Interviewers: Clare Harp and Russell Howard
Interview Date: November 9, 2012
Location: Downwind Café, Atlanta, Georgia
Listen: Read Transcript
BOB JAMES INTERVIEW
Conducted by: Russell Howard and Clare Harp
November 9, 2012
Russell: This is Russell Howard and Clare Harp with Mr. Bob James for the Forest Service interview at the Downwind Cafe in Atlanta, Georgia. Growing up in Arkansas, did you do a lot of outdoors activities that led you to join the Forest Service?
Mr. James: Yes, I grew up on a farm in north Arkansas, and we were involved in a lot of things, hunting and fishing and things like that. My uncle started working for the Arkansas Forestry Commission, and I became interested in what they were doing, so when I was a junior high school I knew that I wanted to be a forester and I wanted to work for the US Forest Service.
Russell: What are the relations between the Arkansas Forestry Commission and the National Forest Service?
Mr. James: The Arkansas Forestry Commission of course operates under the state and they have state forest and provide assistance to land owners throughout the state and they are also a partner with the US Forest Service under the state and private branch of the US Forest Service and through the US Forest Service state and private branch they work with the whole national Forest Service and provide assistance to landowners in each one of the states they work with.
Russell: And what specifically did your uncle do?
Mr. James: He was a fire guard, his main job was fighting fire, but he also did timber work, he did some what was called timber stand improvement which was taking undesirable species out of the stands, he also did some wildlife enumeration, and then he did some other type of work like road improvement. He did water shed work, those type of things.
Russell: Pretty long range, can you tell us more about the forestry college you went to?
Mr. James: Sure. The College I went to was Arkansas A and M, which is now University of Arkansas at Monticello. We, uh, we…in those days, which was, I started in 1955 in the college, and we had one curriculum of study, which was forest management, and our whole focus and thing was management of…for timber management, we studied also the relationships between wildlife, water, the recreation, and other things that we think of when related to the forest, so each one of those was a part of our study, but we were focused mainly on the growing up timber, the harvest of timer, reforestation, and the protection of the timber from insects, disease, wild and fire.
Russell: Did a lot of your other colleagues at the Forest Service have similar backgrounds with degrees in forestry schools or the forest department of other schools?
Mr. James: Most of my colleagues had a degree in forest management yes, a few of them had a degree in forestry with a wildlife management minor, but remember this is in the early 60’s when I went to work with the Forest Service so it was in later years that we began to find other disciplines within the Forest Service such as ecologist, taxonomists, wildlife management people, and then even in later years we began to have archeologists and the cultural resources people joined our ranks in the Forest Service.
Russell: Did you enjoy your time at Arkansas A and M? Is there any interesting stories, did you guys get to go out into the woods a lot? A lot of hands on practice?
Mr. James: I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the college, and we spent a lot of time in the forest, because after we got our core curriculum out of the way, and each one of our forestry classes or courses involved a lab which was usually four hours in the afternoon in the forest. We were very fortunate at Arkansas A and M, we had about five thousand acres of land that had been donated to the college boy the federal government after World War 2, and we were able to practice forest management, wildlife, and all of the disciplines on that land, so we spent a lot of time out there, of course and then we had one summer session that was totally field work.
Russell: And did you come to be employed by the Forest Service shortly after graduation?
Mr. James: Yes, I graduated in 1961, began my career in the Forest Service in 1962, because there was a hiring freeze in the federal government in 1961, and so the next year I was able to start my career in California with the Forest Service on the Eldorado National Forest. You had a facility you may have heard of, Lake Tahoe, and my first job was overseeing the construction of the camp ground on Lake Tahoe, the Forest Service owns about maybe ten miles of water frontage on Lake Tahoe, and they have a large recreation area on Lake Tahoe and that was my job to start with.
Russell: Arkansas and Lake Tahoe, those are on two different regions for the Forest Service, correct?
Mr. James: Yes, California is region five. Arkansas is region eight, Southern Region.
Russell: Were they very similar in the way they were managed and operated, these two different regions?
Mr. James: Similar in philosophy, and direction from the operational ideas of the agency, the difference in terrain, species, and that type of things was vastly different because of the specifics of the southwest region, which is region five was mountainous, and wide variety of species that we dealt with from the pines, the furs, to the hardwoods, to all of the other things that are there. And in the south of course, especially in the coastal plain forest, it was pine management.
Russell: How long were you in California?
Mr. James: I was there for nine years, started in 1962, and I left in 1971.
Russell: What all did you do there aside from camp construction?
