Interviewer: Jordan Ray, Auburn University
Interview Date: Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Location: USDA Forest Service office, Tallahassee, Florida
Listen: Read Transcript
Ray: The following interview was conducted by Jordan Ray, with Mr. Mac McConnell on behalf of the USDA Forest Service, in conjunction with Auburn University for the Region 8 Oral History Project. It took place on Tuesday, November 6, 2012, at the US Forest Service office in Tallahassee. Thank you sir, for meeting with me to discuss your experiences with the Forest Service, I’ll be recording this interview for clarity; at the conclusion of the interview, I have a consent form and deed of gift for your signature.
McConnell: Okay, let’s go.
Ray: Alright, now we can move in to some questions. So, sir, how did you come to be employed by the Forest Service?
McConnell: How did I come to be employed? Why, I’d just graduated from Penn State in 1943, and I had, looking for work, I was classified as 4F in the draft at that time, because my eyesight, and naturally, as a just graduated forester, I was looking for employment, so I contacted the Forest Service, sent them a – I don’t know whether it was any formal form that was filled out, or I just sent them a letter, but anyhow, I did receive a response which I have given to you, in the form of a letter, which offered me the job of, I think it was, what is it, Senior Forest Ranger SP6?
McConnell: At a salary of two thousand, I think it’s four
Ray: Four hundred and thirty-three dollars.
McConnell: Four hundred and thirty-three dollars a year, a magnificent sum in those days.
McConnell: And it’d be interesting, we need to point out that my duties were to assist in, the ranger in his, whatever he did, but the emphasis was going to be on marking trees and scaling the logs that came from trees, so there was no mention of ecosystem management, or any of these other uh, I don’t know how to describe them, I guess, evolving things which, uh, now seem to occupy most of the time of the Forest Service.
Ray: Okay. Uh, I know you said that you trained in college to be a forester, did you go through uh, training after you had been hired, was there more extensive training afterwards?
McConnell: Oh, well the training was in the woods. I remember the first job I had, I was handed a marking ax, which they don’t use anymore, they use paint guns, and, uh, was sent out with a marking crew, an experienced marking crew, and I was given a copy of the marking rules, which I read, and I almost can still recite them from memory, and uh, so I spent my first day sort of, marking timber, but mostly learning what the rules were, so that was about the extent of the training I received, during, during the course of my career, I received lots and lots and lots of training, but in the early days I remember I received training in log scaling from a, a, an old scaler, who, uh, was with me on the deck of the Caddo River Lumber Company, no, in uh, Arkansas, and we scaled logs, virgin, this is virgin shortleaf as it came in to, uh, from the woods. So, the training, I’ve received a lot of training, but it was, it was intermittent, and there’s much more emphasis later in the career on training than there was in the early days, so it was mostly hands on, let’s do it, this is the way it’s done, and you were corrected as you went along, but there was no, it was highly informal.
Ray: Lots of on the job training?
Ray: As you come to a problem, you have to solve it then, correct?
Ray: Okay, uh, how would you describe your experience working in the Southeast Region, specifically?
McConnell: How would I describe it?
Ray: Have you worked –
McConnell: What I did or –
Ray: Anything, anything you’d like to say. Have you worked in other regions, and was it dramatically different in the Southeast Region?
McConnell: My entire career was in the Southeastern Region, I was, been details in Washington, uh details on fires in the West, uh, and that’s about it.
McConnell: I worked, not only for the, uh, the administration, the national forest, but I also, with the Southern Forest Experiment Station. During the war there was a program called, let me see if I can recall, Resources, Production, and Supply, which is how, the government kept up with the production of, of lumber that was going on during the war, so that they knew what the weaknesses were. My job was to go out and contact those mills, and this is primarily in Louisiana, who did not respond to the mailed form, so you can imagine this was, these were people who really weren’t looking for cooperation, they weren’t cooperating, so my job was to, sort of worm the information out of them, as it were. Most of them were quite nice, though, really.
Ray: Um, were there, you mentioned this special project where you wormed the information out of them, did you ever have any circumstances where people were not as cooperative as maybe you hoped they’d be? You don’t have to name any specifics.
McConnell: Are we talking about people inside or outside the Forest Service?
Ray: Uh, well, outside, or maybe not inside –
McConnell: Well, no, actually, I’ve always found that the Forest Service folks, we are a family, and I’m still part of that family, as you may have noticed.
McConnell: And I think most everyone who has ever worked with the Forest Service feels like they’re part of a family, and, of course, we’ve, we’ve encountered all sorts of individuals in our work who were not as, let’s say, as friendly, as cooperative, as accepting of what we were doing as, they might have been.
