Interview with Gordon Small

For my portion of the project, I interviewed Gordon Small. I met with he and his wife at their home in Waynesville, North Carolina on November 2nd. This post briefly discusses Gordon’s work in the Forest Service and his life since retirement.

Gordon Small worked for the Forest Service from 1963 until 1996. During that time, he worked in a assortment of different offices, moving fourteen times over the course of his career. He also held a variety of different positions as he eventually moved up to the position of Director of Lands for the Washington Office. Over the course of our conversation, Gordon explained to me what the different positions entailed, the changes – both political and social – the Forest Service went through during his time in service, how he faced these changes and other challenges, the relationships he developed with colleagues, and what his work in the Forest Service meant to him. Throughout our conversation, it was obvious that Gordon is proud of the work he and others have done in the Forest Service and that his primary motivation has been working toward something that will provide for future generations. Gordon noted that, “One thing I really liked about doing lands work – you made a difference for the long term…The national forests [are] the options for the future.”

Gordon’s career in the Forest Service took off when he began work in Kentucky. Under the guidance of an encouraging supervisor, Gordon eventually was recruited to work on the Red Bird Purchase Unit in the Cumberland National Forest (now Daniel Boone National Forest). While working in Kentucky, Gordon met his wife, Ginny. Gordon’s work was part of a larger project funded under the Weeks Act that allowed the Forest Service to acquire lands for the eastern forests.  (Note that the western and eastern forests developed differently – the western forests were reserved by the federal government. The Weeks Act of 1911 allowed the federal government to purchase lands in the eastern United States. The United States government has acquired over 20 million acres of forest land under the Weeks Act). While working on the Red Bird, Gordon helped the Forest Service acquire some 70,000 acres of land that would eventually become part of the Daniel Boone National Forest.

From Kentucky, Gordon and Ginny moved to Atlanta where he worked on review appraisals, special uses, and minerals. Gordon then went on to work in land and mineral uses on the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas. Gordon continued work in acquisition of land and also dealt with emerging legislation, such as the National Environmental Protection Act, that impacted Forest Service land management policies. In 1977, Gordon moved to Washington and worked as chair of the Land Purchase Desk. The Smalls stayed in Washington until 1981 when they moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Milwaukee, he served as Director of Lands, Minerals, and Watershed. During his time in Wisconsin, the Forest Service faced budget cuts under the Reagan Administration that effectively removed federal monies to acquire new land. In spite of this, Gordon noted that they were able to continue doing their jobs with minimal disruptions. In 1989, Gordon was selected as Director of Lands for the Washington Office. As Gordon noted in our interview, “Lands covers a lot of things.” In addition to land purchases, he also oversaw land exchanges and dealt with land uses, title claims and encroachments. During this time, Gordon also participated in a number of legislative hearings and served and worked with the public to negotiate land purchases that met the needs of the public, private industry, and the federal government. In evaluating his time spent in the Washington Office, Gordon noted, “What’s required is that you tell everybody the truth. You tell everybody the same story – both sides, all the time, every time. And, if you do that, you’re fine. And if you do that, folks come to you when an issue blows up or new legislation or whatever, they will respect what you have to say.”

Gordon retired in 1996 and he and Ginny settled in Waynesville, North Carolina. Since his retirement, Gordon has continued to work toward helping his community. He has worked in establishing a computer user group in the Waynesville area, setting up computers in the homes of people suffering from diabetes, and volunteering in church related activities within Cook and Jackson Counties. Gordon also volunteered to rebuild homes following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A rather modest man, Gordon was somewhat reluctant to discuss his volunteer work, but Ginny made sure to prod it out of him during our interview. In speaking of her husband, Ginny stated, “Gordon has always been a very private person. He doesn’t make a big deal about what he did. When we were in DC, he did a lot of great stuff, but yet, if you weren’t directly involved with him in this, you never knew what he did. Since retirement, he’s built his own reputation here in Haywood County. Very few people know what he did. He’s very private about all of this”. In spite of his reluctance to discuss more personal issues, it is apparent from our interview that throughout his career and retirement, Gordon has worked toward achieving some kind of greater good within the forests and within his community. Gordon notes, “I’m as introverted as you get. You leave me alone and I’ll go in my cave and I will roll that rock across the front and you will not see me again.” In spite of this, Gordon worked in a variety of public capacities, testified before legislative committees, and negotiated land acquisition and use with various communities. In reflection, Gordon said, “ I’m very grateful for the experiences I had with people I got to meet and work with… it’s something I could put my life into that I felt might count for something in the long run.”

If you would like to read more about Weeks Act, please see the following:

You can also read more about the Cumberlands in this book recommended by Mr. Small:

– Angelia