Mr. James: Well my first job was like I said in the camp ground construction recreation, I moved from there over into timber management, and the whole area of that was timber sale preparation, which meant marking the timber and then all the way through to the sales and to the awarding the contract of the sale and then overseeing the contractor that did the harvesting, then we did a procedure they call blister rust control, blister rust was a disease that attacked the sugar pine, which was a predominate species in the Sierra Nevada’s, and the alternate host to the ribes which was blister rust was the goose berry, and we did that, that was one of our silvicultural practices. The other one was we went in and took some of the undesirable species so that the more commercial species could grow faster, so we would take those out. Then we did a lot of burn rehabilitation, because they had had several large fires on the end of the district that we did, so I spent a lot of time plating trees. And in the winter time we did a lot for things like winter camps and snow, checking on the snow and how much water we had, and then after I had been on the district about a year while we started a large water management project in cooperation with the city of Sacramento, and this water management project was was they wanted to build some large reservoirs on the nation forest land to supply water to them, to the city of Sacramento and the valley. And we began to manage that, and that had the whole array of resources, fire management, fire control, timber management, recreation, so we got all of that on our district
Russell: Were forest fires a major problem in California?
Mr. James: Yes, fire season started about middle of May, and that was the end of the rainy season, and by the middle of November, we might begin to get snow, but up until that time it was dry the whole time. Lightening fires were our greatest source of ignitions, and we spent a lot of time fighting fire. Thankfully, most of them were small, but we did have a lot of larger fires. And of course with the Forest Service, each one of the employees was expected to be a part of the fire organization.
Russell: Were there other diseases that affected other trees, or were there other diseases also a major concern aside from fires?
Mr. James: The other major disease that we dealt with in region five or in the Sierra Nevada’s was dwarf mistletoe, it was a longer term effect upon the tree. It did have a decided effect upon that. That was about it. We didn’t have any other pests that bothered the species much like they do today. You know they have a whole array now of things that they have to be concerned with, mountain pine needle, and a lot of those other things.
Russell: Do these disease seriously effect the timber for their sale and usage?
Mr. James: They were not so much an effect upon the timber, on the wood itself, as it was about what they did to the stand. They would cause stands to deteriorate, they would not grow well. And so it would keep them from doing that. It would cut down on the numbers of trees that we would have in our area.
Russell: What are the stands?
Mr. James: The stand of trees. You know we think about a large area of trees, maybe in a drainage or watershed, places like that, and that would be what we would consider a stand of trees. If something like dwarf mistletoe began to invade that, it would be a concern to us because it could go throughout the whole stand, and eventually, over a long period of time, could cause all of the trees to die, or they would not grow.
Russell: How did you combat these diseases?
Mr. James: Well like I said the blister rust, we did that by destroying the alternate host, the ribes plant, which is a goose berry. The mistletoe, we would go in and prune out the little growth on the mistletoe, you just prune that out, and get rid of it, from the trees, when they was small, not in the larger ones.
Russell: So most fires were caused by lightning, were there any caused by manmade? Vandalism or anything similar to that?
Mr. James: Most of them were lightening cause, we had some related to logging, and we had some related to accidents, like someone would want to burn a pile of leaves or something like that on a windy day and the fire would get away. And a very small amount, I’m relating to the days I was in that area, we had some arsonists, but it was not nearly as prevalent as it is today.
Russell: Where did you go after California?
Mr. James: I went to South Carolina, was on the Francis Marion and Sumter National Forest.
Russell: Another big change?
Mr. James: Yes, that was a great cultural change, because we had lived in Northern California, up in the mountains in the winters and things like that, and it was a cultural change, because we had gone from a predominately white community, farming community really, timbering community, into South Carolina, and they had just started court ordered total integration in schools. And our children went from having almost all Caucasian teachers to having one black teacher one hour and one white teacher the next hour, and it was really a cultural shock to our children. Of course we had grown up in the South and so we were accustomed to living in the mixed communities, but our children were not. And then job wise it was whole different way of life, because when I was in California, we had a total block of government land that we dealt with, and in South Carolina the land had been purchased under Weeks law, and it was not a continuous block. You said you’d been to Talladega, so you know there’s private land interspersed with it, so we had a lot more interface with the public, and that brings good things and it brings bad things, or not so good things.
Russell: What were some of the good things?
Mr. James: Well you have a lot of different or more people who are concerned about what’s going on in the forest, and so you have a lot of eyes and ears out there and so and you are able to develop relationships with the people out there, so it makes your job easier. But then on the other side it also causes problems with the not of people wanting to encroach on the national forest land or maybe build there dog pen or their hog pen on the national forest land cause they live next door to it so they don’t think anything of crossing the line, and those kind of things, and then you have problems with your neighbors sometimes setting fire to your property or letting it get away from them or trash and this type of thing. There’s a lot of good things and a lot of bad things.
Russell: So does South Carolina also have a problem with fires?
Mr. James: Yes, yes, there would be forests over there, most of there’s were trains from lightening caused fires to human caused, person caused fires, whether it’d be trash burning or accidental fire, you know, debris burning or sometimes we did find out that we had a lot of more people that was willing to set the forest on fire.
Russell: On purpose?
Mr. James: On purpose.
Russell: Were these people often caught? Brought to justice?
Mr. James: Probably about 50% of the time. It was as most federal judges in those days would tell us that it’s very hard to prove that someone intentionally set the fire unless you watched them do it, so they would not allow circumstantial evidence to be used, like you know, boot tracks and those kind of things to be used as evidence to convict a person.
Russell: So has there been a lot of change, like new detection tools to find people who are intentionally setting the forest on fire?
