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Posts Tagged ‘U.S. Forest Service’

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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On this date in 1949, four Forest Service smokejumpers made the first jump east of the Mississippi River and the first parachute jump ever made onto the Washington Ellipse, the oval park between the Washington Monument and the White House. The jump was even televised, which is how President Harry Truman reportedly watched it, even though he would’ve had a clear view of the historical event if he’d stepped out on the Executive Mansion’s balcony.

The smokejumpers had taken three days to fly out from their base in Missoula, Montana, on a Ford Tri-Motor. Why so long? The airplane’s top speed was 90 mph. Homer W. “Skip” Stratton later recalled 50 years later in an interview with The Missoulian, “If we got a head wind, we could see cars and trains passing us down below.” Of the jump, he remembered they came in so low they were about eye level with tourists looking out from the observation windows of the Washington Monument, which are 500 feet up: “We were waving at each other.”

DC Commissioner John Russell Young welcomes the smokejumpers to the nation’s capital. From left to right, Bill Hellman, Skip Stratton, Bill Dratz, and Ed Eggen. The White House is visible in the upper left corner. (American Forestry Association Photo Collection)

The first two men to hit the silk were Stratton, 27 years old, and William D. Dratz, 26. On a second pass, Edward J. Eggen, 26, and William D. “Bill” Hellman, 23, jumped and landed in the middle of the Ellipse. Hellman had become a new father while on the trip. His son was born the day before the DC jump.

With no forest fire to attack, smoke pots were lit to provide some sense of excitement for the smokejumpers and the hundreds of spectators who turned out to watch. The Washington Post reported the next day, “It wasn’t an invasion, citizens, it was the United States Forest Service demonstrating how its smoke-jumpers fight forest fires in remote sections of the West.” Interestingly, the day before this leap into history the newspaper characterized their job as putting out fires “inaccessible to automobiles,” a indication of how new the concept of smokejumping was.

The jump was arranged by the American Forestry Association (now American Forests), which was hosting a luncheon at the National Press Club “honoring American business for its advertising support in the fight against forest fires through a public service campaign sponsored by the Advertising Council,” according to an August 1949 article in American Forests magazine. The Forest Service hoped the event would generate continued support for its fire prevention campaign and the smokejumper program. After landing, dozens of reporters swarmed to take photos of them and ask questions. Stratton recalled, “The questions were just crazy. What does it feel like? Do you jump right into the middle of the flames? Crazy stuff.”

Then the four men got into two convertibles and rode down Pennsylvania Avenue to the luncheon, where the smokejumpers gave plaques to business leaders on behalf of the Agriculture Department. The men were a big hit in Washington, especially Eggen, the only bachelor of the group. “Ed was the favorite of the women at the Agriculture Department,” Stratton remembered. “He was this big handsome guy with blond hair and a great smile. They pretty much had him surrounded the whole time we were in Washington.” Afterward, they quickly returned to Missoula and to work. Fire season was well underway.

Bill Hellman presents a plaque to Charles E. Wilson, president of General Electric, at the Salute to American Business Program. Looking on is Forest Service chief Lyle Watts. (American Forestry Association Photo Collection)

Some readers might recognize the name of Bill Hellman. Just six weeks later, Hellman would be one of 12 jumpers killed in the Mann Gulch fire, another, though unwelcome, first for the Forest Service smokejumpers.

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This is an expanded version of the review of Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens, by Steve Olson, which first appeared in the April-May 2017 issue of American Scientist. 

When I visit environmental history–related locations, I typically bring back two reminders of the trip: photographs I’ve taken and rocks I’ve collected from the sites. When I returned from a trip to Wallace, Idaho, in 2009—a small, picturesque town located in the state’s panhandle and surrounded by national forests—I came home with rocks and a small vial of volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens.

The vial measures about 1.75″ in length but contains a great deal of information and memory.

The rocks came from outside the abandoned mine where, in 1910, Forest Service ranger Ed Pulaski and his men rode out one of the most famous wildfires in American history. Known as “the Big Burn,” the conflagration consumed 3 million acres in about 36 hours. Burning embers and ash fell upon Wallace, and fire consumed about half the town. The fire transformed the U.S. Forest Service, then only five years old; the lessons agency leadership drew from it—that more men, money, and material could prevent and possibly remove fire from the landscape—eventually became policy. The agency’s decision to fight and extinguish all wildfires, known as the “10 a.m. policy,” is one America is still dealing with because of the ecological impact removing fire from the landscape for half a century has had.

Seventy years later, another famous natural disaster coated the town in ash when Mount St. Helens, which sits in the middle of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southeastern Washington, erupted, sending some of its content miles into the air and drifting east towards Wallace and beyond. The vial I brought back contains some of that ash. The tiny container is a reminder that this disaster, too, transformed the Forest Service. It also transformed the U.S. Geological Survey.

The transformation began on March 20, 1980. After 123 years of dormancy, Mount St. Helens woke up. Seismometers had detected a 4.0 earthquake about a mile below the surface of the volcano, which is located in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwestern Washington. In the days immediately following, more quakes were recorded, as many as 40 an hour. These weren’t aftershocks—it was a volcanic swarm. Business owners, loggers, and the media demanded to know when the volcano was going to blow. As Seattle-based journalist Steve Olson discusses in his book Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens (W.W. Norton, 2016), there was no easy answer: The science wasn’t there yet. But as Olson demonstrates, the lack of clear scientific guidance and an absence of straightforward jurisdictional relationships fostered government inaction at all levels, with disastrous results. Given recent seismic activity around Mount St. Helens (earthquake swarms were recorded in June and November of 2016, although these gave no indication of imminent danger), revisiting the events of 1980 seems especially timely.

