Interviewer: Justin A. Rudder
Interview Date: Saturday, October 27, 2012
Location: Auburn University of Montgomery (AUM) Library, Montgomery, Alabama
Listen: Read Transcript
Rudder: My name is Justin Rudder from Auburn University, and I am conducting an interview with Mr. Bobby Bledsoe, landscape architect for the USDA Forest Service. Today’s date is October 26, 2012 (actually October 27, 2012), and we are in the AUM Library. And, again, I appreciate you meeting me today, and we are recording this interview just for clarity and it will eventually be added to a database so people can learn more about the Forest Service.
Rudder: And, also, at the end of the interview, I have a consent form if you will sign to give us rights to publish…put it on the database.
Rudder: Alright. First, I would like to ask you a few questions regarding your employment with the Forest Service. How did you come to be employed with the Forest Service?
Bledsoe: Well, in 1962, I was a junior at the University of Georgia and I needed a summer job. And I had the engineering and all the background to do regular LA (landscape architecture) work, planning work. So I’m standing at the bulletin board looking at it, looking for a summer job, and there was a guy standing next to me. And I told him what I wanted, and he said well, sometimes the Forest Service in Gainesville, Georgia, will hire summer students. And I don’t know who the man was I was talking to. But, anyway, I jump in my car the next day skipping a few classes, and drive to get from Athens, Georgia, to Gainesville, Georgia, to put in an application, and I got a summer job over there. I mean some first practical application of what I was learning in school. Ralph Morell was the Forest Supervisor – no, I mean, excuse me, recreation staff. Carl Vincent was his supervisor, and Charlie Hendley was the landscape architect. So when school was out, I go to work for them for three months, and I’m in the drafting room. We had small rooms, and the staff walks up that way and I was in a little-bitty room. Not like these big rooms now that there’s so many people. But I did work just drafting about one week, and Charlie took me into Northeast Georgia up on Coleman Creek. They had this old campground and they wanted to expand it, so he put me out there to do the land survey and the design and I did that. That was no problem ’cause I had engineering surveying in school. So then we go on and do other things. And then summer is over and I go back to school, but I ask them maybe for a job during Christmas break. They let me come back during the Christmas break and let me work a week or two, and then I was kinda attached to the Forest Service. So I graduated in ’64 and I put in my application for the Forest Service, and I got three offers before I actually got my degree. One was from Alabama, one was from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and one from Medford, Oregon. Well, I didn’t want to go that far from home, so I took a job in Montgomery, Alabama – Alabama National Forest. I’m in Montgomery about two years, and Russell Shipman was the Forest Supervisor and Jim Bozman was the Recreation Staff Officer at that time. But after two years, I decided I needed to move. So the Cherokee – Mr. Chipman had moved to the Cherokee, and they had a vacancy for a landscape architect. So I told them I’d like to come up there and work in the mountains. So I go to the mountains and I’m in Cleveland for two years, and my first son, our first son was born in Cleveland, Tennessee. Well, I did Indian Boundary, Wetoga Lake Campground at Little Oak on Wetoga Lake up there. I was working on the Pinhoti Trail, the AT doing some relocations, working on the Talime…the Tellico, Robbin Field Road. Just various things we did there. After two years, I got a letter. Well, while I was there, I got detailed to Virginia to the Clinch Ranger District in Wyatt, Virginia, for two weeks to do a cave-creek campground. And I’m the only LA in Tennessee, and Virginia has two LAs. But I can’t leave my work to go up there and did it in two weeks, drove home and it’s snowin’. Well, then I went on to Virginia because I got a letter – I had been selected to go to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area to do a master plan on a 75- mile highway, a scenic highway. Well, I didn’t want to go. (both parties laughing) I was happy in Cleveland, Tennessee. But, anyway, I was ordered, ‘You go or pick up your check up there next time.’ You know, it was one of those deals, a little like being in the military. So we move up to Marion, Virginia. Our daughter was born in Abingdon, Virginia – so every time we moved, we had a child. I don’t know what it is. But that’s the way it was in those days. But Marion, Virginia, was a very good place. It was in the mountains – just beautiful, quiet, small town. And I did that job, the highway, and other things that had to be done for LAs on the National Recreation Area. Well, three years up, I had an offer to go to the Washington office as a budget…a program analyst, and I don’t know anything about being an analyst and I don’t want to live in Washington, D.C. (laughing) But, anyway, they had an opening back in Alabama. The LA had been killed in an automobile accident. So I came back to Alabama to be closer to home and more in my environment than Washington, D.C. So then I worked here until I retired in 1995. But we did a lot of things. When I came, I did Coleman Lake when I was here the first time. And I did other work on Payne Lake and Corinth, expanding and surveying that. And then, when I came back, we did Clear Creek. That was a major project, and we started it. I came back to Montgomery in 1972, and that’s when we started the planning of the Pinhoti Trail. And Dick Woody was the supervisor then. He was a good man. But the man who took me to Virginia was Ralph Moore. He had gone from Recreation Staff on the Chattahoochee National Forest to the supervisor in Virginia, and he was the one who got me the letter that I couldn’t back out of. He was really a sponsor after I worked for him, but he was probably the best supervisor I ever worked for. And then Dick Woody was a good supervisor. I really liked him too. But, anyway, that’s about the way my career went. And we did the Pinhoti Trail, and everything else that came up. And then we did the land management planning. That was a big battle – a long three years doing all of that. And included in that was studies for the expansion of the Sipsey Wilderness Area on the Bankhead National Forest. And the studies for Cheaha wilderness and the Dugger Mountain wilderness. So, in Alabama, I was involved in the studies and recommendations on three wilderness areas, and also included in that planning session was the study of the Sipsey River for a wild and scenic river. And Congress passed that – they passed all three wilderness and the Sipsey wilderness. There was another one we had to study with the black water in South Alabama that runs through the Conecuh National Forest, but it didn’t meet the criteria for a wild and scenic river. But it’s been a…(laughing)
Rudder: Well, I mean, it sounds like a fascinating…
Bledsoe: It is..I mean, I enjoyed it. I grew in the country. I started quail hunting when I was thirteen years old, by myself. So I was adopted in the woods, I love the woods, and I would not be happy in a place like Atlanta, Georgia, or New York City. But we just got to do some interesting things, and got paid for it. (laughing)
Rudder: That makes it even better.