Mr. James: I think there’s probably more awareness with the general public on it, so therefore there are more, the public pressure against that kind of thing has had a lot more to do with it than our law enforcement has done, in my personal opinion.
Russell: What else did you do in South Carolina?
Mr. James: My, I was the assistant ranger, we closed down the district I was on, there was a consolidation in project for the Francis Marion national forest, they had three ranger districts, and so we closed down, or consolidated into two ranger districts while I was there, so I spent quite a bit of time getting that, that process done, and then I was there the year and a half, then I moved to Arkansas on the Ozark National Forest.
Russell: What are all the duties of a ranger?
Mr. James: Ranger was, He was the overall manager of the whole district, he oversaw everything on on the district, he had these people that were assigned to the district, he had a timber management assistance, most of the time he had an assistant ranger, which was a person that, if he was not there, then the assistant ranger was in charge of the district, and then he oversaw the wildlife resources, a lot of the forests in the south, and especially in the west too, have a grazing permits, so they oversee the grazing, the allotment of cattle and number of cattle, and of course work with the Fish and Wildlife Service, fish and games, state fish and game, in managing the habit for the wildlife on the forest, the US Forest Service manages the habitat, but the state fish and game owns the wildlife, so they work in cooperation with each other.
Russell: So when you were assistant ranger there, did you work with timber still?
Mr. James: I, part of my job was still timber, it was more like an executive position on a smaller scale, but the timber people worked for me, and I was the overall manager of that, as was the ranger, I reported to him. The ranger, ranger is a junior executive, his assistant is a smaller executive than that, he has a responsibility for everything that happens on the district, and that includes public relations, interface with the public, all of the county that the politicians, the county elected officials and things like that. When we were in northern California, because we had such a block of federal land, we really didn’t have any interface with the county officials, except it was handled more with the supervisor’s office level, so but when I moved to South Carolina, we were right there with those folks, with the governor of South Carolina who lived on private land within our district, so it became even more of an important relationship with your neighbors.
Russell: So what exactly did the Forest Service do public relations wise to help forest fires?
Mr. James: Well of course nationally, was the program, the Smokey Bear program, and that was with the state foresters, and US foresters, all the wild land and fire agencies and the national ad council, that was and then of course we, down at the district level, we worked with the schools and we worked with the civic organizations, and worked with the local fire people, and we did prevention type programs with then. Then when the fire danger would get to a certain level, then we would put our people out in the field in our vehicles, and we would make contact with the locals, and all of our recreation areas and things like that, we would contact them with a message of be careful of the fire, and at certain points, we could actually close the national forest, to anyone coming on except unless they lived there or something like that, so we could do that, but very seldom did we want to do that, because that always it did not help your relations unless it was to the point, and people were pretty understanding when you explained, you know well, that fire danger is so bad now, we don’t want you getting hurt, so don’t want y ou, we’re just not going to allow you go camp on such and such camp ground.
Russell: So in these days were the forests becoming popular, were there camps in South Carolina?
Mr. James: Yes, we had… all of the ranger districts have some kind of recreation, you know, camping recreation, or hunting recreation, or fishing, or something like that, so all of the camp was open to entry, unless, for some specific reason, the forest supervisor or the chief of the Forest Service closes it to any kind of entry, so, you know, all the districts in South Carolina we had recreation that we managed.
Russell: Were there a lot of campers?
Mr. James: In the spring, and in the fall, we had a lot of people that would like to camp, on the forest. South Carolina’s like a lot of the coastal plain area, in the summer time, it’s so hot and the bugs are so bad, not a lot of people want to camp there, or be out there.
Russell: Was camping a relatively new thing? Or did people really understand how to camp, did they know what to do, or was it just being developed as sort of a recreational hobby?
Mr. James: I think when I was in California it was the norm of the city people, the people who lived in the population areas, San Francisco, Sacramento, and all of the other population areas in California liked to get out in the national forests, in the national parks, were there outlet where they could go, so they understood and were good campers. When we moved to South Carolina, people down there, they didn’t have the big population centers like they did, and so their camping might be less sophisticated than what they did, they would come, maybe overnight, or something like that, or it was a different style of camping that they had.
Russell: So after South Carolina you went back to Arkansas?
Mr. James: Went back to Arkansas, as the fire and aviation, or fire information education, or public relations staff on the forest supervisor’s.
Russell: What all did that entail? More training with Smokey Bear?
Mr. James: Well, yes, Smokey Bear, that was the fire side, was more of, you know, managing, we had the seven districts on the forest, working with the districts and their fire programs, and their suppression for prevention, and management of their prescribed burning, because in the South, prescribed burning is a big thing in management of forests, and the other was public relations, or information education, was we had a project on the Ozarks, this was the Ozarks on the Saint Frances’ National Forest, we had a project going on there called Blanchard Springs Caverns, it was the first developed, recreation development of its kind in the Forest Service, where we actually had a commercial facility on the forest, and that was Blanchard Springs Cavern, it was a large limestone cavern, the Forest Service developed the trails, the interpretive guides, and all of that to open it to the public, and it’s still operational.