Ray: Yes. Um, within Region Eight, you’ve mentioned that you worked at different locations, within the region, are there any dramatic differences in working in different forests within Region Eight?
McConnell: Well, the most dramatic difference, of course, is in timber types and the products you’re, you’re trying to sell, I think, I can’t remember that there was a vast difference in the attitudes, or the personnel, in fact, as you went from district to district, you were meeting people that you had met before, and you got to meet new people of course, so, by the time your career was finished, you had met a vast number of people, and they were all pretty much of the same, let’s say beliefs, or inclinations, I don’t think there was the, the difference which you find today, as I, as I view it, is, and this is sort of disappearing, is the attitude towards, what we might call, new things, as you know, the Forest Service has a long, long tradition, and it’s, has been mostly a male dominated, and it has been mostly a timber oriented, and fire, and these things shift, and now there’s a lot of women in the Service, some of them very, very good, and some of them not so good, just like men, I suppose, and of course the emphasis has shifted enormously, I think that’s the big thing, from timber and fire, build roads, log the mill, and uh, do it without a great deal of supervision, once you learned what you learned what the basic rules were, to today where I think there’s a, a, the direction comes from Washington, filtered down to the regional office, and the forest supervisor to the field, uh, the opportunities to make decisions based on local conditions is, to my mind, hardly, hardly exists anymore and I think the same thing is true at the supervisor’s office, and I might mention that the fact that all news releases must be vetted through the chief’s office, which is certainly a, you talk about centralization, good God.
Ray: So, to your knowledge, was this, I guess, I guess you could call it loss of local autonomy, is this an official thing, or is it more tradition just changing?
McConnell: It was official change because, uh, I was at, I left, just before the big shift began, but I was able to, to follow what was happening through my son, who was, was at that time, well he wasn’t a ranger, he was an assistant ranger out West, on the Lolo National Forest in one of the districts, and then later on when he was ranger in the Shoshone, I was able to follow the, the progression or regression, if that’s the right word, of the Forest Service for a long period of time, some sixty years, not personally for some thirty years, then, another twenty or thirty years through the eyes of my son. So the difference, the change, was of course it was official, and the consolidation of the ranger districts, for example, removed the ranger from the community in many cases, where he played a very important role, and was part of the community, and today I don’t sense that the ranger is, in any way, a member of the, of the community. He’s a, he’s a transient who comes in and does his job, he meets a few of the industry people, and then leaves, and his tenure, I think, is probably shorter than ours were, on the district, and I always like to think, he hardly gets to know the road system, where the trouble spots are before he’s moved out. Now this is not true, of course, in all cases, but I think that’s, something – I don’t know whether you’ve heard about the old timey rangers, like George Tanyhill (?)?
Ray: I’m sorry, no.
McConnell: And Preacher Parsons, up on the Showa (?) district, how George Tanyhill was on the wind district up over on the Kisatchie National Forest, and uh, let’s see, who’s, uh, there’s another one up in Appalachia, but these, these men were institutions in their, in their, uh, community, and were very, very, very, very well known and respected and spent a lot of time interacting with local folks, and today there’s little or none of that.
Ray: You mentioned your son, also served in the Forest Service, um, did he follow in your footsteps, or did he maybe do another career first then decide on the Forest Service?
McConnell: No, he, he went to forestry school, well, uh, like most fathers who have sons, I took him with me on some, when I remember, we fought fires together, little fires on Sunday, of course, you’re on duty seven days a week, twenty four hours a day, then there’s no thought of over time, you did the job that had to be done. And, we did keep diaries of course, and which I don’t think they do nowadays, so we were able to record what we did. But I always, uh, on Sunday, frequently, when I’d get a call from the look out that there was smoke, somewhere or other, and it didn’t look like it was doing much, I’d take Glenn with me, and we’d go out, and we’d break a line, and round the fire, so he, he liked that, and he thought that was the way it was going to be always, of course, we were all disillusioned in that respect, so.
Ray: So, [cough] excuse me, how does being a forester affect your family life, because I know that sometimes it can be a transient career, like you mentioned, where you have to move on, and go to different places frequently, but sometimes you stay long periods of time in one place, but you also mentioned that it’s a twenty four, seven job, so how does that affect one’s family life?
McConnell: I don’t think it had any adverse effect at all.
McConnell: In fact, my wife, uh, she, she was well known in the community, every community we moved in, and uh, we worked, I think we worked as a team. Of course, she was busy raising the children, and I was busy doing other things, but uh, I don’t think it had any adverse impact on the familial relationship.
Ray: Okay, well you mentioned the communities, and rangers and foresters being part of the community, how do you think that the land management policies during your tenure impacted the surrounding communities?