Bledsoe: Yeah. Sometimes the pay wasn’t that great, but you got paid, you know, and you enjoyed your work. I hate to get paid a lot and not enjoy my work.
Rudder: Oh, yes sir. You were saying that you took some engineering courses at Georgia, before you…
Bledsoe: Yeah. Well, landscape architects are diversified. We had plant identification, we had soils, we had engineering…I mean survey engineering, we had structural engineering, and how to plan, you know, cities and projects. It was very diversified. They’re not a single-purpose discipline. And, you know, a lot of them were artists, and I was not a great artist at sketching pictures or anything like that. But I could set down and do a plan and let them be left alone pretty quick, like being detailed to the clench in two weeks. I mean… I had to go from after doing the field work, they didn’t have much drafting/engineering tools to work with. So I drove in a snowstorm from Wyatt, Virginia, to Roanoke, Virginia, to the Supervisor’s Office and I worked there one week and I worked on Saturdays and Sunday and, when Mr. Morell came to his office on Monday morning, I laid the plans on his desk. I mean I didn’t let no grass or snow grow under my feet then. I was going home. I had a son who was six months old.
Rudder: Oh, yes sir.
Bledsoe: But, that’s basically it. The University of Georgia had a very good landscape architecture school, and we had a cross (?) for it. I had Chemistry and all the sciences already, you know. It all meshes together down to getting the ability to design and construct.
Rudder: That’s right. Um… so you mentioned you worked at various locations through the South. What were your experiences kind of… did you have a favorite experience, a favorite location to work at?
Bledsoe: I really, other than having to move with a family, I enjoyed every location I was at. Of course, like the first time I left Alabama, we had a new supervisor and I won’t call his name … I wasn’t particularly happy, you know, with that particular Forest Supervisor. So when I asked for a transfer to Cherokee, I went and I enjoyed that. Sometimes, you know, you just have people on the forest and you have them in industry and everything else. Some you get along and they help you, and others you don’t really care for and they don’t really care for you. And when I retired, we had one I had no use for and that’s one reason I got out in ’95. You couldn’t do anything because of no leadership.
Rudder: Oh, yes sir. I agree with that.
Bledsoe: And, so then, actually after 31 years in the Forest Service, I also had another motive. I wanted to see if I could have done it in private practice. I took, after I got out, I took a few months off, painted my house, just got my mind readjusted, and I started working in the private. And I made a good success of it and I made some good money at it. I really didn’t lose no money by retiring, because I got paid pretty handsomely on some projects, private projects. So that satisfies my thing but, when I got to 72, my hip and back gave out on me so I quit that too.
Rudder: Yes sir.
Bledsoe: And I wish I could do it again.
Rudder: Well, um, kind of looking at how the Forest Service has benefited the Southeast, do you believe it’s fostered economic development?
Bledsoe: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I mean when you have recreation areas – nice ones, you know. There are different types. You have primitive camping for hunters out in the woods, but you have others like Clear Creek up on Lake Lewis Smith where you are attracting people with all types of camping equipment – RVs, you know, pop-up tents, and some tents, and they bring money into the community because… And in the mountains…you look at the Smokey Mountain National Park. Back when I was there, I could drive through that Smokey Mountain National Park in the cage cold no problem. You go up there now, it may take you an hour to get into that area. So all of this, people wanna go to the mountains or campgrounds to get away up on Lake Lewis Smith, up here on Lake Martin, you know we got Wind Creek State Park up there, and people love it. It’s a vacation or a weekend getaway, it doesn’t matter. But there’s a lot of economic benefits to it. And hunters come into the National Forest -, it’s public land. Nobody controls it except Game and Fish – you know, as far as huntin’, you have to comply with those laws. But on private land, you can’t get on it anymore. When I grew up, I could walk around anywhere around my home, walk on private land and people didn’t care. But now you have people who will go out there with those four-wheelers and tear up their fence and abuse other people’s land. There are a lot of city folks who don’t have any ethics on hunting. (laughing) But, yeah, I think the National Forest provides an economic benefit other than, you know, timber management things like that.
Rudder: And also, did you want to add anything else on that?
Bledsoe: I don’t. I would like to mention the first landscape architect that I knew when I came over, Winton Rinesmith. He was a regional landscape architect. He was an old fella then. He was around when the CCCs were, you know, in the Depression. He was travelin’ around Region 8 which goes from Texas up to Virginia, and all the way down to the Gulf Coast. And he traveled around and did plans for the YC…CCCs to build, you know, and he was a fine gentleman too. And I just have, I have a lot of respect for a lot of the people that worked for the forest…these early folks were dedicated, they loved their job. (laughing) And you can’t work for better people who love their job unless they don’t have the right disposition.