Russell: Was it popular?
Mr. James: Very popular, very popular.
Russell: Still popular?
Mr. James: Still popular, it was when we opened it in 1973, it’s still going great. Like I say it was one of a kind in 1973 for the Forest Service, even now there are some other facilities, but not on the scale that the Blanchard Springs Cavern is.
Russell: You also, along with fires, fighting fire, you worked timber management.
Mr. James: Mhmm, I did.
Russell: What was that like? Was there stiff competition for timber contracts?
Mr. James: Yes, most every national forest within the whole system, and in particular the ones I was associated with, had a saw mill, a pulp mill, or a plywood mill, or something that was contingent to that district, and they depended a lot upon the timber that came off of the national forest to keep them going, so I remember in 1970. 1970 we had a large timber sale in Northern California, and the bid price on the pine timber in that was a record breaking, was a record price, on that particular sale, because there was three different mills that needed that timber for them to keep operating and so they bid. You don’t know what a thousand board feet is, but when I went to school and everything, they’d bid it for a hundred and seventy five thousand a hundred, which was unheard in that type, in that level.. most of the, well a lot of the grass lands and things like that, of course they did not have any timber, but most of the southern forests all wanted, all had timber, and they were mainly managed, especially the coastal plains for commercial timber, as well was wildlife and grazing, and water, and the other things that go with it.
Russell: What all else did you do when you returned to Arkansas? As fire management, was that all you were involved with?
Mr. James: Well mainly fire and the public relations, especially in the opening of the Blanchard Springs Cavern, but right about that time the Forest Service began a program called Environmental Education, and we began to teach teachers how to teach a class in environmental education, we provided the instruction to them, we provided the materials to them, and we would have workshops throughout the state, and invite them to come, and we would have a week long session that they were there. It really went over great, the Arkansas Education Department really liked it, and so they developed their own curriculum, and they developed their own teaching based upon what we had taught them, and it became actually a model for the rest of the region in environmental education. That was a lot of fun, because we got out to deal with people right on the ground and to help them teach kids, you know, it was really a hands on type thing, one of the things that we, one of the segments was water quality, one of the schools up in Northwest Arkansas, ya’ll probably don’t remember, don’t know, but northwest Arkansas is a large chicken producing place. So they began to do some water quality things in a lake up in northwest Arkansas, and they found out that at a certain level in that lake, a certain dip in that lake, there was a layer of arsenic compound in the water, and since I’m an old farm boy anyway, and they began to say “well what could cause that?” And I said tell me what do you have all around that lake where that the watershed is draining into that lake. And they said pastureland, and crop land. And I said what do they use for fertilizer most of the time? And they said chicken litter. And I said, what the growth, and I don’t think they do it now, but the growth compound that they used to use in chicken feed was an arsenic compound. I mean it wasn’t much, but they checked it out, and they said sure enough, you’re right.
Russell: So were there changes made to the chicken feed?
Mr. James: Yeah they’ve changed it now, the growth thing that they use in chicken feed now is not arsenic. They didn’t go public with that. But that was a fun thing, you know, that was one of those kind of things, like I get to do this, you know.
Russell: So what about Smokey the Bear, do you know when that was implemented, how that came about?
Mr. James: Yes, should have brought you my Smokey Bear. Smokey Bear was back in the 50’s. A large fire in New Mexico, after the fire was out, people were out there and they found this bear cub, before that, they had got into a program of fire prevention, and Harry Resale, who was an artist here for the Southern Region, he had drawn some pictures of the bear, you know the whole fire community kind of adopted this thing. Well, when they found the bear cub in New Mexico, they said, and the New Mexico state forester was the one who found him, brought him in and did all the things that got him healed up and everything like that, and they decided that, and they named him Smokey, and they decided that, this is, we’re going to use this as our national fire prevention campaign. Because everybody loved the bear, you know, and all this, and so they did, and they went into Washington and they build a whole fire prevention program around the bear, and they focused it on kids. What the whole fire prevention campaign was around was changing the attitudes of people, and how do you reach parents? You reach them through the kids. And so, you know, when my kids was growing up, they’d say “Daddy, Smokey Bear says you shouldn’t throw your matches out the window.” So, you know, I’m gonna do that, I’m going to listen, so that’s what Smokey Bear was built around, and of course the National Ad Council and all of that just took that whole thing, and made it a national program. Back in the 90’s, they began to change it a little bit to wild land fire prevention, which was fires that were not managed fires, so then they began to make it into that, because up until that time, well, Smoky said “all fires are bad”, but we know that all fires are not bad, and so they changed that. So the bear was wild land fire and the prescribed fire is good.
Russell: Was that like controlled fire?
Mr. James: Controlled fire, prescribed fire.
Russell: To prevent a.
Mr. James: Management fires, you know, there’s different names of them out there, but all of the forestry agencies, all of the land management agencies, and private and public, I mean, they all used some kind of prescription fire to manage their forest, cause if they don’t, here in the coastal plain, if you don’t use some kind of thing, you can’t walk through the forest, it just won’t work.