McConnell: Oh, well, I started out, my, my first real, I call it the line officer, was as ranger on the Yellow Pine District in Texas, and these were, this is back in 1950, I guess, or the late ‘50s, and, this is still very much a transition thing, where there was no hog law, and a man was classified whether he was for hog or anti-hog, and uh, the, it was a, it was a period of trans – we were doing a lot of proscribed burning, which the, the folks liked, because it fitted in well with their tradition, they, they always felt that they needed to burn, singe off the courtyard lawn, in order to get rid of ticks and snakes, and all, they weren’t thinking too much about the ecological necessity of this, and the fact that this is a fire dominated ecosystem, they just knew that it was a good idea. I remember getting off the train at Mena, Arkansas, [cough] excuse me, which was my first assignment, and smelling, I smelt this strange smell, it was wood smoke, pine, pine, uh, dead smoke from fire, from, so it was, uh, the things we were doing, I think, and I’m almost, well, as I remember, were well thought of, well received, approved – we were managing the resources, we were providing jobs, and we were hiring local people to do those jobs, as I said, we, we became part of what was happening, we were part of the, the ongoing process of being a, a asset.
Ray: Okay. Uh, you mentioned hiring local people. What kind of jobs did, I guess, untrained locals do; untrained in forestry?
McConnell: We, well, we had of course the warden crews. Well, first of all we had our, I guess, we called them sub-professional, but they were highly skilled woodsmen, and they comprised, the marking crew, and youngsters like me went through our training under these local people who had been, who were familiar with the, the way their particular timber types worked. So, we hired them as sub-professionals. We had warden crews, who, uh, each, each ranger district had one or two wardens who had their own contacts in and around the community, so, when there was a fire, we’d ring them up on the party line, and, the warden would assemble a crew, and we’d tell them where it was, and go out and put the fire out. So, we did a lot of that, uh, they were, they were doing, and we’d hire those of us who had clerical help, and I didn’t have any clerical help when I was a ranger at all, didn’t have it for years, uh, clerical help was quite, most often, local folks, who had some sort of training in this field.
Ray: Okay. Uh, getting into, I guess, the uh, inner mechanics of the Forest Service a little bit, in 1911, the Weeks Act was passed, and this allowed for the purchase of private land in the East to protect the headwaters of rivers.
Ray: How do you feel [cough] excuse me, how do you feel that the legacy of the Weeks Act affected your career?
McConnell: Well, every place I worked. I was there because of the Weeks Act. There wouldn’t have been any national forests in the South without the Weeks Act. Well, the Ocala National Forest, I believe, if I recall correctly, still was part of the public domain and perhaps part of Arkansas, but all of the, the land, when I began to work, was just beginning to recover from the impacts of early exploitation by the lumber companies from whom we had purchased the land. Now, I remember driving through, through Louisiana, and it was a sea of stumps, and there, there wasn’t, occasionally you’d see a crow or an armadillo, but there wasn’t any wildlife on these timberlands; it was, it was, it was really a, not a wilderness, but it was a, a devastated landscape, I remember stumps as far as the eye could see. Today of course this land is highly productive, fine, fine stands of timbers, that’s one of the great satisfactions – I personally have planted trees, that I can now, I can go back and look at them, and they’re probably about sixty feet tall, and so forth, so it’s very rewarding. I don’t know what the folks today, since we’re not planting any trees today to speak of, will have that satisfaction.
Ray: Uh, on that note, what challenges did you see the Forest Service facing, either in your district or as a whole, during your tenure? Maybe, uh –
McConnell: Well, there were always, there were always a few folks who really wanted to, I guess, have a little fun, and it was quite customary to, and we pretty well knew who they were, we called them Incendiariests or Pyromaniacs or something, anyhow, they’d go out and set fires, we’d have to go out and put them out, and I remember on the Cherokee, up the Kory (?) River Gorge, there was a, a tradition, that every Sunday, every Easter Sunday, there was a fire day, and that’s just something that’s been going on forever. You expected a fire on Easter Sunday, and sure enough, there was always a fire on Easter Sunday.
Ray: Is this still ongoing?
McConnell: That, that really, it wasn’t a question of accepting timber sales, although I, I suppose there’s still some residual opposition to the idea of managing timber rather than clear cutting, but the greatest challenges were fire and then, wild hogs. And, interestingly enough, that’s now becoming a challenge again, because the feral hog population apparently is increasing enormously. But we built fences, and had annual hog round ups, where the people, the locals would come out with their hog dogs and we’d round up, take them outside the fenced long leaf plantations and of course they’d find their way back in over a period of time, but, this was another sort of a, uh, a traditional community get together. Round up the hogs.
Ray: So that’s just another way the Forest Service, then, took part in the wider community.