Rudder: Yes sir. Um…So you were talking about that it, you know, the projects that the Forest Service established really did help the communities. How did the land management policies affect any surrounding communities and any of the towns?
Bledsoe: Land management policies? Well, there are a lot things. Just like when tourists, hunters, and people are comin’ in, they’ve got to spend money to get there. But then cuttin’ timber, you know a lot of locals produced, cut timber and had saw mills, and in North Carolina was a big furniture industry state and they were getting a lot of that lumber off of National Forests in North Carolina, Tennessee, the types they wanted. So it all meshes together. It’s really a community…you have a government and you have a community in private, and everybody has some benefit. (noise from rolling library cart) And most of the workers were permanent parkers, umm…permanent parties. They lived in that community, that area, and they were born and raised there and they worked for the Forest Service. So they had jobs too. It wasn’t just all of us say professionals that were transferred around, but they transferred us around for a variety of experiences. Because if you stay in a place too long, you get stagnant. And when I came in, if you had three years in a location, you better start looking for boxes to pack your movin’ things with. And it benefits. See I started out in Alabama, Tennessee, each one of these a different experience level, different things that had to be done in different ways. And then to Mount Rogers NRA and then all the way back to Alabama. I still miss Tennessee and, if I’d a had my choice, I guess would have stayed in Tennessee my whole career. But I enjoyed…I could say that about Virginia too.(laughing) Anyway, that’s the way it was.
Rudder: Do you have any…what were some of your favorite memories from working in the Forest Service?
Bledsoe: I think my favorite memories, other than the work which I loved, was meeting a lot of different people that were in the Forest Service and outside the Forest Service too. I found people that were technicians, I hunted with them up there in Virginia. I learned how to turkey hunt from a technician on the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and, before I left, I was killing my turkey limit three in one week. And I loved it so much I would go leave my gun at home, and take somebody else out before daylight and call turkeys for them. You just …different experiences of meeting different people in locations, and you’d be surprised how much similar you are to them. There’s not that much difference in those days. I can’t speak for that now, you know. But people are going to be the same. You wanna be friend, be a friend to anybody and get along with everybody you can.
Rudder: Yes sir. Well, I know you mentioned in your letter about encountering some snakes and some other obstacles when working…
Bledsoe: (laughing) Yeah. In writing that up, that was one of my memories that when we were…Sid Coleman and Wormy Sanderson, we climbed up the mountain that day, and we were laying out this area to clear for a helipad on Cheaha Mountain. That’s before it became a wilderness area. It had a…We were gonna build a picnic shelter up there for the Pinhoti Trail. Well, I go to the north and Sid and Wormy goes to the south around and we was going to meet, you know. So I walk along flagging limbs with an orange flagging draping down, and I stop and hang one and I hear this buzzin’ sound. And I’m glad I stopped to hang that ribbon, because when I heard that buzzin’ sound there was a rattlesnake coiled up about five feet away from me ready to strike. I mean coiled and tongue flashing out, so I just backed up and that snake wasn’t gonna move and I wasn’t gonna stop. So I go back and cut me a pole, and beat the heck out of ’em. Nobody, I mean, both of us couldn’t occupy that site, and I had to move on. But really the reason I did it was that Wormy or Sid could have come up behind my flagging, and walked right into that snake and got struck. And on top of that mountain you’d be dead before they could get you off of it. So it’s a 45 minute climb, you know, just getting up there. But, other than that, I saw a lot of rattlesnakes and, unless they were a threat, I didn’t kill ’em. They’re a part of nature and some folks don’t believe I couldn’t kill all the snakes. But I didn’t have the desire to kill ’em… I didn’t kill anything, even hunting, unless I was gonna eat it. It’s, you know, you have to respect the environment too.
Rudder: Well, I’d like to ask a few questions about your work on the Pinhoti Trail.