Russell: Well, we’re by a runway here, and you mentioned you were in the airplanes, how did that come about using airplanes to fight fires?
Mr. James: Back in the, after World War 2, actually after World War 1, the Forest Service began to look at the use of aircraft in their wild land, or fire protection program. They said “well, if we can get a look at the fire from up above, well we can help our fire people do that, so they began to use some of the old Curtis Ginny, old single engine aircraft, you’ve seen pictures of them, things like that. But that’s some of the first aircraft that they used, they were used as spotter planes and they would fly over. They would write down what they saw, and put it in a thing and fly over the fire camp, and throw out their messages for the fire people, and then after World War 2, some people began to experiment with aircraft that could drop water, and maybe first of all water on the fire, so they began to do that, and then later on, someone said “well maybe there’s some chemicals we can use to retard the spread of fire, and so the Forest Experiment Station in Riverside, California began to experiment with some, and in Missoula, Montana, began to experiment with chemicals, and fire retardant, and they began to use some of those, and some of the world war two airplanes, TBM, they used… some of the first ones was in the old open cockpit airplanes, they would fill up balloon like things and then fly over them and throw it out, you know, and just see what would happen. So they did all of those kind of things, and then, of course, as the science progressed, and we learned more about fire, and fire retardant chemicals and aircraft the use of things, we thought, well we got a lot of these guys that come out of World War 2, that were close support fighter pilots, bombers and this kind of stuff, so let’s use some of their skills, and so they began to do some of that, and they said, yeah, we got some of these other guys out here that fly low level all the time in their crop duster, so we began to use them, and then they developed more and more, the art of aerial retardant capability, and so as you know now we have large aircraft that drop lots of water, and the Southern Region had aircraft that they used, what we’d called lead plane, which is the small aircraft that shows the big retardant bomber where to drop, they developed that program and we had aircraft that were stationed here at Peachtree-Dekalb Airport that did that. And then we also had, we needed to move our people, our fire experts from one location to another on a fairly rapid basis, and so we used some of the smaller aircraft to do that. Of course, in the meantime, well actually back in World War 2 and before, the Forest Service began to train and develop guys that would jump out of airplanes on parachutes, land on the fire, and fight fire in the Smoke Jumper program, and that was born. Actually some of the Smoke Jumpers were the first trainers for the airborne troops in the army. And so they trained them in Missoula, Montana, and so.
Russell: That sounds incredibly dangerous, was it successful?
Mr. James: Very successful, one of our more successful programs, until, recently, and I’m trying to remember, and it wasn’t but about a few years ago, we had never a fatality on a jump, a fire jump. Now we’ve had some of our smoke jumpers that were killed on a fire, but not on the descent into the fire. It’s, when you have large areas of wilderness area, and we don’t have large areas of wilderness here, we can get to all of our fires on the ground. We had some jumpers back in the early 70’s in the Southern Region up in Virginia, but we could drive to all of our fires that we have down here very quickly, but when you have large areas of wilderness areas, you know, thousands of acres, and you have lightening fires that occur in that, you’re not going to get there by walking, so if you. But, now then the fire managers of those units, they have to make some decisions about is that a fire that we want to burn, that we want it to do this management procedure for us, or is it a fire that we want to put out. And so they’d make that decision, and that’s a part of the job, and you see more and more of our district and forest personnel getting to be fire specialists, that’s the reason, and you see, they have to have that to make that decision.
Russell: Sounds like a very tough decision, what are some of the pros and cons each way?
Mr. James: Well uh… The… You decide, is there a reason? Like… Do you need…? Have you got a lot of fuel in this area that you really would not like to have…? Is there a hazard if this… if we allowed this fuel to stay here? Is it going to be more of a hazard than it would be if we just… uh… used this fire to get rid of this fuel? Uh… You make a decision: If we allow this fire to do this management job, are we going to be able to contain it within this watershed, or a… this valley or wherever it is, can you do that? Uh… and the other one is a… what’s the long-range weather forecast? Are we going to have a… moderate summer? Are we gonna have a dry summer? And… so all of those kinds of things make up your decision whether it’s a go a… The one thing you don’t want it to do is you don’t want it to come out and be a problem on somebody’s private land. You don’t want it to become a public relations problem. You don’t want it to be a Yellowstone that happened in 1988. Uh… So those kind of things that you have to do, or is it going to do irreparable damage to the resource that is out there that will… that is going… in other words, is it going to totally blacken this area that you have out there? So, those are the things that the fire manager looks at and he says, “Ok it’s a go. Or… ok we’re gonna put this one out, we’ll go put the jumpers on there, we’re gonna send the tractors in or we’re gonna do whatever else.”
Russell: What happened in Yellowstone in 1988?