McConnell: Oh yeah. We were part of the scene.
Ray: And, you say that the hogs were going to become a problem again, but you don’t see this, I guess, community ritual taking place again probably.
McConnell: Oh, no because the hogs these days, they’re not earmarked. They’re wild hogs. These were all hogs who were, they belonged to people. And they foraged on the acorns and so forth, rooted up the long leaf pines seedlings of course, but they actually, their owners could tell who they were by earmarks, so today, it, it, there won’t be any community effort, there’ll be hunters, individuals who go out and are hunting them. Now, now that’s a change. Let’s see: fire, hogs, cemeteries. Cemeteries were a problem. Every now and then because, trees grow and the, uh, there were always, I recall several instances of local folks coming in, wanting to cut trees around the boundaries of the cemeteries, which was special specially uses; they’d been there when we got the land, and uh, because they felt that these, the roots of the trees were intruding upon their, I guess their relatives, and so forth, but that, that was really a very minor concern. So that’s about it, there weren’t any, nothing like it is today with the environmentalist movement.
Ray: Okay. Um.
McConnell: There weren’t any environmentalists. We were the environmentalists. We were the game changers in the . . .
Ray: Was it during your son’s career that the environmentalists started to have an impact?
McConnell: Right, this was just about the time, about the time I retired, which is 1973, the uh, the big shift began to occur, and the Forest Service didn’t know how to handle this, and of course the Forest Service had its own, rift I guess, within the ranks, where some of us, and I was considered a wild eyed liberal in my day, so of us felt that maybe we shouldn’t be practicing what we were, which was, we were girdling an awful lot of trees in our timber stand improvement work, big hickories down in the bottom land, because there were perhaps other higher value trees, or oaks on the uplands because we wanted pine trees to grow, but uh, I remember, the local game warden and I, on the, when I was ranger, we were quite good buddies, and we used to go hunting together, and he used to tell me that what we were doing was wrong as it could be, because we were killing all these mass trees, and I had the opportunity to see him many years later, and tell him he was right and I was wrong, but the trees were dead of course.
Ray: Um, what technical, technological changes did you experience between the beginning of your career, and then when, your retirement? Anything in the equipment you used, different tools, that were set aside and not used anymore?
McConnell: Well, I, I guess, we still used the, yes, of course we changed from the marking ax to the paint gun, and the GIS hadn’t made an appearance, but that, I think that, that’s really a game changer. We did a lot of uh, when I started it was all bark and scale, and then it went on over to tree measurement, and uh, finding sample tree measurement, and then area base sales, were you’d go out and sample, sample, put in sample plots on a, on a defined area and sell the whole area without actually marking every tree. Or you could mark the tree and still have an area estimate sale, but the, uh, these were all, these weren’t paradigm, these were just technical changes, as you pointed out. These were just ways of doing things. There wasn’t any, between the beginning of my career and the end, there wasn’t any real shift in the basic philosophy that our job was to manage the forest for the benefit of the local folks rather than for the ecosystem or the creatures that were in it, as a whole. So, we were anthropo-centric, whereas today, there’s a lot of ecocentrism going on, which… It, the people are, in many cases, just sort of ignored, and not considered as part of, the whole emphasis is put on protecting spotted owls and red cockades and woodpeckers and salamanders and rare lilies and fungus and insects and mice, and all the other good things, which is fine.
Ray: During your tenure, did you ever think that the Forest Service felt the effects of public opinion?
McConnell: Hmm…Well I like to think that they do, but I’m afraid, well I’ve often felt this in reading responses to, to environmental impact statements of course, we, there was a scoping letter put out, and we send in our comments, and I often thought that they, the Forest Service considers public comments as more or less an intrusion upon their, their expertise and they pay very little attention, or, well, in fact, I just made a comment within the last month on a, on a proposed action by the Forest Service, and I still haven’t written my response to the response, but in effect, I’m going to say that they didn’t address the issues that I raised, although they said they did in their response, which is what are the economics of this, which is the salamander, they’re gonna treat some salamander habitat where there are no salamanders, lot of them, and I asked, you know, in view of our national deficit, and the fact that the national debt is increasing, why couldn’t we just put this aside until these things are no longer with us, and we do have money that we can spend on nice things, and they never responded to that, outside the scope, outside the scope of the environmental assessment.
Ray: Um, I suppose many times within the Forest Service’s existence, there have been proposals to transfer it to the Department of the Interior, rather than the Department of Agriculture –
McConnell: Oh, my goodness, I’m glad you brought that up!
Ray: Okay, good.
McConnell: Well, I don’t think – you’ve seen my website?
Ray: Um hmm.