Rudder: I know you mention quite a bit of it in your letter as well. You were talking about several, I assume they were local, organizations helping out with the development of the trail, kind of maintaining…
Bledsoe: What, like YAC… the YCC program was a government program to put these young, say high school-age students or that age anyway, to give them a summer job to work out into the natural environment. And when we started the Pinhoti Trail there I believe it was Forest Service Road 500 Coleman Lake, we had YCC kids and that’s basically all we had. We wasn’t getting a lot of money to build trails back in those years, and that’s just one way of starting a trail system is with volunteers. And these were day students, they did not spend the night on forest land or anything else. And it gave them a working experience out into the woods, and they enjoyed it. And then we had the senior citizens program that came along so now we had two programs, the senior citizens and the YCC working on that trail and we’re headed south. And that was about ’63, ’64, ’65, in those early years. Then we had another program that came on, the Young Adult CC, the YACC, and they were high school-age students and they were, had a camp at Fort McClellan right outside of Anniston, Alabama. And they put ’em in the barracks, and the army fed ’em. I believe this was a co-op agreement between the Forest Service and the Army. And they worked, but the staff over these youngsters were Forest Service personnel – it was not the army doing that. And they were transported out to the job site, and it just so happened that I had a young neighbor in Montgomery who found out about this YACC program and he came and asked me if I could get him in it. So the next day, I go to personnel and tell them to put his name in it. So he has to go from Montgomery up to, you know, Anniston, and he enjoyed it. He really thanked me, and he’s a medical doctor now in Montgomery. I mean we were not just takin’ any kids, you know, they were high school kids and they were not problems. But they worked on it, and then we still had the senior citizen. And as you started going along the way, we started getting some more trail money and we did some contracting like on Dugger Mountain going north of where we actually started. And then we did I believe the Cater (?) Spring trail as part of that was done by a contractor, but we didn’t have that many trail contractors. A lot of it was just done by us, and then the trail club groups they come in on the scene and they have probably done more miles of the Pinhoti Trail than we ever did. But they’re a dedicated bunch, just like the Benton McKaye started the AT, the Appalachian Trail. And then the clubs took up and that was started back in, I think the Benton McKaye might have been… I don’t remember it… ’21, 1921, in that era. I don’t know. But they worked on it all those years. They got it down from Maine to Georgia. Now the Pinhoti Trail, thanks to these same clubs that like Mike Leonard, I dealt a lot, he’s an attorney but we were involved in trail, we were involved in the studies on the wild and scenic river and, you know, we had a relationship. And these other people they came in and started doing it, and we had a dedication there on the Talladega District just a few weeks or last month and that part had been done by the trail clubs and I went to that celebration. That’s when I decided to write this report on history. (handing the interviewer the report) I wrote it particularly for that dedication, because most of the Forest Service people that got that don’t know what I wrote. I think I might be one of the last that was involved in the Pinhoti Trail when it started, and maybe one of the last who was involved in some of the wilderness studies, like the… But that’s not true. I know there are some people involved like old rangers. I know one in Montgomery that’s still kickin around.
Rudder: Yes sir.
Bledsoe: But most of them like Jim Bozman, some of them, they’re gone. They passed away.
Rudder: Did you want to add anything else?
Rudder: Okay. Well, I would also like to know what tasks were involved in developing the trail. What were the everyday tasks?
Bledsoe: Well the first task is, say if I’m doing the layout, I have to go out there before leaves come on. I do that work in the winter or early springtime before the leaves come on, so I can see a long way and know where to lay the flagging. So you got a good grade, problems comin’ up, rock outcrops ahead, things that you have to avoid, and you want to make it interesting to go around overlooks so you get the far view. There’s a lot of things that you want to think about in laying out a trail because just going, like some old trails just got on a ridge line and just went straight down that ridge line. And some of the AT was laid out that way and in Mount Rogers, I went back and laid, relocated some to get a better grade, control erosion ,water running straight down the trail, getting better overlooks for the hikers to view out, just good common sense I think is basically what you need. And you like to be a hiker too, so you know some of those difficulties. Umm… Oh, I wanted to mention another group I know I had forgotten about that. The Chinnabee Silent Trail from Lake Chinnabee up to the Pinhoti Trail where we was gonna build that shelter – that was done by the Boy Scouts from the Talladega School of the Deaf and they did a good job. They enjoyed it too.
Bledsoe: And then they worked on that trail a couple of summers, as I remember. We, we just used anybody who had an interest in doing it and wanted to be out in the woods, and there’s a lot of people who enjoyed that work. I think I wrote that up in my report about the school and the Boy Scouts. But I’m sure a lot of those boys are men now, and they look back in favorable enjoyment also. (paper rustling)
Rudder: If there’s anything you’d like to add in this section, that’s fine.
Bledsoe: No. The only other thing I had put in my notes here was after I was sent to Mount Rogers, this is not really relevant, because, but after I was sent to Mount Rogers to do the planning on that Mount Rogers Scenic Highway up there, I was also detailed from there to Ouachita (pronounced Washita) in Arkansas. They had the Tallamina Scenic Drive out there, and it was constructed and some of it wasn’t done very aesthetically. And I was detailed out there for two weeks to help them. Now, they had two landscape architects on their forest, and I couldn’t understand why I had to leave my job and go out and do somebody else’s job for two weeks. I went out there, but I figured it out, I go out there and I spend a week doing my survey work and taking pictures and seeing what I could do, and then I get on a plane and back to back to Marion to work in my office. No need for me staying in a hotel room in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I still have a wife and two kids now. (laughing) Other than that, I don’t have much to add. I just remember a lot of good folks.
Rudder: Well, what is your perception of how the Forest Service has developed today?
Bledsoe: I really, when I started out, we didn’t have a big staff. We had a lean and mean, productive staff. Now I go in that office, there a lot of new people and I don’t know what they’re doing. Jim Bozman and I probably did as much as three or four people back then. When I was working on the Pinhoti Trail, I was also doing all the work on the other districts too. Every district on the forest in Alabama, if it was recreation whether it was developed or dispersed, I did it. And I mean that’s part of the Pinhoti Trail. I don’t know what they doin’ anymore. They’ve got a lot more specialists than we had, and I don’t know if they accomplished anymore because they’re not doin’ as much as we did then. But that might be a misperception on my part, but I don’t know.
Rudder: Um…What kind of technological changes did you see during your career?
