Interviewer: Brad Peinhardt
Interview Date: November 6, 2012- 10:00 am
Location: Harp residence, Griffin, GA
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Brad: About your training in Virginia, can you tell us about the training process?
Thurman: Sure, and again… Do you kinda want me to go through kinda each station and what I did up to the point where I got to Atlanta?
Brad: That is how I drew most of the questions from.
Thurman: OK, I’ll go through that and then if I miss something you can go ahead and ask and I will try to elaborate.
Brad: Sure. Sure.
Thurman: So I will just go through the entire thing then.
Brad: There are certain things that we came about that were very curious to us. There are certain processes that we wanted some clarification on. If you want to go ahead and talk about your training in Virginia for a little while, go ahead.
Thurman: So I arrive there, well that was my first day of work, January 15th, 1978. Like I say, big snowstorm, all of that. I finally found a KOA campground to get in. I got stuck getting to it at one time. Then a guy came by in four wheel pick up to c get me out. It was one of those things. Before I started work, I went to the grocery store and I call back home. Again, all this is before the days of cell phones and all those other kinds of things. It was such a horrendous trip and kind of discouraging and stuff. And you know, there you are by yourself and everything. And by the way too, I was 25 at the time when all that happened. It was three years after I graduated from college and so I was 25. I remember telling my mother when I called back, I said “Well, I’m here so we’ll see how it goes, but if nothing else, I got to stay here and work at least a month so I can get enough money to come back home.” At that time, I had no idea what was going on. That Monday morning I drove up the mountain to the little pass where the district office was at, Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, which was a part of the Jefferson National Forest. And Kirby Brock was the district ranger so I got in there and they were surprised to see me. He said I would have thought, this is Kirby, “I would have thought that you would have call… I expected to get a call and say I can’t make it because of the snow.” Of course at that time I had no idea that I could even ask to do something later. I either had to be there or else. And so I was there. I will go through a little bit of some of the, the things that I did, but I just wanted to say as I mentioned, talk about how discouraged I was when I first got there. It was such a horrendous trip and everything else. Between that and being away from everybody that you know and all, but within about three weeks of me being there, it’s just like they took me under their wing. It felt like I had gone home. I mean there was just the feeling of belonging, the feeling that they cared, all of the folks that worked there. It was just something special. Within about three weeks, like I say, I knew I that I was going work my entire career with the Forest Service. The only way that wouldn’t happen is if they kicked me out. There was no way that I was going to leave once I got in there, because I just felt that was special.
Brad: Do you think it might have been that way just at that particular place where you were, or do you think that was everywhere?
Thurman: I think that, based on my talking with folks in there, I think it had been that way for a long, long time. In fact, and you may hear this from some others, I felt like that I joined, they talk about joining the Forest Service like you join the Army or something versus I got a job, because it has, for so many of us, and I describe it myself that same way, the job with the Forest Service was more like a calling than it was a job. It was even more than a career. You talk about pastors, somebody who says they have a calling to preach or something of that nature. Many people within the agency speak of it, or at least the old timers, more of a calling than a job. I felt that I kinda got in, you know on the last of the “Good ol’ days” in a sense. One of the reasons why I say that is it’s rural. A lot of the stuff is rural with the Forest Service and it was even more so back then. Shoot, we have more than 350 million people now. Shoot, I can remember whenever we just went to 200 million in the country. And the camaraderie and stuff Plus, if you think of the last days of Lassie, the big TV show, it was a forest ranger. Back before the big environmental movement that took place and all that, I mean the Forest Service was the guys that wore the white hat. I mean, it was…There wasn’t all that controversy over what to do and how to do this and how to do that. The agency was looked at as the ones that was the experts. You know, came out of World War Two supplying lumber and everything for, shoot, planes, you name it. It was kind of a Golden Age in the sense that the public looked in probably more in favor, more like, yeah, like I said, the people in the white hats and that was before the days of the controversy over the Environmental Policy Act and all those other kind of things and anti-logging issues and all the other things that got embroiled as we got more in to today. And so, your question about did it feel that way, yes. The other thing was, and there’s pluses and minuses to this depending on your perspective, but a lot of the people, you know, the old saying is that it’s really east people that think exactly like you. Well, obviously from the beginning of Gifford Pinchot back in 1905, being the first educated forester in the country and all those kind of things and he started the first Forestry School in the country. You had foresters that were trained, foresters ran the agency and at that time, up until you got into the 70s and things, it was all-white male club, you know, in that sense. And so, it felt, it was one mission or one direction. Everybody kind of thought the same, and from that standpoint, it really did create that camaraderie and all those things. Plus, isolated lot of places are very isolated. I mean… You socialize with the people outside of the work the same way with the in work, so it was really, really tight in regards to all of that. As you got into the 70s and 80s and everything, then with the Environmental Policy Act and other kinds of things, a lot of other specialists started joining the agency. I mean, you had archaeologist and biologists and all of the other disciplines and things. And lo and behold, even within the agency, not everybody thought the same anymore. So within the agency, there is a little bit more diversity of thought and everything. Again, that can really good. It depends on what you’re looking at. It is probably really, really good in regards to how we are dealing with a lot of issues and everything today, but in my sense is there’s not quite as much consensus within the agency or maybe not quite as much camaraderie in that kind of stuff as maybe what there was in the past. And that’s for that reason. One thing has to do with the cosmopolitan nature of our country today. Even the remote areas are not as remote as what they used to be. And now, I’ll jump to my last assignment just briefly before I go back. Because in dealing with that one question…Here in Atlanta, a lot of us my age or some of the ones that was older, some of ‘em I managed and everything, that experienced the camaraderie, been out on the district, been isolated, you know, your friends being the same ones you played with after that you’d play with at work. Well, nobody has changed, people still think the same and all this other kind of stuff, but whenever I worked in the regional office here in Atlanta, I lived on the north side of town, somebody lives in the west side of town. Shoot, by the time you get home, it takes you an hour to go see someone. You don’t socialize after work, because of just the logistical problems and everything. The people are the same, but there are more things happening outside. There’s more things pulling people away. So some of that closeness… If you didn’t have the experience of working on the district and then you join the agency and worked in Atlanta, it is hard to have the same feeling toward the agency, the same camaraderie, the same feeling of family if you don’t socialize with those folks a little bit outside of work and everything too. That’s a long answer to your question, but yes I think in fact the camaraderie was even stronger in the really, really old days. I got in on the end of it. And this still exists. I mean, even in the down turn with the economy and the less budget and all that kind of stuff, the amount of work that is done off the clock. I mean, it’s all salary and everything. The dedication to doing more and more and working hours and hours, with no compensation, just because you feel the importance of what it is to get done and try to get the work done out there on the ground. The dedication of so many of the employees is just phenomenal what they do for nothing, basically. Back to Virginia, I was basically; even though I think…gosh I’m trying to think. Back up here. Talking about the training…I entered the agency as a GS5 forester. And being a GS5, well I say a forester. It was a forester, but it was basically a trainee job. Now, I mentioned OPM and everything, depending on…I talked about the conservative nature of the agency and things of that nature in a sense is getting into the training. I qualified for the GS7 out of college because of my grades, etc., and all that kind of stuff. However, this is just my editorializing on it, because of the conservative nature, I got hired as a five, because they didn’t have to pay me as much.