McConnell: Have you read the, the uh, the pages on trust management?
Ray: Uh, I don’t think so.
McConnell: Well, before you summary what I’m going to say, whatever I’m going to say, in whatever you do finally, the fact is the Forest Service is unable, because of three things, underfunding, over regulation from above, and vast amounts of litigation, they’re unable to manage the land, that’s a fact. Uh, for example, the Apalachicola’s cutting six percent of the gross annual growth, there are plans that they should be cutting about eighteen percent or is it twenty percent, but anyhow, they’re not coming even close to meeting what the goal that they set for themselves, much less meeting the, meeting the needs of the forest, and of the community. So they’re unable to govern. Now, trust management is now emerging as an alternative, in which the lands, and this is my interpretation of it, because there are several versions in Congress, lands that are best suited for the production of timber should be used for that purpose, they should, management should be focused on that, and in order to achieve that, and to allow for adequate funding and to lessen litigation, they should be transferred from the Forest Service, on a landscape scale, to a trust managed by an assortment of individuals who, my feeling is that they should be composed of the, uh, Forest Resource Advisory Board, of which I am president of the Florida National Forest Resource Advisory Committee, and I think that local people with knowledge and a diverse background, and with the knowledge of local conditions should be given a, an overwhelming uh, role, a very large role in the management, rather than having directives filter down from Washington, so, no, I don’t think we should transfer it to, the lands to the Department of the Interior, but they should be certainly given to, management should be changed to allow proper resource management, the management system, and they should be transferred to a trust. Anyhow, this is explained in some detail in my website, under “A New Approach,” and I will be giving a, uh, a presentation at the winter local chapter Society of American Foresters meeting, this is going to be the topic, and I expect that there will be some, a lot of, uh, interest in that, and controversy, and hopefully we’ll have some Forest Service people there to explain why they aren’t managing their land, and how they intend, what changes they will make to allow them to manage the land. Of course, since Congress holds the purse strings, they’re not going to be able to do anything, so the situation will continue without some drastic modifications.
Ray: Well, this is Election Day; do you feel that changes in administration, regardless of who wins, do you feel that changes in administration greatly affect the Forest Service, or does business continue as usual?
McConnell: I’m glad you asked that. It’s not going to change. First of all, the Forest Service doesn’t want it to change, who would want to change? You’re in charge, the power – I’m not sure, when I say Forest Service, I’m talking about the power structure, Washington office, those who, the powers that be, is the way we used to call it. No one gives up power, no one gives up control, so they don’t want it to change; they’re opposed, as I understand it to trust management, because it’d be losing some of their power no matter how much better the land would be managed, so that, uh, and I don’t think that the legislature in its present state of disarray, that’s, the federal House and Senate, and the tensions between them, will ever be able to do anything significant with the public lands. They’ll react to emergencies, national defense emergencies, terror, acts of terrorism, hurricanes, things that demand their attention, but they’re, they’re not gonna do anything significant with Forest Service, or public land management. I hope I’m wrong on that, because there actually are some, some legislation, there is some legislation now pending which could have significant effects, but I’m not too optimistic about anything happening.
Ray: So, you’ve mentioned trust management, what other future projects would you like to see the Forest Service initiate, in, I guess, an optimum situation, optimal situation?
McConnell: Well, as an alternative to trust management, and this probably is more achievable, it could try the same thing that the Defense Department, the same funding mechanism the Defense Department uses – are you aware of that?
Ray: Um, I’m not sure, no.
McConnell: They’re self-financed, they use funds from their resource management, timber sales, recreation fees and so forth. That does not go into the United States Treasury, with the Defense Department. It’s used to finance the local programs, and they do a really good job. And once again, I’m not too optimistic, that’s in effect because of the, the influence, and active agitation, I guess, of one congressman who is a local Forest Service congressman, now if I could only remember his name, but he was, he was down in the Panhandle district, I think he was out of, ah, Pensacola. But anyhow, that, that has some interesting possibilities, and I’ve suggested that in my website, as a sort of a more realistic approach to getting funding. Of course that wouldn’t solve the problems with litigation or over regulation, but it would solve the funding problem, which is a major part of the uh, of the deficit, of the inability to manage. What else would I like to see? That, that’s probably enough. I have a couple ideas rattling around – oh, I’d like to see a much, much, much greater emphasis on using our lands to produce, uh, renewable energy, bioenergy, biomass, specifically, which is what I do, I, since I retired I’m ah, I’ve specialized in biomass management, intensive management, uh, sort of, what would you call it, semi – quasi domestication of some lands and intensively managed plantations to the production of energy, biomass, so anyhow that’s the, those are enough. That’ll never happen, so . . .