Bledsoe: The best one was the computer. It was AutoCAD and Land CAD (CAD is short for Computer Aided Design). Now, I tell you I’ve done some work like a sports complex, a big sports complex, or the riverwalk down in Phenix City, Alabama. Survey it, load the “topo” (short for “topography”) and the survey into the computer in AutoCAD, and the one that, the biggest complex, biggest sports complex – the guy said, “I need this – That was on a Thursday – I need this next Tuesday.” And without my computer, I said “Well, give me the ‘topo’.” So I get the topo from the engineering firm that did the topoing and I put in the computer, and I worked three days about 10-12 hours a day. And on Monday, I go to the blueprint and get it printed out and, on Tuesday, I take it to the man on a board. Well, in the old days it would have taken me weeks, WEEKS to do the amount of work I could do in 3 days in putting in 10 or 12 hours on that computer. But it’s just so much easier, you know. That’s the greatest but, of course, another thing is GPS, GPS (Global Positioning System). If I want to lay out a trail, and I’ve done this, I go through there three times. I did this on the Phenix City trail system, too, and the nature trail down there. I go through there flagging and you gotta scout ahead, you know, it’s a lot of back-and-forth work. You scout where you want to go, and then you come back and flag to that and then you find another way. And then, say after you get say five miles in that case down there flagged out, you gotta come back with a GPS and every 50 feet, you do a click on it or, in a curve, you click it quicker – you know, more points. And then you can, after you do five miles, all you gotta do is go download that data into your “topo”…
Rudder: And how do you spell “topo”?
Bledsoe: Topographic. Topo is just short for topographic map. And then you’ve got all those points and you start connecting them, and then you can do your curves. And the computer, once you put in all this information right, then you can go to it and put in survey data and a chart. It gives you the curves, the burns (?), and everything you would have to computerize or , you know, figure out longhand years ago. And it just saves time, and you can get a project done a lot quicker, a lot quicker. And then doing a road, you do a typical cross-section. Say that’s center-line was (illustration with hand gestures) and you’ve got the elevation, you can put a typical cross-section in there and it shows the solar, the crown, and everything. And then say you’ve got a road one mile long and all that data’s in there – that computer will give you the cross-sections of every so many feet, fifty feet or whatever you want in a matter of minutes. I mean a mile, it will do it in less than a minute I’m sure. It will give the volumes of cuts and fields at the same time. And then if you don’t, are not satisfied with that, you go back and make adjustments. And you can change your cut and field, or how you back slope – you know, just typical cross section engineering. It’s amazing, it is amazing. You just don’t need as many people doing that kind of work anymore like you did, and you can do it in days or weeks instead of months.
Rudder: Um…Now I know that the Forest Service, particularly last year, they were commemorating the Weeks Act of 1911.
Bledsoe: Ah yeah, that goes back to, gosh, ’76. I wrote that down somewhere. (looking through notes) Okay, the Forest Reserve Act was 1891 that was public, and then 1976 was the National Forest Management Act. I think, I’m not certain about all that legal jargon, but it’s probably the same as the Weeks Act. And that’s when the Forest Service wanted more multiple use than the original act that set up the forest public domain lands, you know. And then I don’t know, I wasn’t around back then, probably in the 1930s, they started buying up old land that nobody wanted in Kentucky, the mountains, and even in Alabama we had like the Tuskegee and some of the other folks, that been farmed and abused and highly erodible and nobody really wanted it because it wasn’t any good. So the CCCs worked on a lot of these lands, restoring them back in the 1930s. But I wasn’t around back in the early part of the ’30s, anyway, when that was going on. So my memory doesn’t extend far back. (laughing) The only one I know that was in the CCC was my wife’s father, he was in there for six months. He was over in Kennesaw, Georgia, at the national park. Now that’s before he went into the army for World War II. But I don’t know much about the CCCs. I know where some of the old camps were on the forest, and some of the buildings that were built by the CCC and the Forest Service even used some of them when I was in there as work centers. Other buildings we used, they didn’t tear them down.
Rudder: So basically concerning the Weeks Act, that was a bill that basically allowed the purchase of private land in the eastern U.S.
Bledsoe: Yeah, that’s what I was talking about. But my memory, I didn’t have that much to do with it. That was before my time, and all I know about the Weeks Act and the other acts is what I read in the history books, just like everybody else does.
Rudder: Yes sir. Um…how do you feel the Forest Service…Well, let me start out asking what kinds of challenges did the Forest Service face during your tenure?
Bledsoe: Well, I think some of the most controversial things was perhaps the wilderness and the Wild and Scenic River. It created some of the dissension between the Forest Service people and, you know, say the environmentalists and the outsiders because some of the very old foresters, I mean before I ever came in, they were strictly oriented towards timber management and wildlife management and cuttin’ and clear-cuttin’, and that’s been a big contentious challenge through the years. And it probably still is – I don’t know. But a lot of the land was… and I agree with some of them. Because I’ll tell you a story. When I graduated from Georgia, I came to Alabama, and one thing about us Forest Service people we like to get in a room and battle each other. Talk about, you know, one guy takes one position and you take another position. Well, timber staff we were on the old bugging (?) division, we were clear-cutting like 2,000 acres, clear-cutting. And then there was a standard then that you had leave so many chains between that clear-cut and another clear-cut, and they cut another 2,000 acres. And here I am right out of college and I had some environment. We had a timber staff officer, and he liked to argue and I liked to argue. And I just told him, I said, that ain’t right. The strip left in there to my understanding was for wildlife to cross through, but you’ve got 4,000 acres that they can’t really do use. Some wildlife can browse on the sprouts and things that come up, but they would also spray the 2-4-B and 2-4-5-T to kill unwanted subishnu (?). So I think some of the management then really caused their own detriment between the public environmental groups because, in my opinion and I don’t want to differ with them, but I was just out of high school, I mean college, I didn’t see the logic of cuttin’ 4,000 acres with a small strip in between either. It was just timber production, timber. And that’s what the original act I think did. It was more of a timber reserve and watershed protection, but you can’t cut 2,000 acres on the head of a watershed and control the water, either by leaving a buffer, slight buffer on each side of that stream. So I was both sides. I could agree with the Forest Service and I, lot of the time, I could agree with the environmental groups. I was kinda in-between, and I was able to get along, I think, with both groups. Sometimes I made the Forest Service group mad (?) (laughing), but somebody’s gotta stir the pot. Anyway, those was some turbulent days. And during land planning for the forest in Alabama, we had some knock-down drags out, you know, with the public. And Mary Burks, Mary and Bob Burks, they were very strong environmentalists and they were for the Sipsey Wilderness. And John Randolph, he was an attorney. He was in there. And Mike Leonard was a lawyer, and he’s in there. And I liked, I liked all of them. I just considered them friends, you know. I was on the other side but they, I could still be on the other side and be your friend and agree with them when I think they’re right. But some folks just couldn’t agree with nobody that disagree with what they wanted to do.