Mr. James: Uh… the Park Service… had not had any fires in Yellowstone in a long time. They had a large concentration of a… dead Lodgepole Pine that was down there, and so they uh… they had a… three fires that were going on in Yellowstone at the same time, and the Forest Service had a fire that was a… outside on the Bridger-Teton National Forest and a… so… But the fire on the Bridger-Teton was… it was making a run toward the park on the west side and so the Forest Service said to the Yellowstone, says,
“We have this fire that’s coming toward Yellowstone and we know that you have a large area of fuel in here. Do you want us to stop the fire?” At that particular time, the Forest Service had the capability of stopping the fire, and the Park Service looked at that, and their fire manager said, “No we want to get rid of all of that fuel.” And so they said, “Tell the Forest Service we accept it as a management fire. Let it come on the park.” And that was the fire that uh… you know… Y’all are probably too young to remember that, but there was… I mean it was disastrous… It was… and they did not completely take into account the weather and the long-range weather forecast, and uh… Actually what was going to happen when all of that fire, all of that fuel, began to burn… Because it began to generate its own… actually generate its own weather. I mean there was thunderstorms over Yellowstone like you wouldn’t believe. So… I happened to be on the area command on Yellowstone on that one… That was… Spent twenty-one days in west Yellowstone. It was interesting. We totally shut down the town of west Yellowstone because we had all the firefighters in there… It was… We had a city in Yellowstone National Park; it was probably bigger than a lot of cities… Yeah… Certainly bigger than Auburn.
Russell: Well, how long were you in Arkansas the second time you went there?
Mr. James: I was there for 4 years.
Russell: And where did you go after that?
Mr. James: I went to the Ouachita National Forest in Oklahoma, and Talihina, Oklahoma as District Ranger. And uh… I uh… stayed there a year and uh… Very interesting district because I got to work with the Native American people in Oklahoma: the Cherokees and the Choctaws and uh… We did not have a large timber district as such, but we had a large a… number of fires because a lot of the people over there were uh… upset with the Forest Service because the Forest Service would not allow them free range of their cattle. And so one of the things that local people do is, if they’re not… if they’re upset with the Forest Service… is… they know that a… the Forest Service fights fire, so they know that they can go set the woods on fire. So they do that and they did that quite a bit. I also had a um… I was the manager on the Talimena Drive, which went from Talihina, Oklahoma to Mena, Arkansas, and it was a Scenic Drive right down the ridge top for twenty-eight miles. Beautiful scenery on both sides, and on that drive was also a uh… an arboretum named after Senator Kerr from Oklahoma, and it was on federal land. Still is. And it… it’s a very scenic place and they… and it’s still a very, very much operational arboretum. So we managed that and had a lot of fun doing that. Came from there to the regional office in Atlanta after a year and uh… as uh… and cooperative fire which was the uh… co-op fire side which worked with the state forestry agencies and work with them for about a… three years. And then we combined the uh… southeastern area’s state and private forestry with the Southern Region, and it ‘came all one office under the Southern Regional forester, and I went over to Fire and Aviation Management Assistant Director for Fire and Emergency Management Operations, and that’s where I retired from. One of the fun things that I got to do… several of the… I had a lot of fun… my career was fun. I enjoyed it from the day I started and I can’t believe I got to do a lot of the things that I did. But one of the fun things that I got to do was, we initiated in the Southern Region, uh, Native American fire crews out of Oklahoma. A lot of the southwest Indians and a lot of the other regions that had a lot of Indian tribes with them, had fire fighters that came out of those tribes and so uh… When I had been in Oklahoma a while, I was on the Choctaw Principal Chiefs Man Power Council, and I saw that they had… they needed a lot of uh… opportunities to work because they didn’t… Where they are in Oklahoma, there wasn’t a lot of work to do. So… we began to put together these uh… fire crews and uh… work with the tribes and train them and get them uh… get them ready. And so… we started out with six crews, and when I retired, we had twenty crews that came out of Oklahoma and uh… that was really a fun thing to do.
Russell: Well, is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
Mr. James: Well, one of the things that we did in uh… in the southern area and region was… Like I say, we work with all of the state foresters, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and uh… we began a um… uh… And I say we, uh I mean we did it here in the Southern Region: We did a prescribed burning academy for the whole nation and uh… so every… People would come from all over the country and the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Park Service, to learn how to prescribe burn, and they would do it down here in Florida, North Florida, and they still have that going on. We instituted an engine academy, fire land pumper trucks like you see the Forest Service, not these big rigs that the city people do, but the Forest Service type. We started an engine academy and it’s still going on and uh… training people on how to use water to uh… to fight fire with, and to do prescribe burning with, and we began uh… a program of uh… foam use in wild land fire and the southern area guy, a young guy over in Texas, developed the uh… idea of protein foam and how to put it on the fire lines. So, we did those things. Those are some of the fun things that I got to do. And then, I guess the highlight of my career was I guess was uh… a year before I retired I got to be the uh… acting Director of the National Interagency Fire Center for the Forest Service for the summer fire season. So… those were a lot of the things that we got to do uh… and uh… it was a… job that I thought was productive. We got to do a lot of things that uh… meant something. Thankfully, it was before the era of computers that come into the thing… And so… foresters were foresters and they went out into the field, and they spent time out in the forest, and they… Not that they don’t now but… they spent a lot more time out… They got to know people, they got to uh… interface with the public, and they built a good relationship with those people out there. So… and I’ve interjected a bunch of biases in there, so y’all got to sift through all that.