Ray: So, what advice do you have for current members of the Forest Service? At any level.
McConnell: Grin and bear it. And get out as soon as you can, cause I think it’s hopeless the way things are. Does that sound too pessimistic?
Ray: Well, maybe realistic.
Ray: I think that’s –
McConnell: I guess, I’m 90 years old, and I’ve come to the point where I realize that most of the good things that you expect to happen are never going to happen, and if you wanna live in peace with yourself and the world, you’ve just gotta recognize this fact, and stop being a thorn in everybody’s side. I haven’t quite reached that stage. I’m considered the bete noire of the Forest Service around here, but we get along very well, anyhow cause I’m still a member of The Family, black sheep, probably.
Ray: So, I guess on a, on a happier note, what do you see as the Forest Service’s definitive contribution so far, that they have done?
McConnell: Would you repeat that one, please?
Ray: What do you see as the Forest Service’s definitive contribution to the nation?
McConnell: Oh! They’ve made immense contributions to the nation! I’m proud of them, proud of us. If they can, in the East especially, I think, they’ve done their best work, where they’ve taken these lands which I do remember as being wastelands, and turning them into highly productive, very attractive, pieces of real estate that are immensely valuable. So, I guess I can be proud of that because I was part of it. So that’s what, that’s why I think it’s such a great accomplishment. Now out West, I’m not sure, well, they probably saved, by placing the Western national forests under management, they probably saved them from the same fate that, uh, the fate that was about to overtake them in the sense that they were going to be clear cut and left without, now, that could be wrong too, because of course warehouse Weyerhaeuser, and all of the other forest industries, these large forest industries are now doing actually a better job of management than is the Forest Service, so.
Ray: Uh, the Forest Service I think was founded in the late nineteenth century, had it not of occurred, do you think that something else would have eventually taken its place, or would we would have gone into total loss of these lands with no trees? I guess what I’m trying to say, was the Forest Service inevitable?
McConnell: Hmm… The Forest Service or something like it, I think is, yeah, that’s probably a good word, it would have happened. Every other country in the world, all the developed countries have, have the, uh, something equivalent to this. We’re not alone, of course. In fact, our forestry practices evolved in large part from the, from the forest practices at Biltmore estate, and so forth, where the early German foresters, Shank etc, came over and taught us how to manage in the European fashion, the traditional forest meister. So, I, I think it’s inevitable. Something else would have come, come along, but it wouldn’t have – thanks to Teddy it all happened at one time.
Ray: Uh, you were in the Service, uh during, or rather, right after World War II, how did you, did your duties change any when as much timber was not needed again for the war effort, after the war ended?
McConnell: No, because, well, it changed in a way, I still, I was a timber staff person, after I was a ranger, and I turned into, by default, also into a planner, although I didn’t realize I was a planner, I wasn’t formally a planner, I was the industry, or resource representative on planning teams. So, naturally when you move from a ranger district into a supervisor’s office, your duties change, you leave behind the good stuff and get into the paper work. They changed, and I think, of course the emphasis in the Forest Service changed hugely from get out the cut, to protect the beasties?(?), and uh, think big, think in terms of ecosystems, cultural transformations, and such things as this, I’m not sure contribute too much to managing the land.
Ray: Um, what, I guess, would you consider to be the highlights of your career during the Forest Service?
McConnell: Four years as a ranger.
Ray: Four years of being a ranger.
McConnell: The best time of my career, and I think just about any, any forest officer will tell you that, cause you were, at least in the old days, you were free, you were king, you were king of two hundred thousand acres, and I remember getting up in the morning and driving around, listening to the towers come up, in those days we still had fire towers, and it was such a good feeling; you were helping make this work. Today you don’t get that feeling, I don’t believe. So those are the best, the best years.
Ray: Were there any projects in particular that, I mean, you remain especially proud of?
McConnell: There was one thing I did that I’m pretty proud of, and I don’t think of it too often, because now it’s commonplace. When I was ranger in the Yellow Pines, I hired the first black laborer we hired in Texas we had in Texas, and set up a crew of black laborers. Of course, that was pretty revolutionary in those days, because all of our employees were white, and I was the first ranger in Texas, and I don’t know where else, to do this. But anyhow, I did have an accepting supervisor who went along with that, and it worked very, very well. So, that’s something I did that I’m, I’m glad I did.
Ray: Uh, you’ve now mentioned African Americans, and uh, and women working in the Forest Service. How do you see, during your tenure, did the Forest Service, uh, I guess work with minority groups?