Rudder: (rustling) I just need to charge this in, and make sure it doesn’t run out.
Bledsoe: Runnin’ out of juice. (laughing)
Rudder: Yeah, just to make sure. Um…okay. How do you feel about how the Forest Service is progressing now?
Bledsoe: I don’t know. (laughing) I’ve been gone since ’95, and not many down there were there when I was there. Bob Pasquill, George McEldowney, Kit Davenport is down there now in Fire but he was on a place on the Talladega District when we were doing some of that work on the Pinhoti Trail on his district. But there might be a few more, but most of them have retired, gone on, and there’s a whole new crop of people down there.
Rudder: Um…So do you believe there any projects they should look at in the future?
Bledsoe: I have no clue. I don’t. I don’t go out there anymore. I don’t go behind them and check them anymore. (laughing) But I don’t sit here and read much in the paper or hear much from the environmental groups as it was then, because a lot of issues were settled. I don’t know what timber is doing anymore, how they’re cuttin’. And, I mean, this land is good for timber production, you know, and it has to be done, but they don’t have to destroy the world and the wildlife to do it. It just takes more intensive handling, you know. They’re doin’ a lot of things different like the law required before you do any soil-disturbing activities, you have to have an archaeologist to clear that tract, you know. And that’s…it costs more I’d say now using all these other environmental factors to manage and produce on the land than it did in the early days, even when I came there. You didn’t have to do nothin’ much, you know. Soil protection would probably and watershed protection would be the only controls, but now it just gets more and more restrictive on things. But I think it’s good in some cases to, if you have an idea and an archaeologist on site, it needs to be investigated. And if it’s important, it needs to be protected, you know, from other soil-disturbing activities like Indian towns. We got a battle going on here in Montgomery over Wetumpka, over gamblin’ and the Indian town that they’re diggin’ up the bones over there. Now, I’m on the bone side. I want those sites protected myself, because my ancestors…I’ve tracked it back to England and I had a lot of relatives when I was at Mount Rogers, I had relatives had to come over that land and settle some of that land and I didn’t even know it. I was walking in their footsteps, and didn’t know it. Now, I know it. I’ve written a book twice. I’m not satisfied. I am still diggin’ and diggin’ and diggin’ more on ancestry and getting pictures. The pictures are hard to get. The stories of them are easy to get now on computers. You don’t have to… archives and history is almost a dinosaur. I can get stuff off the computer, that it’d take me days and weeks to get out of the archive unless you don’t know where to look.
Rudder: And, personally, as an archivist, I see a lot of technology particularly at the State Archives, they’re trying to develop better finding aids to help patrons.
Bledsoe: Well, they do, but when I first started, I go to the Alabama Archives down the road a little ways, and I had to get in the back room and look at books, you know, and then take one book out and thumb through it and see if there’s anything I want on there. But (whispering) you got that on?
Rudder: Yeah, but it’s…
Bledsoe: Okay. I knew that there was a Bledsoe who was a senator. I heard that and I get on the computer, and on the search engine… (rustling and tape cut off momentarily)
Rudder: Um…probably in conclusion, I would like to ask you a few questions about, you know, reflecting on your experiences. What do you believe were probably the highlights of your career?
Bledsoe: Opportunity to do what I wanted to do. And, in my field, there weren’t many people around that knew everything I knew. Some of them thought they did, you know, but they didn’t go through all the training and the college that I went. Most of them in the industry were foresters and they didn’t take what I took and things. But I enjoyed, I just loved it. I mean give me and open piece of land and give me a survey, and I get to design an entire park basically by myself, except for the buildings. We had architects in Atlanta who designed the buildings you needed for things. But I just got to do what I thought was right based on knowledge and experience on how to do things, and that’s why I could do a job even on a drafting table in a week or two weeks that somebody else might take several weeks. I enjoyed the experience at Mount Rogers, doing the planning for that scenic highway 75 miles up in there and I had relatives that had lived up there, or I mean when they had forts, their own little stockade forts, and I didn’t know it at the time. I just enjoyed it. I enjoyed being in the woods, and I tried staying in the woods as much as I could. When we got to land planning in the latter years, it was all office work, you know. You didn’t get to do that, and I had to let an assistant do the field work because we had a full-time job doing that. But it wasn’t exactly a seat-of-the-pants type operation.