Thurman: That is basically what it worked out to be, you know. And then after a year, I got my seven, but the agency is so conservative. I mean, some of the districts I worked on, I can remember what they called the bone yard where you had stuff. Shoot! People were… And talk about spending money wisely; they straightened nails and things like that. And talk about spending money wisely. People…they straightened nails and things like that. I mean here they are talking about wasteful government spending, this and that and everything, and government employees who take a lot on the chin in that kind of way, but nothing was wasted. They took care of everything. You can’t…To think government employees straightening the nails and doing that kind of stuff rather than having to go out and buy something else and all, that is how the agency operated.
Brad: That was just a service wide ethic?
Thurman: It is a service wide mentality. It’s very conservative. When it comes to spending money and getting things done, they are conservative. They try to get everything done that they could get done for the dollar.
Brad: Is it that way today as well?
Thurman: And it is still pretty much the same way it is today. Anyway, I was a GS5 forester … you had a question?
Brad: I was just going to say was one of the first things that you worked on, was that the Youth Conservation Corps?
Thurman: Well that was one other thing. As a trainee forester, they put together a, kind of a training plan of various different things and such, basically to expose me to all of the things that took place out on the district. Now, for the uninitiated, and again, just in talking about this, you know, the organization of the Forest Service – we have districts on a national forest and then a lot of national forests have multiple districts. Those multiple districts are organized into a forest and then they’ll have a district ranger, they head person over that. They’ll have a forest supervisor that is over one or more national forests that’s composed of districts. Then, you have nine different regions in the agency that has multiple national forests. There’s nine regions and then we have our Washington office. Out on the district, that training plan, I did work on the Youth Conservation Corps and I will talk about that quite a little bit because it was a big part of that, but at Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, they exposed me to everything they possibly could within the district, I mean, from recreation work to the timber sales that we had on the district, to wildlife issues, to law enforcement. One of the issues, now I’ll go into that about the Youth Conservation Corps, I can’t remember when the law passed, but the Youth Conservation Corps was thought about as a, it’s kind of an extension of the old CCC thing, the Civilian Conservation Corps that took place in the 1930s during the Depression with FDR and such. With the Youth Conservation Corps, it was 15 to 18 year old kids that were, and you had to apply for it, and the idea was to bring kids, a lot of them from the inner city and things of that nature, though not all of them, to a rural environment, get ‘em exposed to things. Because again, even at that point, we were becoming more of an urban society rather than a rural and to get them exposed to the various things that a lot of people that were raised in rural environments take for granted, but the city kids have no idea that’s taking place. There were two different types of camps, this was, took place in the summer time, eight weeks long and there was places where if they were located to a bigger town or stuff like that, where they had non-residential YCC camps and residential camps. The residential camps, they stayed there seven days a week for the full eight weeks. And so…and we…They did recreational work. They picked up trash. They built fences. They did fisheries work for things that maybe we’d do in the streams. So, we just had a whole bunch of tasks for that. But, our camp there at Mount Rogers, I think it was somewhere between 40 and 45 kids of both sexes. And having both sexes at that age, residential camp was a challenge. I mean had, I mean…We had environmental education teachers there to give them some environmental ed. At the same time, they did a lot of work. We had counselors there. We had somebody that was on staff there awake 24 hours a day. They were…We had platforms and then they had canvas tents, kind of put them in a rural setting, and everything as well. The first year I was there, I was the assistant camp director and then the second year I was the camp director to take care of all the administrative stuff and dealing with all the paperwork and just making sure everything was running the way it was supposed to be, you know. Well, all the logistics of running something between the food and the activities and the work. When I say activities that also included the weekends, because we didn’t work on the weekends, but there had to be something for them to do, couldn’t just let them sit around and camp. We took them places and one thing or another. In fact, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but as part of the whole YCC thing whenever I moved to Texas, I will tell you the story then, where that’s basically how I met my wife. So anyway, that is kind of the story of the YCC. We headed out of what we considered our work center. And actually, we built a whole new facility out there to house all those kids and everything. It was quite an experience out there. It was kind of one of those things where you say to yourself; well I got a degree in forestry, you know, but I didn’t really get training for this kind of stuff in college. And that’s I guess, the other…. In the past, and they will even say it today, a lot of the jobs and the things that you do in forestry, you become a jack-of-all-trades. There are so many things that take place. You may have a degree in one thing or another, but a lot of the things that you wind up doing, you just do because it’s something that has to be done in order to get things through.
Brad: It kind of goes along with the unity that you were talking about earlier.
Thurman: Yeah that and even in the stuff that’s directly related to forestry like if you do work timber sales area and stuff like that. I got a degree in forestry and I know a little bit about the trees and the names and all those other kind of things and stuff. But it’s kind of like that with even a specialized thing. Well, you get your degree and then you go to work and the training portion of being a trainee for, then you gotta learn the Forest Service and how we deal with things and, uh, and then they got us acquainted with things like they call “special use permits” because the national forests are large land owners and then I’ll get more into kind of how things were created and everything whenever I talk about my last job as director of lands, minerals, and uses. But with special uses, within the large land owners, there’s roads that go across it, there’s power lines, there’s this that and everything and there’s things that, uh, private people want to do to cross national forest and one thing or another and there’s permitting process for allowing those kind of things to happen. What do you do to allow certain activities other than just normal recreation, things like that, on national forests? And so that was some of the stuff I was exposed to too. If you didn’t have any more specific questions about there, I was going to move on to Texas.
Brad: Yeah, that is fine. By the time you got there, you were a full-fledged forester, correct?
Thurman: Well, actually, yeah. Let me just talk about the district to kind of put that into perspective.