McConnell: I would say, that it was something that had to be done, but it was probably done under pressure, and I understand that there, there were court decisions that were, that made it necessary to do this, it was probably done without too much, well, they work with what they had, and sometimes those that they had were not, at the level, where they hadn’t had the training, the – you had to be promoted, this was the thing to indicate that indeed diversity was, was being done, and you were rated on how many minorities so, you had to do something, and sometimes, I’m sure things were done which would not have been done, in a more, in a more measured manner. Integration occurred at a more, not leisurely pace, but as a more realistic pace, consistent with the, with the degree of talent, the numbers that were available, so, and I’ve known some, some of the women we have are really great, they, they’re just. Some of, I’ve, the ranger that was the black ranger that was the, black ranger on the uh, Leon district was a wonderful ranger, and I’ve known some women who weren’t worth a damn, who had absolutely no qualifications. Of course, I’ve known some men who weren’t worth a damn, too.
Ray: Um –
McConnell: Though I think, I think, what happened was, it was inevitable, just like the Forest Service was. It was inevitable and it needed to be done, but it wasn’t done with the same thoughtfulness that it might have been done.
Ray: Um, we’ve discussed lots of specifics of your experience, now, is there anything else that you’d like to, just like to discuss about your career, or your time in the Forest Service, or where you think the Forest Service is headed, needs to go?
McConnell: Where is the Forest, I don’t think anyone knows where the Forest Service is headed because there are so many, so many factors pulling it in different directions, who knows what the Congress will decree, it’s like who’s going to win the election which is held today, I wouldn’t even guess. Good luck to you, Forest Service.
Ray: Um, how during your career did you see the Forest Service working with the states, the role of the federal government working with the states?
McConnell: Okay, this is something in which I, of course I did not directly participate in any decision making in that, I, uh, after I got in the forest supervisor’s office as a staff man, I had nothing connected with the district; as a ranger, you always worked with the district, the local state folks, especially, well, not especially, but almost entirely on fire, so that there was a close relationship. We all, we were all foresters, we all know each other, and just like we knew, if we were near a national park, we knew the park folks, we used have joint meetings with Smoky Mountain National Park and Cherokee National Forest. Had some great meetings with that, too. What was the name of the town, in south Florida? Flamingo? Great parties. With a Caribbean flavor.
Ray: Uh, you’ve had a pretty extensive career after your retirement from the Forest Service.
McConnell: I’ve been retired longer than I’ve was with – I had thirty years at the Forest Service, I think I’ve gone thirty something, more than thirty –
Ray: And of course, the work you’ve done in your retirement has been linked, of course, heavily with your Forest Service work.
McConnell: It’s been like, well, after I retired, I went back to school and got a couple of degrees; master’s in urban and regional planning, and a master’s in sociology, which gave me another perspective on what was happening and what I had done wrong and what I had done right, and what was wrong with Forest Service planning, and what was right about it, and of course, uh, and then I, I’ve become especially interested in renewable energy and at this time I have a very interesting project in development in the Caribbean on the island of St. Croix, and, I’m associated with a renewable energy organization and company, and I’ve, I’m just having a lot of fun, I would hope that all retirees have this same opportunities to uh, to continue doing something, not necessarily forestry, all though, I’ve continued in that line. So I’ve worked with the state, the Division of State Planning, now defunct and moved into the Division of Community Affairs, and done a lot of consulting work, and, just, here and there, done a lot of fishing, of course, but that gets old after a short period of time.
Ray: You mentioned the sociology degree, and when I read that on your website I was curious; and you said now that it offered your new perspectives. Could you explain that a little more to me, how the sociology fits with the –
McConnell: Oh yeah.
Ray: forestry work?
McConnell: In our, especially in Forest Service planning. Forest Service planning in, socioeconomic aspects of planning are just, they’re almost laughable, they’re so pitiful that they, well first of all, they don’t, foresters are not sociologists, all though they become, if they’re worth their salt, they become pretty skilled in dealing with people, and recognizing how people work; social psychology I guess would be the word. But when it comes to recognizing the impact of what they propose or what they do on human beings, on families, on all the ramifications of joblessness, which are enormous, and are not at all considered when we talk about harvesting timber or managing land, the Forest Service is – woefully is such a weak work, and we’re going to use it anyway – they’re woefully, woefully, woefully lacking in any understanding of the human aspect, the, that’s why I always have to chuckle, sadly laugh, I guess is a better word, when I see their, read their little mantra, “Serving the land,” no, “Taking care of the land and serving people.” [Laughs] Ha, they have no idea what people are, they think that, what is this, this cultural cultural transformation is, has something to do with that, and they don’t, they just don’t understand, I guess is the word, now there are a few sociologists. How many, does anyone know, do you happen to know how many sociologists are employed by the Forest Service?
Ray: I don’t know.