Rudder: Yes sir. Um… Do you think that landscape architecture has become a more important part of the Forest Service?
Bledsoe: I really can’t…I don’t think these days they’re building as many recreation facilities, but I don’t know all this. But this is just what I’m thinking because we did so many that they’re probably not building that many new areas. As far as timber management, I have no clue on how much timber is being cut in any state. I know there are…I don’t how LAs… we had a visual resource management program, you know, where the LAs would go out and help a ranger plan a timber cut, but not completely destroy the view whether it was foreground or background on a mountain, you know. I just don’t have much information on that to make a good comment on.
Rudder: Um…What advice would you give to any current Forest Service employees, or anybody starting out in the Forest Service?
Bledsoe: Just be professionals. Whatever the requirements are, be professional. Don’t take the short-cuts. Do it right. Do it right the first time. And you’ll save a lot of flak, but enjoy your job. Take pride in your work, and not let somebody…I mean, nobody’s gonna tell me how to design an area because we gonna go to fisticuffs. And I did that ’bout one time. I just told the guy, “This is my job. You stay out of it.” ‘Cause I knew more than that person knew. They can give me comments and I’ll listen to ’em, you know. I’m open-minded…I’m not that bull-headed. But I’ll listen to just suggestions, but when I think something is wrong I’m not gonna go with the flow. It may get done that way, but I’m still not don’t go with the flow. (laughing)
Rudder: Um…overall, what do you consider the Forest Service’s definitive contribution to the nation? How do you feel you played a role in that?
Bledsoe: I think the Forest Service played a significant role in helping the nation. In Alabama, I’ll give you an example, they got this Forever Wild program to buy more lands. Well, the Forest Service has somewhere around 600,000 acres of land, public land, in Alabama. We got the Conecuh on the South, we got the Tuskegee over here. And then we got the Talladega Division, the Ocmulgee Division, and the Bank(head). Every one of them is scattered around the state, and the public can go hunt, they can go fish, they can go camp, they can go out there and just walk around if they want to. Public land, beside the economic benefit, there’s the opportunities for the average Joe Q. Public to go out and enjoy his land. And I think and the Chattahoochee is in the North Georgia, you got the Tennessee which extends from the Georgia line to the Virginia line with the Smokey Mountain National Park in-between. And then from Virginia, Damascus on up, I was right above, right there is Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, which was 60 miles long. So we had I think 80,000 acres in that NRA up there. And Congress set it up as a National Recreation Area, which you could still cut timber on it but not to the degree that you would on some other forests, because it had a legitimate purpose to be there and that’s what you had to comply with. What was the purpose of the land – the direction of supply and demand for different uses?
Rudder: Well, that’s about all the questions I have? Is there anything you’d like to share? I know you had quite a few notes.
Bledsoe: I think mostly I did that. I talked about my experience as a summer student and a Christmas student and on the Chattahoochee, which I…it was real helpful. I like an agency that will bring in young people who have an ambition to do things. I don’t know that I have a…I enjoyed my career with the Forest Service. I really did, up until things fell apart. And that was personnel more than the agency.
Rudder: Do you…are you happy with how your career ended? I mean, are you…
Bledsoe: Oh yeah, I spent 31 years with the Forest Service. I took a few months off to do R&R and paintin’ around the house, and I started…you see, I had a license. I may be one of the few LAs in the Forest Service that had a license. You don’t have to be licensed to be an engineer or anything, if you’re working for the government. But I did and, when I stepped out the door, I had a license. So that’s when I started my own consulting business and set it up as a Limited Liability Corporation from you know, liability protection. But I wasn’t ready to give it up. If it wasn’t for my back and legs and loss of a lot of computer software, I’d still be doing some small jobs just to occupy my time.
Rudder: I just have one more question. Do you believe the skills you learned in the Forest Service, has it helped you in your business work, your private business work?
Bledsoe: Uh…No, I can’t say that it did because, when I was in the Forest Service, I didn’t…I did like the trail, the hiking trail and natural area down in Phenix City, I did. That was similar to work, but when I did the riverwalk down there, it was entirely different. It was along the riverbank and I did a lot more…I did bridges and walls, you know to resist water, but I learned all that in school. And, of course, some of it I learned maybe in the Forest Service, but it didn’t change my work ethic anymore because, when I was with the Forest Service, I worked, I’d go in on Saturdays and work. I didn’t get no pay for it. The only time I ever got any overtime pay on the Forest Service I know of is when I was on the fire, and I think they’re required to pay you overtime but the professionals usually didn’t get overtime. And when I was in private, I didn’t get no overtime. I’d work six, seven days a week if I had to on a private job. It’s just what your personal work ethics is and your drive, and some people don’t have any drive. (laughing) They don’t even work during the regular eight hours. A lot of them drink coffee and talk and cause problems for other folks, and that’s a true statement. That’s not…I’ve seen it. But the Forest Service overall…we had some good people, and we had some not-so-good people. Probably human nature.
