding his heartfelt meditations on the beauty provided by federal natural resource management or the night sky in Alaska, or his distaste towards those who pay to hunt on game farms. The other two books supplement and complement Forks, and a few journal entries are split up between books depending on the topics. Each has entries several pages long, though they never feel like they are dragging on for several pages. Most all are a delight to read. Each book ends with an epilogue that offers his reflections on the journal entries and where he is now in his thought process.

JTW_WJWilderness Journals covers a narrow but pivotal time in Thomas’s life, from 1986 to 1999, when he found himself in thick of the northern spotted owl controversy and then reluctantly serving as Forest Service chief. The High Lonesome became a refuge from the pressures of work, a place to both recreate and “re-create” himself. On several occasions, he recorded the benefits of time spent in the wilderness. One in particular, written while he was chief, captures the feeling and offers a strong defense for maintaining protected wilderness areas, something Thomas strived to do while chief.

It seems a shame that now [the] most common meaning of the word is to “have fun.” The original meaning, the one that appeals most to me, was to create anew, to refresh strength and spirit. For me, there was no other “re-creational” experience that could match a retreat into the wilderness…. Having an experience that fosters re-creation of purpose, zeal, and faith is much more than simply having a good time. For people like me, it is a necessity. Without periodic re-creation, there is danger of diminished spirit, purpose, confidence, belief, and effectiveness.(188)

Wilderness Journals includes two appendices that are journal entries from his time as chief that don’t quite fit in with the main text but make nice additions. They were written around the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act of 1964. On two occasions he attempted to improve the agency’s wilderness management efforts by announcing his intention of turning the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness Area into a single management entity, complete with a supervisor of equal rank to a forest supervisor. He wanted to show that wilderness areas were equal to that of multiple-use landscapes. “Thwarted” by Idaho’s congressional delegation and possibly members of his own staff who perhaps didn’t want to lose power, he concluded, “It is well to remember that changes in the status quo will be resisted and that ‘turf wars’ are with us always.”(260)

JWT_HuntingHunting Around World covers from 1986 to his last hunting trip in 2004 in Scotland; the entries on Scotland are the highlight of this book as he waxes poetic about the breathtaking Highlands countryside and falls in love with it. (Bob Model, who contributes the book’s foreword, hosted Thomas on his Scotland trips.) As someone who had studied the ecology of elk for much of his career, Thomas was excited about observing Scotland’s red deer, a member of the same species but a different subspecies. The contrast between hunting styles and rituals is quite interesting—one dresses in a “shooting suit” of tweed and wool when going “a-stalking” in Scotland, for example, and traditionally carries a walking stick to help traverse the uneven terrain. He also hunted in Argentina, Alaska, and other places, and some entries are from his trips into the High Lonesome. So one learns a good deal about the different cultures and attitudes about hunting as seen through Thomas’s eyes. His entries about hunting on game farms and hunting preserves versus a fair chase pursuit offer much to think about on that subject. (more…)

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On the 100th anniversary of the last log raft floated on the Upper Mississippi River, scholar and Aldo Leopold biographer Curt Meine reflects upon conservation efforts over the last century and the challenges that lay ahead.

This summer marks an obscure anniversary in the history of conservation. In August 1915 a large raft of white pine lumber was floated down the Upper Mississippi River from Hudson, Wisconsin, to Fort Madison, Iowa. For those on board and those watching from shore, it was a ceremonial occasion, an elegiac gesture. For decades, from Maine to western Ontario, white pine logs and lumber had been transported by water to downstream sawmills and rail towns. In northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan the cut crescendoed in the decades after the Civil War. At the peak of the industry in the 1880s, some 500 rafts of white pine came down the Mississippi each month.  But with the exhaustion of the “inexhaustible” pineries, there was no more big pine to float. The pine boom was over.

And so the lumbermen organized one last raft for nostalgia’s sake. The steamboat Ottumwa Belle, under Captain Walter Hunter, guided the raft around the great river’s bends.  At Albany, Illinois, it paused to take aboard 93-year-old Stephen Beck Hanks, famed riverman and cousin to Abraham Lincoln. In 1843 Hanks had guided the first raft of white pine logs downstream, from the St. Croix River pinery at Stillwater down to St. Louis. In the words of river historian Calvin Fremling, “Hanks has seen the whole thing—the beginning, the culmination, the end—all in one man’s lifetime.”

The Ottumwa Belle and lumber raft at Davenport, Iowa,  August 20, 1915   Source:  Putnam Museum, Davenport IA  http://www.umvphotoarchive.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/putnm/id/499/rec/8

The Ottumwa Belle and lumber raft at Davenport, Iowa, August 20, 1915
Source: Putnam Museum, Davenport, IA

As that final raft slipped downriver, it left in its symbolic wake a region of ruin: some 50 million acres of cutover and burned-over stump fields; soils sterilized by fire and eroded into gullies; streambeds and riverways altered by scouring and heavy sediment loads; disrupted and depleted fish and wildlife populations; a scattering of boom-and-bust work camps and abandoned lumber towns; and a legacy of concentrated wealth, political power, and corruption. The very landscape of unsustainability.

