I first met the U.S. Forest Service in 1967, when I helped build a log cabin at 9,600 feet on the Gunnison National Forest in western Colorado. The idea that I was part owner of 300,000 square miles of beautiful land intoxicated me. We became so drunk on the land that in 1974, we moved from New York to a town 30 miles from the cabin. We would have lived in the forest, except that the West had winters then, and the cabin was unreachable for much of the year.
To build the cabin, I first had to deal with District Ranger L.C. Case. I sent in plans; the agency engineer modified them so the snow-load wouldn’t crush it; and we had our permit. It was that fast.
Case ran his district the old way: from horseback, with the help of a slim, leather-bound book of rules in his shirt pocket. By the time we moved West in 1974, things had changed. From its 1905 founding into the 1950s, the agency had been protective of land that had been cut over and overgrazed in the 19th century.
But in the nation’s post-World War II exuberance, Congress prodded the Forest Service to ramp up the cut, from a few billion board-feet per year to 10 to 12 billion board-feet. Like a vampire in the full moon, the Forest Service turned into a timber beast and ravaged the land. It stopped only when lawsuits in the Pacific Northwest drove a wooden stake through the beast’s heart.
As a regional journalist, I wrote a lot about the agency during the 1980s and 1990s. At one point I called on the nation to "clear-cut the Forest Service." That was then. Now, I am one of five delegates chosen by the agency’s Region II to represent it at the 100th anniversary celebration of the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., this January.
The agency has diminished since the days when L.C. Case and hundreds like him ruled their domains through their personal authority. Rangers still rode horses in the 1970s, but the riders were getting fat. Staff had been pushed indoors to manage paperwork caused by the new environmental laws.
They also found themselves mandated to work with the public. That was a joke.
Even the best of them couldn’t forget that until recently they had been lords and masters of the forest. At one meeting in our small town, the staffer kept referring to the audience as "people of the public persuasion." He thought we were a cult.
At another public meeting, also in 1982, the forest supervisor, sitting in the audience, decided the talk had gone on long enough. He made a throat-slitting gesture and his subordinate ended the meeting in mid-sentence.
The transition from protector of the forests to destroyer of the forests that took place after World War II had at least left the agency in charge. But for much of the 1990s, the forests were managed by the courts or by the White House. And public disdain translated into a shrinking budget and vanishing prestige.
Now, I think, the agency’s situation is changing again. This November, I attended a regional rehearsal for the coming centennial get-together. People interested in the national forests and grasslands of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska gathered in Fort Collins, Colo., to review the agency’s first 100 years and to look ahead.
I expected a grim gathering. The agency is at a low point in budget, personnel and authority. Staff is overworked. Roads are deteriorating. Hikers and our dogs, off-road vehicles and weeds run roughshod over the land. Nevertheless, the meeting was upbeat. Why are you feeling good? I asked several people.
"Things are looking up," was the best they could do. But I think I know one reason.
After the obligatory references to the agency’s godlike founder, Gifford Pinchot, discussion among the 200 or so attendees moved to a future that involved cooperating with citizens, groups and other agencies both within the national forests and across boundaries. This kind of talk has been a staple for years at Forest Service meetings. But at this meeting, it seemed real.
The agency’s leaders and staff have come to realize they can’t manage the land without help. Most important, they’ve gone from resenting that truth to welcoming it.
It’s happened because the agency has been clear-cut. Retirements, budget cuts, pressure from lawsuits and more bad press than Saddam Hussein got has resulted in a new Forest Service. Now it is up to us — "people of the public persuasion" — to work with and on behalf of the agency to restore, protect and even do some careful exploitation of the national forests.