Russell: That’s alright.
Mr. James: I brought something that y’all might be interested in. I don’t know whether you are. But uh… I talked about Blanchard Springs Caverns, and this is the history of the Ozark National Forest I thought y’all might be interested in, and you could use it and… I noticed that you’re talking about Weeks Law. That shows some of the… the Ozark was a national forest that was set aside partially out of public domain land, and a part of it was purchased by Weeks Law. The Blanchard Springs Caverns was purchased a lot under the Weeks Law.
Russell: Did you work a lot with the Weeks Law?
Mr. James: I didn’t do a lot of… I didn’t do anything… I was not in the Land Acquisition department. I was over on the other side of dealing with the land, but… and I thought that was kind of interesting, you know, this is uh… that’s how that thing shrunk and expanded and everything, like, you know that’s… back when… does that say? Yeah, this is 28-1935. Politics had a great deal to do with national forest land. And as you can see this is the ’52… This was basically how it was…
Russell: It’s gotten bigger.
Mr. James: Yeah, it’s expanded, and it contracts and that’s the… Congress has to set the boundaries of the National Forest and they set those boundaries and, any land within those boundaries can be purchased on a willing seller and a willing buyer basis. So, if I own 500 acres within the boundaries of the National Forest, and I want to sell it, I can go to the Forest Service and say, “Do you want to buy it?”
And they would say, “Yes, we got the money.” Or, “No, we don’t have the money.” So anyway, I brought those… Y’all can read them. If they’re useful: great. If not, why uh… and uh… that’s all I know.
Russell: Do you have any more good stories?
Mr. James: *chuckles*
Russell: I don’t want to leave it on um… fires and stuff.
Mr. James: *laughs*
Mr. James: Oh ok… Alright… Let’s see… Oh! I never will forget! We had uh… over on the Ozark National Forest, we had uh… an old gentlemen that lived on the forest and um… He was always running his cattle. He didn’t have any… a lot of pastureland. So, he turned ‘em out on the National Forest. Well, our Ranger would go out and he’d find the cows out, and so he’d round the cows up and they’d impound his cows.
Mr. James: So, the old man… He was a local character and everything like that, so they’d have a hearing, and, you know, and the judge that would uh… admonish him about running his cows, says, “You know you’re not supposed to do that.” So finally, they got enough uh… *chuckles* they got enough evidence against him, and so they brought him into federal court, took him in the Little Rock… I mean here’s this ‘ole cowboy, bib overalls, straw hat, big cut of day’s work in his jaw and everything. So he goes in the federal court and the thing… and anyway… he got down there and the judge agreed with the Forest Service, and said, “He’s right. You’re not supposed to run your cows on the National Forest land. So, you’re… Therefore you are directed to keep your cows up.” *laughs* So… and the ‘ole man said uh… “Well, Your Honor, I been running my cows out there for the last forty-five years.” He said, “I’m eighty-eight years old now, and I really don’t see that I’m going to change much.”
All: *hysteric laughter*
Mr. James: So… So… the Ranger said to the Judge… he… the Judge said… told him: “Now I’m telling you, don’t run your cows out there…” The Ranger says, “Judge, who’s going to enforce your order?”[The Judge] said, “That’s your job!”
Clare: *laughs* Eighty-eight years old… I love it…
Mr. James: So, he just said… Well, you know, I mean, there’s just some of those things. See when you know people and work with them and you just uh… the Ranger has to be uh… In a lot of cases, he’s the center of the community where he lives. Good friend of mine was Ranger in a little ‘ole town in east Texas and uh… he said uh… He was sitting in his office one day, said this couple came in to see him and he said uh… “Well, what can I do for you folks?” And they said, “Well Ranger, our daughter wants to get married.”*laughs* And my friend said, “Oh no! What am I gonna do now!” And they said, “Now, we want to know what you think about this boy that she wants to marry.”
Mr. James: And he said, you know… he said, “I knew the boy and everything like that. What was I going to say?!” *laughs* So I said, “Why, I think he’d make a right good husband for your daughter!”
But, that’s the kind of a relationship that the old time ranger had with the community where they lived. When I worked… started work for the Forest Service in California, the Forest Service was the first place that anybody went in the community where we lived if there’s anything that came… came along. When wintertime came, I kept a Forest Service four-wheel drive vehicle chained up, ready to go, because that was the emergency vehicle for the community where we were. That was it. And there’s this sign on that door, that truck, says, ‘This cannot be used for other than official use.’ That was official use… of meeting the needs of that. And um… So… you know, there was a… the Forest Service used to give uh… wood permits for the people that lived on or adjacent to the National Forest where they could go cut wood, fire wood, free use permits. Now, then, they don’t do that. Ah… I wish I could remember the name of the book… I know the name of the book is called Rangers of the Shield and uh… I can’t remember the author of the book but it was uh… It was a book about the early rangers and uh… In the Pacific Northwest, and Idaho, Montana, and then those places out there where actually the Forest Service began, and they tell stories about that and… and then those days uh… it wasn’t just the man that went to work for the Forest Service, or the woman. Most of the time, it was the man, very seldom in any of the ranger districts up until the late uh… 50’s had women that worked for them because… Not that they were sexist or anything like that… was because of the work that they had to do. They didn’t, and they were not in the office doing paper work or answering the phone or anything like that. They were out in the… taking care of the stock they were out uh… doing recreation; they were out cleaning up camp grounds; they were doing all of those kind of things that the women just… and in those days, didn’t do. I tell y’all a funny story… *directed towards Clare* You’ll have to excuse this.