Thurman: On a district, they have a district ranger. Under the district ranger they have two or three people that they call assistant rangers that are ranger assistants under that person. From the hierarchy at the time… I started, a lot of district rangers were maybe GS12, okay? That was what career brought was a GS 12 and then he had three people under him who were GS11s. Here I was a GS5. That was the professional group. Then there was clerks that worked in the office. And then we had our forestry technicians and stuff that did a lot of stuff just that was laid out on the ground and such. And so here I was a 5 and whenever I left there, I was a GS7. They…it was just…the GS7 was still the second level of kind of being a trainee. They didn’t really consider you a working level forester until you were a GS9. Now, a GS9…the technicians, forester technicians were GS4s, 5s, 7s, and 9s…very few GS11s, so the ones that did a lot of the, the ground pounding worked out in the field, that’s the group there and then they had, what they called, the professional cadre, the people that had college degrees and such, they started at the 5 and 7 and then by the time you got to GS9, that’s whenever they considered you a working level, German level forester at the GS9 level. And so whenever, and then I, I guess I just would mention this from the standpoint of process and procedure, back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s and through there, when a person transferred from one place to another, the way it worked is kind of like you hear these stories about the military. Uhh, you’d be working there two or three years and then the district ranger would call you in and say, “Well, the forest supervisor decided that you need to be over there and you need to move over here and you pick up your paycheck over there in two weeks.” And so, that’s how you got transferred. That’s how your career advanced and whatever else based upon how the people higher up looked at it and you just kind of got placed and there was really no choice if you wanted to…then you were moving to the next place. Uhh, at the time I hired, I got in on the very, very end of all of that. Again, being a trainee forester, the idea was I would work there, you know, two years or so and then I would transfer somewhere else. I knew goin’ in that I was not gonna be stayin. This is the professional. The technicians, forestry technicians tend to stay in place. The foresters would, like the officer corps in the military, I mean they would tend to transfer. So whenever I got getting close to my two years, I had told my ranger, “I said, well it’s getting kinda close and everything like that, you know, what’s going to happen? Or I’m ready for ever.” They asked me, kinda well, “Where would you like to go?” Well, I always really wanted to work out in the West and region 8, which is what we’re…I’ve retired in everything too, and Virginia’s part of the region 8, which is pretty much the whole southern area in the South. The most western portion of it is in Texas and Oklahoma, Louisiana, stuff. And the regions kind of operate, a little bit, you know, from each other in the sense of the hierarchy and stuff. But I wanted to work out West and so I said, well, I couldn’t really ask as a trainee to go out to Colorado or Montana or someplace like that so I just wanna go as far west as I can get. I said, give me Texas or Arkansas or Louisiana or somethin. My thought is, well, whenever I move from there, I’ll be closer to the west and I’ll just go out west. So this was in end of August or September. I can’t remember just exactly which, and then there were a bunch of fires goin’ out in California, and one thing I didn’t mention is training in, you know, fighting fire and stuff of that nature, so, my first western fire detail took place. I went out to California, to southern California in fact when the location was down right on the California-Mexico border, you know, and you’d stand and put your feet on each side of the border, we were so far south. And was out there about two weeks. Got back to Virginia and my ranger said, “Well, how would you like to go to Texas?” And that’s how I got transferred to Texas and I said, “Well that sounds fine to me.” So it was, at that time, I mentioned earlier that the GS12 tended to be the highest rank of any of the district ranger, but there were still a lot of GS11 ranger districts around. And when I say that is that the top administrator, the district ranger was a GS11. Everybody else was a lesser grade. And I got to transfer to the Sam Houston National Forest and at that time it was two districts on the Sam Houston – the Naches and the San Jacinta District. I got transferred to the San Jacinta District in a GS9 position. However, whenever I, and this was in, I think I moved out there somewhere early portion of November of 1979, I had not quite got two years in and so I didn’t quite qualify for the GS9. It was a GS9 position I went in and so I went out there as a 7 and as soon as I got the timing grade as a GS7, then I just, I moved to the GS9. And so, yeah, so, then in 79, I was…In the position I moved in to, they tended to have…if they had three ranger systems on the district, they had a person that took care of the timber program. They had a person that took care of the recreation then. They called them the other resource for a forester because they would take care of recreation, special uses, minerals, range – if they had cattle or anything on the district and everything else, and then they had a forester that took care of the silviculture things – the stuff that you would do to the land after the timber was cut and things like that. Well, they had a little bit of a hybrid thing there and so I took care of the, my position was taking care of the silviculture stuff as well as I had minerals and I had special uses and then everybody helped out on proscribed burning and all those other kinds of things and such.
Brad: I wanted to ask you about a couple of those things too, whenever you’re, if you want…
Thurman: Well, that’s a good break. That’s kind of sayin what it is. I’ll talk a little bit about things that took place on that, but if you had a question…
Brad: Uhh, specifically, uh, I mean, I’ve read like a textbook definition of silviculture, but I wanted to, I wanted to know from your end the, I guess, the day to day process of that, of, of applying that to the land and everything. Cause I, I’d never heard of it until I began to research for this project.
Thurman: Well, maybe the best way talking about it is this, is that…for many years at this point, whenever…periodically for every district would be divided up into what they would call compartments, you know, just various things and they would run different size from a thousand acre, two thousand acres, or something of that nature and out on a systematic way, the silviculture, they would go out there and take a look at that particular piece of property. And basically the idea was, is to look at what was there, look at all of the ecological, wildlife, all of the things that was, that’s sittin’ out there. Is the timber, is it native or has it been trees planted there in the past from when we bought it or whatever like that that weren’t native? You know, what are you gonna do with that particular piece of property? Does part of it need to be logged? What kind of wildlife activities would be best there? Biological fisheries? So they just kind of look at the whole area. Now silviculture itself, and I believe and it’s been a while since I looked at the exact definition, so I mean, I could be a little wrong here, but it really has to do with the interaction of the trees and the vegetation and all that. It really applies a little bit more to the vegetation and all that stuff than it does to the wildlife and fish aspects to it. But, they would look at all of that, pull in specialists as they would need to kind of design what they would want to do to that compartment over the next ten years. And so the silviculture would be, “Okay, do you need to log this? Do you need to thin?” You know. “Does it need to be clear cut or thin or whatever else to best enhance it?” Uhh, after the logging operations maybe take place, do you need to plant trees, what species of trees, how you would treat things to best, uh, utilize that piece of land? Does that answer your question?
Brad: It does. It does. And, and, you, and when you did that, did, were you, were you on site there deciding what, uh…?
Thurman: Yes, now the process was, well, when I say that, there’s a process to almost anything. And what would happen is that, that the silviculturists there, they would be certified. They would have to kind of go through training and everything to make sure that they got certified to go out there and do that. And even after you were certified, there was a process where you’d go out there and examine that particular area…decide kind of what needs to be done. But…and you wrote it all up and it was a big thick piece of paper and everything and it would get reviewed by your district ranger and by staff officers in the supervisor’s office and in Texas it was Lufkin where the supervisor’s office was and then get signed off on. Now, that’s the way it was, but, it’s a little more complex that same thing takes place, but then today, as a part of that process, then you go through the national environment…they do an environmental analysis and all these other kind of things and there’s decisions that have to be made you know, and appeals that can be made at that and everything else. But at its most basic, it’s still that person goin’ out there and takin’ a look at that piece of property and deciding, now what are you gonna be doing there over the next ten years? You know…
Brad: Do you think that then, as compared to now, it was a little easier to get projects going in silviculture or do you think now…
Thurman: Well, absolutely, because, you know, it was, it was simpler in the sense that it wasn’t reviewed and analyzed by everyone in the world and the NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, and everything…there’s a lot of good things that came out of that. However, one of the negative things to it, from the standpoint of getting things done and gettin’ it done fast and all those other kinds of stuff is that sometimes, and there are a few out there that have an agenda where, well, it comes back to some philosophical things and our society’s changed over the years. A lot of people have confused the national forest as national parks and they’re not national parks. The laws that created the national forest are different than national parks, the regulations for managing those things are different and everything else. There has…there’s a lot of…and I understand the confusion thing, like there’s a lot of folks out there that really want the forests managed like national parks. They really resent. They don’t want any mineralization taking place. They don’t want any mining. They don’t want any trees cut. They don’t want any of those kinds of things to take place out there and if you talk about the speed and everything, and whenever you have the process such that really all it takes is a stamp and say, “I object” to delay. And in many cases, a lot of the things still take place, but at a minimum, it just delays and it can delay and it can delay. And that is what I was speaking to earlier. And with that, you get into a whole lot more controversy and sometimes, and like I say, what it’s, the good thing is, it’s really forced us, the Forest Service, to really analyze things better than maybe what we had done in the past. However, on the negative side, a lot of the objections are emotional, rather than rational based. You know. And from, internally within the agency, you have people that have devoted their lives to the study. They know what the best of scientific knowledge, what happens if you do this and this and everything else. Well, then you have people that are looking at it just from emotion…again, they’d rather it be a national park and maybe that’s where they’re coming from is that obviously if something looks bad – a logging operation – there’s brush and this and that. If it looks bad, it has to be bad. You know. And so many times the people who do it, they think they do, emotionally they do, but in regard to cause and effect and what’s really happening out there, they don’t really understand. Whenever I was in Texas, there in…oh, going back…on the district there, well not so much that district, but the other district I worked in Texas…in the south, they have what they call southern pine beetle. And you may have seen two out west where they have the mountain pine beetle and they got all these dead trees scattered out the forest and all that. Well in the south, it’s a very similar little bug, but it’s the southern pine beetle. And they tend to attack trees that are old or dying or more mature, if they’re really overstocked. When I say overstocked, there’s too many trees. They’re pushed together so the trees are a little bit under stress and things of that nature. And when I talk about that, we had people…and this was when I moved to the second district in Texas that way….that actually accused us of taking these southern pine beetles and going out and basically salting the areas with bugs as an excuse to log it. Because we were hell bent to log!