The story of the white pine was remarkable but not unique, even in its time. The lumber barons of the Midwest had their equivalents elsewhere:  yellow pine barons in the South; Douglas fir barons in the Northwest; wheat and cattle barons in the Plains; copper and iron barons in the upper Great Lakes; steel barons in the lower Great Lakes; coal barons in Appalachia and Illinois; gold and silver barons in the Rockies and California; oil barons in the newly tapped petroleum districts; and railroad barons tying them all together.

Across the continent the pattern repeated itself, varying by landscape and resource: the alienation and removal of Native American people; an advance wave of speculation and maneuvering; an onrush of hopeful opportunists; the manipulation of laws and courts; the recruitment of cheap, abundant labor; the winnowing of economic winners and losers; the consolidation of wealth into cartels; the channeling of that wealth into political power and authority; a compliant host of publicists and newspapers; the co-opting of the mechanisms of representative government.  And always the same legacy: degraded landscapes and exhausted sources of wealth; communities inflated by the booms and drained by the busts; citizens left to clean up the messes and to create more sustainable places and economies.

And, finally, always, the same question: can democracy find a way out of the crisis, right itself, reclaim some equilibrium between private wealth and commonwealth, between self-interest and the general welfare? Like the other booms, the pine boom yielded immediate prosperity, but at the price of destabilized and distorted ecosystems, social systems, and political systems. All too many of those who had reaped the quick profits had scant concern for the vitality and resilience of the forest (or prairie, or river, or range, or fishery) or the health of the democracy that provided their opportunity.  In the absence of economic self-restraint, social constraint became inevitable. In the face of crisis, there was no alternative.  Reckless economics and devastated landscapes will do that to an ideology.

White pine stump and seedlings, Vilas County, Wisconsin. (Photo by author)

White pine stump and seedlings, Vilas County, Wisconsin. (Photo by author)

Now, as the full scope of the climate crisis becomes evident, the question arises again: Can democracy respond? The story of the white pine offers some hope. As the big pine (and redwoods, and passenger pigeons, and bison) dwindled, reformers of varied political backgrounds and stripes found common cause and enacted reforms. We called it conservation. Over time the forests of the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes returned as the soils, waters, plants, and animals went about their collective work of self-renewal. That recovery continues, more than a century after the Great Cut. The region has hardly achieved sustainability. There is always some short-term economic fix, some new scheme to begin yet another round of heedless exploitation of the waters, the minerals, the forest. Yet, starting a century ago, citizens overcame political inertia in a way that made long-term positive change possible, and inaugurated the modern search for what George Perkins Marsh called “a wise economy.”

Climate disruption, though, is a crisis of a different order and magnitude. It is not local or regional in scope, but global. It is a crisis, not of a certain stage or kind of economy, but of the entire fossil-fuel-dependent meta-economy that spans the globe, that has been expanding since the dawn of the industrial age, and that actively resists envisioning alternatives to its own continued domination. The resulting concentration of wealth now flows directly toward unprecedented political power. Especially in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, that power has few institutional checks on its momentum or direction. The climate crisis and the democracy crisis are now two names for the same thing.

Just as the Ottumwa Belle’s historic journey signified change in its time, indicators of transformation mark our moment: activists gathering by the thousands to speak out against the epic exploitation of Canada’s tar sands; Pope Francis releasing his encyclical Laudato Si’, defining a moral imperative in the Catholic tradition to conserve “our common home”; international climate policy negotiators making plans to gather in Paris later this year; presidential candidates calibrating their messages and calculating their impact. All, in their way, reveal that the fate of our democracy and the future of our climate are inseparable. If there is any positive side to all this, it is that as we work to address the one, we must inevitably deal with the other.

Curt Meine is senior fellow with the Center for Humans and Nature and the Aldo Leopold Foundation, research associate with the International Crane Foundation, and associate adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is editor of the Library of America collection Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation (2013). This essay is a contribution to the Center for Humans and Nature’s “Questions for a Resilient Future” series, “Can democracy in crisis deal with the climate crisis?”

Sources

Blair, Walter A.  A Raft Pilot’s Log:  A History of the Great Rafting Industry on the Upper Mississippi, 1840-1915 (Cleveland:  Arthur H. Clark Company, 1930).

Fremling, Calvin R.  Immortal River:  The Upper Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Times (Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).

Jones, Joseph J. “Transforming the Cutover article: The Establishment of National Forests in Northern Michigan,” Forest History Today 17 (Spring/Fall 2011): 48-55.

“Last Raft Leaves Hudson.”  Duluth Evening Herald (23 August 1915).

Marsh, George Perkins. Man and Nature or, The Earth as Modified by Human Action.  2003 edition by David Lowenthal, with a new introduction by David Lowenthal and a forward by William Cronon (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2003).

Upper Mississippi Valley Digital Image Archive.  Putnam Museum.  Davenport, Iowa.  http://www.umvphotoarchive.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/putnm

Williams, Michael.  Americans and Their Forests:  A Historical Geography (Cambridge, U.K.:  Cambridge University Press, 1992).

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