Rudder: Alright, well, I think that is about it. Just a side question… I’m kind of backtracking. I know you’ve said you haven’t really seen much in the news about the Forest Service recently, but I know there were plans to transfer the Forest Service to the Department of the Interior. Did you…
Bledsoe: I didn’t see that. I don’t know why…I’m gonna tell you this – I don’t know why I don’t read much in the local papers about the Forest Service. When I first came from Alabama, back to Alabama from Virginia, we didn’t have a PAO (Public Affairs Officer), and then they decided that we needed a PAO. So they took the receptionist out of reception, and made her a PAO. And I know these people – they didn’t have no background, professional, to be a PAO. They mostly read what you write and send it out to the mailroom which sends it out to whatever. But, usually with the Forest Service, the professionals had to write the article. If it was on forestry, if it was on recreation or engineering, the PAOs don’t do it. They’re not trained professionally. Okay. We get one and then that one didn’t have much to do, so they hired another one, Number 2, at a higher grade. Well, that one didn’t have nothing to do either. And then having two with nothing to do, they hire a third one. This is true – I’m not making it up. This is before I retired, and that’s another reason you don’t want to work for the Forest Service – it fell apart. Too many people collecting money with no job, and other people who were working probably getting underpaid and overworked.
Rudder: Well, in the end, again I want to ask if there was anything else you might want to add.
Bledsoe: I don’t think so. I think I’ve said enough. I’m gonna make somebody mad, anyway – particularly if they’re a PAO. (laughing)
Rudder: Well, it’s been an honor to meet you.
Bledsoe: Yeah, I’m glad you called. I’m glad… (tape ends)
The Interviewee: Mr. Bobby Bledsoe is a former landscape architect for the USDA Forest Service, who retired in 1995 to create a private design and consulting firm. Mr. Bledsoe graduated from the University of Georgia in 1964 with a degree in Architectural Engineering, and immediately accepted a position as a Landscape Architect in the Montgomery, Alabama, regional office of the U.S. Forest Service. He transferred to the Cherokee National Forest in Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1967, and transferred again to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in 1969. While in Tennessee and Virginia, Mr. Bledsoe conducted topographic surveys and led revitalization projects of campgrounds and hunting lands, as well as the relocation and construction of a scenic highway along the Appalachian Trail. In 1972, Mr. Bledsoe returned to Montgomery to assist the National Forests of Alabama in the planning and construction of the Pinhoti Trail, the southernmost extension of the Appalachian Trail that begins at the terminus point of the Benton MacKaye Trail in North Georgia and ends at Flagg Mountain in North Alabama. Through the creation of the Pinhoti Trail, Mr. Bledsoe participated in the development of National Wilderness Areas at Cheaha Mountain and Dugger Mountain, as well as the designation of the Sipsey River as a National Wild and Scenic River. Mr. Bledsoe also led the construction of the Bartram Trail on the Tuskegee National Forest in the 1980s. After retiring from the Forest Service in 1995, Mr. Bledsoe established the consulting firm, “Bledsoe and Associates, LLC, Landscape Architects,” where he utilized skills of community planning and Computer Aided Design to create several recreation areas and venues throughout Central and East Alabama. Mr. Bledsoe permanently retired in 2010 at the age of seventy-two.
The Interviewer: Justin Rudder is a graduate student in the Archival Studies Program in the Department of History at Auburn University, and is completing his master’s thesis regarding the digital creation, preservation, and access of archaeological records. Mr. Rudder conducted this interview to be contributed to the USDA Forest Service Oral History Project, a program supervised by Dr. Aaron Shapiro at Auburn University.
Description of the Interview: The interview was conducted on the second floor of the AUM Library, at a large study desk in the middle of the floor. Traffic passed through the area on a regular basis, causing occasional noise interference including the rolling of library return carts. However, the interview went smoothly, and Mr. Bledsoe was congenial and arrived prepared with an outline of topics he wanted to address. Mr. Bledsoe also provided personal biographical materials to me through e-mail beforehand, allowing me to cater my questions to his experiences. The course of our conversation allowed me to alter the order of my questions from the original script, and I added some new questions as follow-ups to expound upon terms, people, and places Mr. Bledsoe mentioned in previous answers. Mr. Bledsoe also elaborated on the early history of the Forest Service regarding the Civilian Conservation Corps, as well as the rise of environmental issues in the mid-twentieth century. His responses also served my own research interests concerning digital land survey records.
Content of the Interview: The original script for the interview addressed Mr. Bledsoe’s initial employment and training for work in the Forest Service, his experiences and positions held at various locations over the course of his career in Region 8, the technological changes within the Forest Service, and the economic and social impact the agency’s work had on surrounding communities. I also asked Mr. Bledsoe about the challenges the Forest Service faced during his career, what projects he felt the agency should consider in the future, and any advice he would give to current employees and those just starting out in the Forest Service. Mr. Bledsoe discussed at length his relationship with supervisors and co-workers, the environmental and aesthetic concerns he encountered on his various assignments including the Pinhoti Trail, and current debates over bureaucratic structure and federal legislation within the agency. Mr. Bledsoe indicated that his passion for the environment and respect for nature stemmed from hunting experiences as a child and through adulthood, and he stated that one of the reasons for the Forest Service’s success was a strong and independent work ethic among its employees. One area of questioning that should be considered in future interviews is the discussion of influences and education that prepare someone for a career in the Forest Service.
Note on the Recording: I used the ZOOM H4n Digital Audio Recorder presented for use by Group 4 in Dr. Aaron Shapiro’s Introduction to Public History Course. The interview was recorded in stereo mode which provided great sound quality, and could be stored as a WAV file that took up a small amount of storage on the 2 GB SD card implanted in the recorder. The recording lasted 66 minutes and 24 seconds.