Brad: Do you remember any of the groups or people who accused you of that and doing that at that time?
Thurman: Well, the guys…well, Ned Fritz, who was the Texas, I can’t remember…and he’s, he was from Dallas. And I think the organization still continued. But, you know, that’s the extreme of where I’m coming from is that to do that and for a loving place, myself included, it really hits you in the gut. It’s kinda like, from an emotional standpoint, how dare you say something like that to me! I devoted my life to this! I care for these woods and I care for this as much or more than you do. And you hurt my soul whenever you say something that…how dare I would do something like that? And I know, myself included, which I was a district ranger and, as well, true in making some of those decisions, and I never knew anybody with the agency, whether it was logging or any of the stuff we were doing it, under the best scientific things that we knew at that time. And we’re not God. We don’t know totally, total cause and effect. It’s a complex ecosystem out there. I never knew a single person that did something out there that they knew was gonna degrade the environment in this agency. It just wasn’t done. And for some of the public to accuse you of those kinds of things, really was very hurtful.
Brad: Now did the accusations come because you were, because you were, um, doing it when the proscribed burning happened or was it because you were…?
Thurman: Well, the logging was the lightning rod…
Thurman: …to the whole thing. That was the lightning rod and they had the whole controversy over clear cutting and not and one thing or another and stuff. And, yeah, you could write a book on that one issue. But that was the lightnin’ rod, more so than the proscribed burning. Now a proscribed burning, and I’ll get back to the story of that district and everything. On the proscribed burning issue…the Forest Service, we actually in one sense became too successful. And again, at the time…Well, you’ve got society’s wishes and wants and you’ve got the knowledge at the time. And back during whenever the agency was starting and such, and part of the reason for some of the things occurring like they did, in some of the national forests especially out west, you had some tremendously…They took, there was a book I think, called the Big Burn in 1910 or something, where you had millions of acres of burn out west and things of that nature and people died and all this other kind of stuff. So fire was bad. And so over the years and you get up into the early 60s, there was policies and, again, I’m not a fire person in the sense I didn’t devote my career just pretty much to that. But it was a matter of putting the fires out, keeping them within a certain size. I mean, if you saw smoke, bang, you got out there and you hit it just as fast as you could. The idea was not to let them get big cause you didn’t want any fire out there. And so what happened is that, and a lot of people emotionally don’t really understand this, but in most places, there’s more trees and there’s more woods out there today than there was even back in colonial times because we’ve excluded fire. You look at pictures of the Black Hills around South Dakota and places of that nature, you look back in the 1850s, the pictures there and you look at it today, there’s just trees everywhere today where there wasn’t. And in many places, it’s just too thick. And so, you have all of this fuel that’s layin’ out there and so, whenever you have droughts, you have other kinds of things that come up, it’s just much more prone to actually having a catastrophic fire where it burns too hot. Back, years and years ago, you go back into pre-white man coming here and everything…the Indians even set fires through the woods and such, and so you know. There was a thing where if the fires are maybe not as intense and everything like that then it doesn’t really kill the trees off. In fact, you have fire dependent species like the long leaf and such and they’ve really got to have fire sweep through the woods for ecologically the whole ecosystem to like it’s supposed to be. So whenever all the fires got put out, you developed a situation where things are just much, much more intense were fire to occur. And it kills things. And it doesn’t even allow some things to grow. You have different species of trees that developing come up climax versus if they were fire in there all the time, different sets of trees and stuff come in there. But, one of the things’ that’s occurred in addition to that is that now as the population’s growed, you got a lot more people that are in these remote areas, and so as a result of that, and because of fire being kept out, we have these things that you hear about in California and around Berea and everybody wants to be on top of the mountain and fire rushes up hill and so when you have a big fire down here, it comes up and it’s, so, it’s one…a lot of people don’t even think about it. They don’t really understand what they’re doing. They want up on top of that ridge so they got the big view and it’s the most dangerous place in the world that you can be because if a fire ever starts down below you, it’s gonna sweep up and burn your house down. And so you’ve got all that kind of stuff. So, but, and people are starting to realize more and more then that proscribed fire is good. And you know, it’s, and even on that though, we’ve taken some flak. Well, it’s the Forest Service’s fault and this other cause we haven’t had all these fires, we didn’t do proscribed burning like we should have been, you know, thirty, forty, and fifty years ago. But it was a different world. Nobody really knew that but even today, it’s difficult to proscribe burn. You’ve got issues with people that have breathing problems and with the population, it’s hard to get out there and burn enough to do what you need to do. The winds blow the wrong direction. It sucks down. People get affected by it or it goes across the highway and it causes wrecks and things of that nature, so it’s quite a challenge to do as much proscribed burning as you need to do. In the South, here, in this region 8, we do more proscribed burning here than any other area in the country.
Brad: Why is that?
Thurman: Well, there’s several things. First of all, in a lot of areas, it’s flatter. And it’s a little easier to manage. And a lot of the areas of the West, it’s much, much dryer and it’s harder to control, you know. There’s a lot of logistical things in that regard. And then here in the South, too, fire’s went through the woods in lower intensities than what they did out West. They did have hotter fire and things out that even in the other time because of the dryness and things of that nature. In fact, you get out around Yellowstone, up that part of the country where you have species of trees like Lodgepole Pine, and I was talkin’ about the fire, they can’t even reproduce without a fire. They have what they call sorotonous cones, that it takes fire, heat. They fall down and it takes the fire going through there to actually heat that thing up before they’ll open up and the seeds’ll fall out.
Brad: What tree is that again?
Thurman: Lodgepole Pine.
Thurman: And there’s a lot of things that are dependent on fire taking place. But, you’re talking about the controversy. The timber was more the lightning rod than the fire. And even today, and even though we take, we’ve taken a little bit of flack, well the woods are so thick because ya’ll, everybody, the world…and not just the Forest Service, the Park Serv…everybody put out all fires. But, when you fire fighters…and one of the reasons people like doing firefighting, the ones that do, it’s very gratifying. You got one task – to try to put that thing out wants it gets really big and it’s kind of a white hat thing. The people still like the fire fighters. I mean, they saved our home from burning. It’s kind of like the coast guard rescuing people at sea or something of that nature. They still like the fire fighters and it’s kind of one of those double edged…fire’s a double edged sword. We need it out in the woods, but we don’t. But timber was the big issue that really got things going for us.
Brad: Were there any other, I mean the pine beetle is the main villain that I seen become a cross in the Forest Service…
Thurman: Here in the South…
Brad: Okay, other than proscribed burning, was there any other way to curb it? I mean to…?