Clare: Oh no, no worries.
Mr. James: And they tell this story in one of the campgrounds in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and uh… So, after the summer season, that they had what they called burn out toilets, where they would go in there and in the spring of the year and they would lay a fire wood and everything so that uh… in the fall, what they could go in there and burn… toilet out… clean it out. And the way that they did that was, after when they closed the campground, they called them ‘recreation guards’, he would go ‘round to all of the toilets and he would dump a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel into the toilet… Well, they hadn’t… and they then would light it, and it would burn it out. Well… this old recreation guard… he wanted to do things easily, so he decided, well, he didn’t think it too much about it. He went by all the toilets while he just dumped his mixture in there and then he… started back, and he was coming down flipping a fuse into the things burning it out. Well, he didn’t know was one of the… *laughs*…. toilets was occupied!
All: *hysteric laughter*
Mr. James: And… and the guy decided while he was in there, why, he would smoke, and so he lit up and threw his match down the… *laughs for a long time* So anyway… *laughs* Long story short… *laughs* that was an experience that he probably won’t forget!
Clare: Oh my gracious… *laughs*
Mr. James: Listen, I’ve told y’all enough stories now. We need to get y’all on the road to Auburn before this traffic gets too bad.
Russell: Well thank you for your time—
Clare: Yeah, thank you very much. We really appreciate it.
The Interviewee: A farm boy from Arkansas, Bob James grew up with a forestry heritage, as his uncle worked for the state of Arkansas’ forest agency. From an early age Mr. James had a desire to work for the Forest Service, and earned a job there one year after graduating from Arkansas A&M in 1961 with a degree in forestry. Though Mr. James had a diverse career that included work in recreation and silviculture, or the management of forests, a common element throughout Mr. James’ career is his time fighting fires. Mr. James was on hand for the creation of new firefighting techniques, and spent a considerable amount of his time fighting fires. Mr. James worked in a variety of areas that include California, South Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Georgia. Eventually, he became the Assistant Director for Fire and Emergency Management Operations and retired as the Acting Director for the National Interagency Fire Center for the Forest Service. Mr. James is currently retired and living near Atlanta. Forestry continues to be of interest to him.
Interviewers: Clare Harp and Russell Howard are undergraduate students at Auburn University.
Description of the Interview: The interview lasts approximately 1 hour and 12 minutes. Because the interview takes place in the Downwind Café, near an airport, there is considerable outside noise from both the café and the airport. The sounds of outside voices, dishes clinking, and airplanes taking off can be heard throughout the interview. In spite of this, the interviewee and the interviewers can still be heard clearly at most points, although there are some moments when outside noise could make it difficult for some listeners to clearly hear what is being said.
Content of the Interview: The interview starts out covering Mr. James’ early life, his education, and his motivations for joining the Forest Service. Mr. James then discusses his first job in the Forest Service, which was working on campground construction in Lake Tahoe, California. Mr. James worked in California until 1971, and he explains the various positions he held there including working in timber management, fire control, and recreation. Upon leaving California, Mr. James was transferred to Frances Marian and Sumter National Forest in South Carolina. He discusses the cultural changes he and his family experiences moving from California to South Carolina and the differences between working on forests in the west and in the southeast. While in South Carolina, Mr. James was promoted to assistant ranger. He later transferred to the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas where he worked primarily with public relations, timber management, and fire. Mr. James discusses the development of recreational areas in Arkansas, particularly Blanchard Springs Caverns, and then goes over different types of public outreach the Forest Service conducted, such as educating teachers and working with the public. The interview then moves to fire and Mr. James explains the history of Smokey Bear, the importance of proscribed fires, and the technological changes that occurred in fighting fires, such as the use of airplanes and chemical retardants. Mr. James then shares personal stories about his time in the Forest Service such as the relationship between the Forest Service and the community. He notes that when he worked in California, his district often allowed the use of the Forest Service truck for community needs and that when he was working in the southeastern region, community members would often go to the ranger for personal advice, such as the marriage of their children. Mr. James then discusses the importance of the Weeks Act in developing the southeastern forests.
Note on Recording: A Zoom recorder with dual microphones built in was used to record this interview. The audio file is saved as a .wav file and is of high quality.
Other: Mr. James brought some documents about the Blanchard Springs Caverns that he shared with Clare and Russell. He also mentions the book Rangers of the Shield as a source for learning more about the experience of early forest rangers in the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, and Montana.These are not available online.