Just after the March 20th quake, some immediate protective measures were taken. The Weyerhaeuser Company, which was harvesting some of the last old-growth timber on its land surrounding Mount St. Helens on land it had owned since 1900, evacuated its 300 employees, and the Washington Department of Emergency Services advised everyone within 15 miles of the volcano to leave the area. But within a week, restlessness set in. After all, livelihoods were at stake. Area law enforcement couldn’t keep U.S. Forest Service roads closed to the public indefinitely and, given Weyerhaeuser’s economic and political influence in the region, public safety officials dared not close roads on its land. Beyond that, law enforcement simply didn’t have the resources to staff all the roads that snaked their way through the forest and around the volcano and nearby Spirit Lake.

(more…)

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On October 17, 1916, the Pisgah National Forest was the first national forest established under the Weeks Act of 1911. Written by FHS historian Jamie Lewis, this post was originally published in the online version of the Asheville Citizen-Times on October 14, 2016, and in print on October 16 to mark the centennial.

“When people walk around this forest … at every step of the way, they’re encountering nature, some of which has been regenerated by the initiatives of those generations they know not—they know nothing about. And I think that that’s ultimately the greatest gift: that you’ve given to them beautiful, working landscapes and you don’t know where they came from.”

Historian Char Miller closes our new documentary film, America’s First Forest, by acknowledging those who labored to create the Pisgah National Forest, which celebrates its centennial on October 17. We chose that quote because it simultaneously summed up the Pisgah’s history and looked to its future by implicitly asking who would carry on the work of the early generations in managing this national forest.

Miller is right. The Pisgah is a gift from many people—some whose names are familiar but many whose names are not. Most have heard of George Vanderbilt, or his Biltmore Estate. His greatest gift, however, was not to himself but to the nation. He hired renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design Biltmore’s grounds. Creator of New York’s Central Park and other urban green spaces, Olmsted saw in this project opportunity to give back to the nation, and through Vanderbilt a way to do so. In 1890, Vanderbilt needed a forester. America needed forestry. Olmsted advised hiring a professional forester who would demonstrate to America that one could cut trees and preserve the forest at the same time.

Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot, who then crafted the first-ever sustainable forest management plan in the United States. Pinchot later gave back to the country in his own way: in 1905, he established the U.S. Forest Service, providing the nation with an institution to manage its national forests and grasslands. But before leaving Vanderbilt’s employ in 1895, Pinchot did two things: he facilitated Vanderbilt’s purchase of an additional 100,000 acres, which Vanderbilt named Pisgah Forest, and he recommended hiring German forester Carl Schenck to implement his management plan.

Schenck’s “experimental” practices not only restored the forest but also improved its wildlife and fish habitat. This turned Pisgah Forest into a revenue source as well as a playground for its owner: a sustainably managed forest can provide all those things and more.

In 1898 Schenck established the Biltmore Forest School—the country’s first forestry school—to educate men wanting to become forest managers or owners. Many of the nearly 400 graduates also served in the Forest Service. The impact of Schenck’s gift is still seen on public and private forests today. Thankfully Congress preserved the school grounds as the Cradle of Forestry in America historic site.

On top, George W. Vanderbilt; next to him, his friend and physician, Dr. S. W. Battle; next, Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt in her riding suit; lowest, Miss Marion Olmsted, daughter of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (FHS356)

On top, George W. Vanderbilt; next to him, his friend and physician, Dr. S. W. Battle; next, Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt in her riding suit; lowest, Miss Marion Olmsted, daughter of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. Photo taken in 1901 at Lookingglass Rock. (FHS356)

These men are not the only ones to thank for the Pisgah National Forest. In 1899 Asheville physician Chase Ambler mobilized citizens to protect the region’s scenery and climate. Pressured by conservation groups from the South and New England, Congress passed the Weeks Act of 1911, which empowered the federal government to purchase private land for the Forest Service to manage. This legislative gift pleased not only preservationists like Ambler by protecting scenery and recreation areas, but also conservationists because the land remained available for logging and other extractive activities.

In 1914 George Vanderbilt’s widow, Edith, sold Pisgah Forest for a fraction of its value in part to “perpetuate” the conservation legacy of her husband, and as a “contribution” to the American people. Pisgah Forest became the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest, the first established under the Weeks Act, and Biltmore Forest School graduate Verne Rhoades became its first supervisor, in 1916.

But that is the past. The future of the Pisgah National Forest (and its neighbor the Nantahala) is being written now. The U.S. Forest Service is drafting a forest management plan to guide how it manages the forests for the next dozen or so years. At public meetings, the Forest Service has been hearing from citizens and groups like the Pisgah Conservancy to help it craft the forest’s future. Like Carl Schenck and Vern Rhoades before them, Pisgah’s current managers face great uncertainties, only now in the form of forest pests and disease, climate change, and a place so attractive that its visitors are “loving it to death.” Those who cherish the Pisgah for its “beautiful, working landscapes” can honor those who gave us that gift by continuing to sustainably manage it. That can ultimately be our greatest gift to future generations.

Normally the entrance to a national forest has a small sign with the Forest Service shield on it. This entrance to the Pisgah National Forest was a memorial arch constructed to honor the memory of the men of Transylvania County, North Carolina, killed in World War I. (U.S. Forest Service photo -- negative number 185843)

Normally the entrance to a national forest has a small sign with the Forest Service shield on it. This entrance to the Pisgah National Forest was a memorial arch constructed to honor the memory of the men of Transylvania County, North Carolina, killed in World War I. (U.S. Forest Service photo — negative number 185843)

 

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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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