Thurman: Well, again, my technical knowledge on it is dated. The last I worked on southern pine beetle issues was back about 1985 and so the science has evolved. At the time that I was involved in it, well, one of the things that would combat, and this is that double-edged sword thing…Well, if…well let me back up just a second more. In Texas, the southern pines – there’s four, what they call Four Southern Pine. I won’t go into detail there. But the thing is, most of them only live about, their mature at 75 or 80 years and they’re, by the time you get out about 130 years old, most of them are dead and gone, unlike you get out spruce and a lot of those western species that live 3-400 years and everything and people see these big trees and they think “Ancient, ancient, ancient!” Well, they don’t live that long here and a lot of the lands that were purchased, especially here in the south, were all cut over by the big timber companies back in the 20s and 30s and then whenever national forests were created in the south, there was a big planting trees, you know, getting trees started back and everything and a lot of these areas had not been cut at all since the 30s whenever some of them were planted. And there in Texas there’s places there, pictures of whenever they became, or we bought ’em for part of the national forest system, as far as you can see, you can see nothing but stumps just all that way. And you go there today and it’s just trees everywhere. And so at the time I was there in the late 70s and the middle 80s, a lot of the trees were starting to get mature. They were 60, 70, 80, maybe some few 90 years old at max, okay. And as the trees start to get old, they start to get under stress. So the old trees are more prone to southern pine beetle than the young vigorous growing trees. The trees that were, if they’re planted too close together are much too thick, then they’re more prone to southern pine beetle. And if they’re in a place where they shouldn’t be planted, you know, maybe there should be hardwoods there rather than pine, then they’re under stress. The more the trees are under stress, the more prone they are to southern pine beetle. The logging that took place would have been, you know…Well, let me back up here. We had done those proscriptions and looked at the areas and all that kind of stuff and in Texas, the plans that we had and with the controversy and people and all, if we went around and cut every acre of land on the district, on the district I was on there, by the time we would have got around to cuttin’ it again, it would have been 150 years. We were not cuttin’ enough to even get around to ’em before they were gonna die, but yet, a lot of the public thought that we were cutting too much. And so, as a consequence, you know, we’re getting older and older trees, so really the environment out there was more and more prone to that. Now once you got the southern pine beetle, there was several methods of controlling them. And most of it involved gettin’ the trees out of the woods. It kind of works like a cancer. Once they get started, they’re endemic. They’re out there all the time, but conditions get certain, right, and then you get into an epidemic stage is what happens with southern pine beetle. And so, at the time that I was involved in it, the best thing was to do, if you cut the trees down, and took ’em out of there, the beetles weren’t there to get to the next trees and so therefore, you controlled that one, they called ’em spots, cause they tended to start as a spot and then they would grow. Some of ’em would grow more than some others, depending on the situation out there on the ground. And so, if they, or, if they were real young trees and they didn’t have much value, then the other thing was you cut ’em and just lay ’em down. What I, at that time, what they were sayin’, and it certainly seemed to work, when the beetles…what the beetles do as far as killin’ trees, they go inside the bark and they burrow around, they lay their eggs, and basically, effectively, girdle the tree, not allowing any water or nutrients to go up into the tree and so they die. And, so whenever they mature, they get out, they fly to the next tree to start the cycle all over again. And I can’t remember the cycle, but it’s pretty quick, especially when it’s nice and warm, less than a month’s time. So, when they come out of the tree, they’re conditioned, they come out and they fly over to the next tree. If the trees are layin’ down horizontal, rather than standin’ up right, it tended to confuse ’em. Plus, if it’s layin’ down, the heat of the sun bearing down on the bark of the tree would tend to overheat ’em and they would die too. So we would do cut and leaf operations and then we would also have a bunch of little small timber sales, where we go out there and try to cut the spot to control the cancer, basically, spread of it, by cutting the trees down so that they wouldn’t get out. Now we had some really, really bad time there between…in fact, it was the worst they’d had since ever, actually. They tended to run in like seven or eight year cycles where it seemed like the numbers would come up and then they would go down. And so, whenever I first got to Texas, nobody’d even hardly heard of southern pine beetle because it was at the low ebb. And before I left in 86, I mean it went up to epidemic cycle. And so everybody that knew exactly what it was, and, it was, one year on a little 84,000 acre district over 30 million board feet were killed by southern pine beetle on that one district, which amounted to over 3,000 acres. And, they were poppin’ up and we would fly over the district and try to locate ’em. We’d have crews go in and locate where they were, evaluate the spot, do cut and leaf, or try to log out the spots and everything. And one summer, in fact, they were comin’ up so darn fast, you could just envision ’em eating everything of the whole 84,000 acres. They were just spreadin’ so darn fast. We had one area on the Sam Houston National Forest. It’s called Four Notch, it’s kind of got infinite. It was in what they call rare two area, and so, we had to deal with it a little differently than some of the others. But, the spot got to like three hundred acres in size. We had our etymologist come over and look at the stuff and, I kid you not, this is kind of a little side story here, but…in the heat of the day, two or three o’clock in the afternoon, you can go out on the outside of the spot because what had happened was, in the center spot, a lot of times they’d already be dead and there wouldn’t be any beetles in it anymore. The active edge was where it was growin’ from. You could go out to the active edge where you could see where they’re at and, one of the ways that you could tell that they were in the tree, whenever the beetles attack a tree, the resin and stuff would start to come out every place they would go in and the resin’d come out and they’d be little white, they called them popcorn balls is what they would call them. Cause you can see ’em just all over the trees and if bad infestation…and that’s the way the tree tryin’ basically to push ’em out and protect itself, but they just get overwhelmed and so you could go out to that outside edge where it was and kind of walk out that way and there were so many beetles there that you could actually hear ’em. They’d even ping into your hard hat and everything. You could hear ’em comin’ out and hittin’ into the next tree, they were that aggressive.
Brad: Now a spot that big couldn’t leave…
Thurman: Well, we tried, and that particular one, I mean, we even got people from Oregon. They came did. And we had a hurricane that came through and the soils were wet and we had people…we had…people cuttin’ down and we had ’em actually logging and getting the trees out of there with helicopters and things like that on flat ground. I ‘member, this is in ’84 I think it was, where we had a hurricane move through, up through Galveston and Houston and up through that direction and I know that we had over 20 inches of rain in August. And you could go out walking through the woods and sink up to your ankles, it was just so wet walking through it. And so the only way to get the trees out was with those helicopters because you couldn’t get the rubber tire skidders and things like that out in the wood cause they’d sink up to their axles it was so soft. So, but…so, yeah, long answer to some of that.
Brad: No, that’s fine. That’s fine.
Thurman: But, okay, did you want to go back to arriving there or what?
Brad: Well, actually, I was gonna see…from, from there, you went to Pisgah…
Thurman: Yeah, well let me back up just one second here. Just the one thing. And it’s two little things and then I’ll go to the Pisgah here to move along. I talked about meeting my wife, okay?
Brad: Oh yeah, yeah.