McConnell: As opposed to how many fish culturalists or recreation specialists? Hell, we’re dealing with people, that’s the most important thing we have, and yet we have all these folks who are specialists in their particular field, none of which are people, so I came to realize the Forest Service was, and that’s probably one of the reasons they have failed so miserably in their transition from traditional to nontraditional; they are unable to recognize that this, what they have done is destroyed their, uh, their, their vision, or their, destroyed their humanity and the way they relate to their clients, their neighbors, the people who work with them and who work for them.
Ray: You mentioned, uh, the transition from traditional to nontraditional; would you explain that, what that is?
McConnell: Traditional – log
Ray: Oh, okay.
McConnell: Yeah, log to mill, put out fires, build roads. Nontraditional – think big, ecosystem management, things are more important than, than individuals or people, humanity.
Ray: So, if you had to opportunity to design the perfect Forest Service employee, what qualifications and skill set would he or she have?
McConnell: No one’s ever asked me that, and I don’t know whether I’m qualified to answer. I think the ability to work with people is the most important thing, to recognize people’s individuality, and their, to understand, to understand; they should know about the Maslovian Hierarchy, which, I doubt if there’s five percent of the Forest Service understands that there are basic human needs and then there’re self actualization at the peak and, we’re concentrated these days, pretty much, in self actualization and forgetting the fact that survival, housing, is far, far, well it’s basic and essential. So I’d say that, a Forest Service employee should have much more training in, in the arts, not the arts, but the soft sciences, let’s say rather than the hard sciences, although of course you need the tools, but you also need, need to understand how to use the tools in terms of making them effective in the context of where your job is, and some sort of vision as to what you expect out of life. Am I getting too philosophical?
Ray: No, no; not at all. I want to know your, your views on this.
McConnell: [Laughs] Anyhow, I think a lot more emphasis on the less technical, and, and this, in research this is, I think maybe is especially true, because we did, our research is – I mean it’s great, but it’s lacking in any fire, or that’s not the right word. Well, I’m not even, I’m not, I can’t formulate my thoughts, let’s put it that way. It’s one of the things that comes with age, you’re unable to, unable articulate what is within you with any great precision.
Ray: So, one of the, the issues facing the Forest Service right now, you would think would be failure, or a lack of understand that they interact with people and the communities, and maybe, maybe today the Service is too insular?
McConnell: The Service is getting what, again?
Ray: Maybe today the Forest Service is getting too insular?
McConnell: Too insular? Yes. Very, very – you’re not putting words in my mouth, you’re saying something I’d like to say, so [laughs].
Ray: Okay [laughs]
McConnell: [Laughs] Right. Very definitely, there is a, it’s all technology and no humanity, that’s the word. And not, sometimes the technology is so esoteric that, that it becomes unusable, if that makes any sense. Okay [laughs].
Ray: Well, uh, I think that we have covered my, my list of questions. Is there anything that you would like to add?
McConnell: No, we’ve covered things pretty well, I think.
Ray: I think so.
McConnell: You’ve uncovered my biases [laughs].
Ray: [Laughs] Well then, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me today, and to share everything that, uh, everything that you have, and uh, just thank you.
McConnell: A pleasure to talk with you.
Ray: It has been. Thank you.
McConnell: And may this do some good, somewhere, somehow.
The Interviewee: W.V. “Mac” McConnell joined the USDA Forest Service in 1943 as a Senior Forest Ranger SP-6 after graduating from Pennsylvania State University with a degree in Forestry. In a thirty year career, Mr. McConnell worked entirely in Region 8, serving in both line and staff positions, with a career emphasis on timber resource management. Upon retirement from the Forest Service, Mr. McConnell earned a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from Florida State University in 1975 and a second master’s degree in Sociology from Florida State in 1977. Mr. McConnell’s second career includes work with state government, the Peace Corps, and as a private consultant focusing on planning and sustainable energy.
The Interviewer: Jordan Ray is a graduate student in the Department of History at Auburn University, currently in the second year of the master’s degree program. He is studying American history with an emphasis on religion in the Early Republic and utopian communal experiments.
Description of the Interview: The interview lasts approximately one hour, though after the conclusion of the official recording, the interviewee and interviewer talked informally for several more minutes. McConnell and Ray met in an office room at the National Forests in Florida Supervisor’s Office. McConnell came prepared with a copy of the letter offering him a position with the Forest Service. After a few minutes of preparation and a test of the audio recording equipment, the interview commenced.
Content of the Interview: During the course of the interview, McConnell discussed his entry into the forestry profession, his time in the Forest Service, change over time in the Service, and his retirement. McConnell spoke at length regarding what he considers to be the most pressing issues facing the Forest Service today, and elucidated several policy matters that concern him.
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.