Thurman: Yeah, I wanted to get to that there thing there. And we talked about the Youth Conservation Corps. Well, there on the district I moved to on the San Jacinto District, which is no more now, because with the downturn and the economy and over the last twenty years, just less and less money coming to the forest unit, there’s only one district. They had to combine the two. And that’s nationwide. That’s just been tremendously…felt like I spent the last fifteen years doin’ nothing but downsizing. It’s just those kinda things. But anyway, we had a residential camp. Now, I wasn’t involved in being the camp director, but a lot of times, you had to help out on various things and such and, of course, and it was a residential camp. So, we had to do something on the weekends and one weekend, we were going to take ’em down to the Astrodome to see the ball players, Astros, I guess they were. To watch them play. And so we got tickets and all that other kind of stuff. And I was gonna go as chaperone, the camp director said, “Hey, Thurman, you want to go?” And I said, “Oh boy,” you know, a chance for a free ticket to the ball game. So, we went down there, I got myself…I picked my seats so I’d be right down next to where you can just look down over, up high but at the very edge. So, perfect seat. So we sit there, all of them come in, and the district clerk came and we’d had some extra tickets and so they, the clerk invited Karen, my wife, to come to the game. Karen lived right above her in the apartment complex, so she came and there were two of us guys on the district, the two assistants. Two of us were single, myself and Greg Hatfield, and so they come in there. Of course, Peggy, who’s the clerk, and my, Karen, my future wife. She wanted to sit with them cause she didn’t know anybody else. So I’m sitting here and in order for me, for them to sit together, I had to give up my seat and then sit behind them all there and eat my knees the whole thing. And so when we play about things, I say, well, yeah, I met my wife at the Astroball game there at the Astrodome with 43,000 people. So how did that happen? So you get into that whole story. And so, Peggy brought Karen there to meet Greg Hatfield, who was the other guy. And at the end of the game, Karen told Peggy, she said, she said she wasn’t interested in Greg. She said, “Would you give my number to Thurman?” So Peggy said, “Well you don’t wanna do that.” And Karen said, “Well, why not? What’s wrong with him?” And so Peggy said, “Well, Thurman’s too career-minded.” And as the years have gone passed, I say, “Well what’s wrong with that?” you know! So anyway, she gave…Peggy gave the number to me and I sat on it for about a week. I said, I don’t know if I want to go out with her or not, and I finally said, well yeah I did. So we dated for a year and got married after that. So, that was a quick story there. The other thing that I was gonna mention, this comes quick to mind because really one of the highlights and things there with, in Texas, I moved from the San Jacinto to the Trinity District and then, with proscribed burning. Talk about stories. And whenever I was asked to do this, some people just have a great way of telling funny stories, just all kinds of interesting things. But I will tell one that always struck me as a little bit funny. The proscribed burning that we did in Texas in that era was before. Today, they do it with a lot of [speaking to his wife for a moment]…the proscribed burning that we did in those days, they were just experimenting with, they really…not they do it a lot with helicopters. They have what they call these little ping pong balls, little round things they fill with fuel as they come out and it falls and it hits and ignites and they’re able to spread the fire out pretty densely so it doesn’t get too hot and everything and get a lot of acres in a very few time. At the time we were doin’ it in Texas and everything, we mostly did it by hand. We’d have what they called these torches. You’d fill ’em up with a mixture of diesel and gas and it would be like a torch at the end and you would walk out through the woods draggin’ fire. It would come out. And the fire…you’d be lighting basically as you would walk through the woods. And so you had a big plan and all that and you would kinda strip, you would kinda strip through the woods at an angle. Again, it depended on the vegetation, you’d plan how wide and how far between that because you didn’t want the fire gettin’ too big and you’d strip across. It was a lot of fun! It was a blast! It was a lot of work, but it was a blast! And we would try to have fire lines around the side so we’d control it and it wouldn’t get out. Well one day, toward the end of the day, of course what would happen is that we would strip across, get to the side, from one side, we’d try to go from row to row if we could, from one side to the other, and sometimes you had to walk a mile through to get to the other side. And then you get to the other side and wait for everybody to come out. Well we got to the other side and then the burning boss went ahead and sent one of the crew back around one of the fire lines cause we wanted to make sure before we left and everything that indeed the fire was set down and everything was safe, that we could leave that night and go in there. Well, one of the guys, his name was Doug Wannaburger. He was a grad student from…he’d got his master’s from, I think, from the University of Texas. And he just sittin’ there passin’ the time. You ever been at the beach and you know if you sit there and you just kinda pat your foot on that sand it’ll get all watery and everything and you can kinda get your foot further and further down in it? Well of course, down in that part of the country a lot of it’s flat and the water table’s sometimes there’s not very…Well anyway, he’s sittin’ there on the road and for whatever reason, he kinda starts tapping his foot out on some old dirt road out there in the woods there. Just pattin’ his foot on that. And we’re just sittin’ there waiting. Well lo and behold, the people finally started, they came back, and they got there. And Doug had been pattin’ his foot. He had his foot down in the road down to his ankle and so the people got back up, it’s time for us to go, so “Okay everybody! Let’s get up and go!” Well Doug could not pull his foot out of the center of the road. He had it down there and he couldn’t pull it out. So I’ll never forget, we just laughed. And so one of the guys went over and got a shovel (laughing), and we literally had to dig around the side of it to get enough dirt around that he could actually pull his foot out. So that’s some of the stupid things and the funny things that you remember and all. So anyway, getting to the Pisgah, I wanted to say, whenever I left the San Jacinto and went to the Trinity District on the Davy Crockett, which was two districts there. Now it’s only one. I had to apply for that job and that was the first job that I actually had to apply for and the process was such that, you know, there’s jobs available and they have lists and then you have to put in an application, the 171 form at that time and stuff, and address certain criteria and stuff and apply for it, so…I was a GS9 there and I applied for the job as a timber management assistant there on the Trinity District and I got that and we lived in Grovetown for three years and two years in Lufkin. Karen and I together. And so, but, in order to get to the Pisgah, and I’ll get up to that point, is that they had what they call in region 8 at that time, they had what they call a “skill file.” And I mentioned earlier that I always wanted to go West and I did. And I still wanted to go out west and the only thing I would say in my entire career that was a little bit of a regret, I never had a chance to work out West. I got to see a lot of places, but I never really got a chance out there and what happened to me there then, by the time, well, in 1982, everything shut down. Interest rates for people buying home went to 18 and 20%. It got to where, and that was before there was any relocation allowance or anything like that to go. And it just become totally uneconomical for anybody to move. And so, in the early 80s there, it just got to the point where everything shut down. And so I was on the Trinity District for almost five years and they had what they call, and things finally started opening up, but the process was to get to be a district ranger, and I mentioned earlier that GS12s and GS11s and by the time I had been on the Trinity District for five years, most, again, almost all districts were GS12s. There was a few isolated GS11 districts, but you had to get on what they called a skill file, which is an application. It was like where you got on with a group of people and for region 8, the south, you said, I’m willing to go anywhere in the region. And region 8 is Puerto Rico. It stretches from Virginia to eastern Oklahoma to Texas to Florida. And, however, there wasn’t much chance of me going there (Puerto Rico), cause they really like somebody who speaks Spanish if you’re going down there. But you had to be able to say, “I’ll go anywhere” and the process was you applied for it and probably well you qualified, but you didn’t get the list because you knew there was only so many vacancies in a year. At that time, there was little over a hundred district ranger jobs, maybe five or six or seven open in a given year. And so if you weren’t in the top fifteen, you weren’t gonna get…the first year you applied, if you had support, you’re qualified, but you didn’t make the top list. The second year, you made the list, but you was in the top 20 or something like that, you aren’t gonna get…and then if you still had support, maybe five the third year, then you were in that top group that was probably gonna get selected that year. And so in the spring of 1986, or as 86 started, there were like ten jobs open right at the beginning of the year. And I thought, and I was within that top 15, and I thought, you know, if you put a bundle in a hat with numbers in there and stuff like that and some got a district and some didn’t, surely I’ll get one of those ten. Well, the ten came and gone, and I didn’t get a single one of ’em. And then things went a long a little further and a little further like that. Another thing come up, I didn’t get that or whatever. And then the story I found out after the fact, and even then, there’s a lot of what they call, kind of horse trading – who gets to go where? You was on that skill file, but the forest supervisors would kinda get together, whatever, and then along toward the end of the summer I was in the talking to either going to Mena, Arkansas or Hot Springs, North Carolina and so I got selected for Hot Springs, North Carolina and so we moved to the Pisgah National Forest where I became a district ranger there. Some of the highlights there. I guess I would say that that district, gosh, I can’t…it’s hard to remember today, cause 75or 80,000 acres in size. And it stretched 75 miles along the, the North Carolina-Tennessee border. On the Tennessee side, it was Cherokee National Forest. On the east side of North Carolina, it’s the Pisgah National Forest. In some places, the forest just touched like that, right along the state line. And the district that I had started at the top end of the Smokey Mountains National Park and stretched 75 miles basically along the Tennessee-North Carolina line, you know, and it was certainly, maybe at its widest point, maybe 6 miles wide or something like that, but it was a long linear-type district. And one of the, and the mountains of North Carolina are just beautiful. And, you know, Hot Springs is about 35 miles from Asheville, actually closer to Tennessee than it is Asheville. Our son was born in Asheville in 89. But, you know, just beautiful, beautiful area. I felt like extremely lucky to go there. It was just great. The Appalachian Trail runs from Maine to Georgia and so there was about 75 miles of the Appalachian Trail that ran through the district. Again, just gorgeous country and the Pisgah National Forest…if you talk about the logging programs and things like that…At the time, this is back in the 80s, the coastal plain forests like Texas and even if you’re talking about Mississippi, Louisiana, are much more productive in regard to the pine trees and things of that nature. And we had a little 84,000 acre district there in Texas where we were cutting 20 million board feet. So I get to be district ranger in North Carolina, almost the same size district, and we were cutting 6 million board feet. But, it’s mountainous and everything and the amount of effort that it took to log 6 million board feet in North Carolina vs. 20 million feet in east Texas, it took more effort to do the 6 million in the mountains than it did the 20 million. Just because of the, well…getting roads, all those other kinds of things, just to get to where it is, and that part of North Carolina, there’s no flat courses. I mean everything is up and down and you know, a lot of the old timers that were there back in the old days, I mean, they built in saddles between…The only flat places were where the saddles and the mountains kinda come together and that’s where they’d have their houses and things of that nature, you know, so quite a mountainous district. And so there’s a lot more recreation oriented type activities take place in North Carolina and all of that. Like I say, I spent four years there. It was, it was a great time. The locals there just welcomed us with open arms. It was really a fantastic time. We still have friends in North Carolina.
Brad: Did you prefer living in North Carolina, working in North Carolina, to working in Texas or…was it kind of apples and oranges?
Thurman: The work was a lot different in North Carolina. As far as, well, let’s put it this way. When I left Texas and that, I’ve always been partial to the mountains. I love mountains, I really, really do. And that’s one of the reasons why I would have loved to have worked out in Colorado or Montana or someplace like that. But, which kind of gets back to one of the points that I was gonna say. In Texas was is that, I got to a point to where then, after I got married, people’s priorities change a little and all that other kind of stuff and the question was to still try to go out west or do I maximize, try to maximize on my career because if I stayed in region 8, I got to, I got a gist for a ranger job in North Carolina. If I had left Texas and went out west, the way the agency, the way it worked was, I was probably gonna have to lateral and be GS11 out there before I could get acquainted with the people that make the decisions, you know, and you kinda reestablish your credibility or how could you earn or all that other kinda stuff, so what do you do? Do you do that? Or do you go ahead and go the other way. So, I decided to go ahead and get the ranger job and as far as the mountains and everything, to me there’s no better mountains than east Tennessee, Western North Carolina. In this area, that’s about the best that it gets. And so I was extremely lucky for doing that and being able to do there, so. And then, I guess I would say that it was one where our son was born there in 1989. I started with the agency when I was 25. Actually, I was 33 when I became a district ranger, which was a pretty fast ride to get to there from, you know, I’d like to think that I was pretty good, but there’s also luck in time in it and everything else involved with anything like that. There was a good crop of people that came in in 1978 from 1978 to 80. So if you were willing to move around and didn’t fight against that kinda stuff too, I always felt like I was a little bit on that surfin’ ride, you know. If you take the opportunities that come and that kinda stuff and you surf the wave, you can either stay with that wave, but if you stick on that wave, the wave passes you by, then you don’t get to move on and so. I’ve always felt pretty fortunate that…I felt like I was a little bit, ridin’ a little bit of the wave in regard to career, so I was able to capitalize a little bit on that. And whenever, you know, in the past, just like the military, the tenure was, you know, two, three, four years and then you needed to move on. If you stayed too long, then the thinking got to be, well, what’s wrong with him? Or her? You know, they haven’t moved on at this point in time. That was the old thing. It’s much less than that…the thinking doesn’t go quite like it, but at that time, it was still that way and it really was that way even before I came on. And, in fact, except for that GS5-7, I never got a promotion that I didn’t move. Never got a promotion if I didn’t move. So after we had been there, our son was born, and though we loved western North Carolina, part of the thinking that we had was as that as far as me from a career standpoint was that I didn’t want to be district ranger there for another twenty years. And school systems weren’t that great in the real rural area so it was probably time for me to think about something else. So I was starting looking at going to regional offices. Again, I was looking at Montana and Albuquerque, which was another one, and so I started looking around at other jobs to go to. I always liked the lands area and, in fact, even in college one of the big projects I had to do was tracing the history of the ownership change and stuff there when I was at Oklahoma State University. Going through that. And then I got well acquainted with the land staff officer there in Asheville that was, you know, I’d mentioned that we had the district ranger and then we have the forest supervisor there in Asheville and they have a bunch of staff. And so I thought that the lands area was real good. I liked that. So I started kinda lookin’ around at other types of jobs. And I applied one for a lateral, actually, into Atlanta, here, as a special use – the regional special uses person, and if I remember, I’ll have to tell you a little funny thing there, but I got beat out on that job. There was a person, a lady, on the Jefferson National Forest that got that job as that. And I applied for a job in Montana for special uses and I think applied for one in Albuquerque and at the same time there was a job that came open in Washington, D.C. It was a land specialist job, again, it was more of a mental type position and I applied for that one as well. Again, my thought of that time too, if I go to Washington, maybe I’ll get to work out West, working out west (laughing). So, make a long story short, I didn’t get any of those other jobs in other regional offices or anything and I got the job there in Washington, D.C. in the lands arena. And, again, lands consists of, they have what they call land ownership, and this kind of will eventually get to this Weeks Act stuff and everything, which was part of what….But, there’s land ownership, which talks about land acquisition, land exchanges, any other kinds of ownerships, things of that nature. There’s the special uses portion of lands. They have valuation, which is land appraisers, so, for establishing fees and things for special use permits, if people have to pay, what do you charge ’em? Also if you’re buyin’ land or doin’ exchanges of land, you gotta know what the values are so there’s an appraisal staff that they talk about, now what they call the valuation portion of it. They also have an area that they call land status. Land status has to do with the basic ownership of the national forest system. And then, I’ll back up, just give you a little statistics here in Region 8 and I’ll talk about what I did in Washington here in a little bit. But, here in this Region 8, there’s 13 millions acres, or thereabouts, of land here in this region. Of that 13 million acres, and I may be off a little bit, I can give you people that can give you exact numbers if you want, but of that 13 million acres, there’s like 25,000 individual transactions where the government, the Forest Service, bought land.
Brad: Now are these for private…?
Thurman: Yeah, what happened in the history of the Forest Service, you know, the agency actually was moved from interior to agriculture in 1905 and so, and then there was a lot of land that was made national forest. Almost all of that was out west from lands that they call the public domain, the public domain lands that had not been allocated for settlers or given away to railroads or one thing another. There was a lot of land that still was owned by the national forest, so really, what happened was is that the president, through proclamation, in many many cases and everything…Theodore Roosevelt and, gosh, and his successor, there was lots of national forest created at that time just by the power they reserved it from the public domain as national forest. After, I guess it’s toward the end of Theodore Roosevelt’s reign, Theodore Roosevelt set aside some lands that some of the Congress didn’t want and they changed the laws says that it would have to have commercial approval before that, and again, there’s a lot of history in that regard. But all those lands were reserved from the national forest, reserved from the public domain. In the east, there was very, very little public domain left. There was a little. I mean the Washita National Forest in Arkansas has some and there’s some scattered around, but for most part, that 13 million acres, most of that has been purchased back from the private sector, and most of it purchased in the late 20s, 30s, and into the start of World War II. But, so with that, a lot of land’s been created out west. The public and a lot of the states decided that they wanted some national forest in the east. And when I’m talkin’ about the east, I’m pretty well talkin’ about Region 8 and 9. I’m talkin about the northeast, the midwest, and all that kinda stuff, not just region 8.
Brad: Northeast is 9?
Thurman: Region 9 and that stretched from Wisconsin down to Missouri, east to West Virginia and up to Maine, that whole portion. There’s about 12 million acres of national forest there. If you talk about the stuff reserved from the public domain, most of the other regions of the agency, have some or at least in the 20 million acre range. If you go to Ari…Arizona/New Mexico is one region unto itself. It’s like 24 million acres in those two states that are national forest. But like I say, the states decided they wanted some and so there was legislation in place passed that allowed the purchase of lands in the east for the purpose of national forest. And, in order to do that, each state that wanted that, then they had to pass a law that basically said that they wanted it, etc., etc., for that. So in the 20s and 30s…and then there was a lot of lands in the South that had been cut over. I mentioned a lot in southern Texas and the same thing took place in Mississippi and a lot of areas in the South. And so there was a good amount of property that was bought under the Weeks Act with money appropriated for Congress that had been totally cut over and bought for 2 and 3 dollars and a good part of that. However, and I’m talkin’ about that status portion, if you get up into today, and then with the passage of the Land and Water Act in ’64, then there’s 25,000 individual acquisition. There’s land lines that they fit together, you know. You look on the Rand McNally map and everything, everything looks green. But if you look at what the actual ownership pattern is, there are some pretty solid places out there where it’s all national forest, but there’s a lot of places where there’s a lot of private land that remain among that big exterior national forest boundary. And so because of all of that, and they do have a lot of situations in the west too, because any large land owner – there’s a lot to takin’ care of all of that and especially here in the east, we bought all that land, what it would buy. It would buy just the surface, it would get the mineral rights as well. Were there reservations for easements or right of ways across that property? And so it takes a lot of staff and a lot of things just to manage it, to make sure that we are protecting that land for the public. So within the status arena, there is that portion of it. There are land lines that we don’t want people encroaching on national forest and you’d be amazed at the people…in fact, there’d be advertisement places “Buy this property.” I mean, it’s national forest all out behind there. Well okay, so your property line is right next to national forest. But their backyard is not as big as they want, so who’ll know, they want to make it a little bigger. So, and we have a lot of situations that occur and especially with the population increase where inadvertently people will trespass or encroach on national forest and sometimes it’s deliberate. And so, and no, so we, within the agency, there’s a lot to trying to keep track of all that and and trying to defend that title so in some cases, it’s more than just goin’ out and sayin’ “Hey, you need to get off” and everything. We have to take people to court in a lot of cases and sometime, maybe it’s not quite as clear cut or they’ve got some deeds or somethin’ like that that we think erroneous and doesn’t really do the change of title where it’s supposed to be, but we wind up in court. And so, in the lands area as a whole, and I may talk a little bit more about that, it is very legalistic and there’s a lot of stuff that you need to know in order to try to defend that title and then, and how, in addition to just defending that, there are laws and regulations and things that’s passed that give the agency certain authorities to do certain things. And then you can’t do other things even if it sounds logical and it’d sure be nice if you could, but you can’t do it because Congress has not given the agency the authority to actually do that. And so, like I say, the land lines, the property ownership, and what we actually own, that is the status portion. So that’s kind of a long story there. So went to Washington DC and I actually got a promotion there. I went to GS13 in Washington DC. And that was just a wonderful experience for both me and my wife. Now again, talkin’ about camaraderie and things like that, and of course, when we were in Texas and some of that. Karen was acquainted with all the people where we were and all when we got to North Carolina there was time when Karen, she even, we got…Oh, one of the clerks left and Karen even volunteered just to help and you know, run the front desk and things like that. And when we got to DC, she felt like she’s as much Forest Service as I was and well, they always talk about Forest Service employees think they all have green shorts, and you know, a lot of us feel like we do, but…So when we first got there, our son was a year old and she worked for an engineering firm at one time and…but then after a year, she got on with the Forest Service. What they had found there, and it was fairly easy to get on, especially in the clerical area in DC, because in DC, because of all the lobbyists, this that and everything else, if you’re really good, I mean, you can make more money in private industry than you could even think of doing in the agency, but the agency figured out that a lot of the spouses of agency employees were very dedicated and stuff and in DC, because of the demand, they could just hire you right off the street. You didn’t have to take a big test and this that and everything, you know. So, my wife got on and she worked there and went at it before we left as being the assistant, executive assistant for the director of public affairs and in DC and then when we went to Milwaukee, she was able to transfer to public affairs there and shift several different jobs so my wife’s actually got seven actual years working with the agency as well and that kind of, part of that is because of that closeness in how everybody felt and everything, but we had a wonderful time. DC is, I said then or shortly thereafter and everything, I felt like I got my graduate degree in Forest Service when I went to DC because while I was there, well, I got to do a lot of things and I’ll mention some of those things, but I learned how everything works. A lot of people don’t really understand how our former government really, really works and how, why certain things within the agency work certain ways and things of that nature. You know, why the agency sometimes does apparently things that maybe you’d say, “Gosh, that’s not right,” but yet your boss, who’s the president – we work on the executive side – I mean, that’s who you work for. You don’t work for Congress, you don’t work for this, you don’t work for that, so some of the things there that you do, I learned why things work like they do. And then, I’ll just give you an example of learning lots of things. I talked about special uses and these permits and you talk about how legalistic things can get. This is an example I’ve always told a lot of people a lot of times. Whenever you give out a permit, whether it’s for a right-of-way or there’s an act for, especially out west where there’s a lot of “summer homes” that got started…the law was passed in 1915 when they were trying to promote a lot of recreational pursuits on national forests. They don’t do it anymore but, there’s some summer homes out there. Well, you’ve gotta get a permit and it has, and a lot of those permits have fees and stuff that have to be paid. And somebody doesn’t do something right and you always try to enforce the terms of the permit. Well, on that permit, there’s a form number, OMB number such and such. Well we got into a fight with this one man who didn’t want to pay his fees or one thing or another and it got thrown out of court because the district out there…Again, whenever they issues the permit, they just Xeroxed ’em another copy of it. Well, it had inadvertently, whenever they Xeroxed it, the form number was not on the piece of paper. And because that form number wasn’t on the paper, it was an illegal form. So we didn’t have the ability to enforce the terms of the permit because it wasn’t a properly executed permit. Okay? So it would have had to have been reissued.
Brad: That’s like a catch 22…
Thurman: Well, in one sense, you know, you kinda get around some of the things, but, we could not force him in court. The judge would not find whatever through that mechanism. It woulda had to have been reissued. Technically, in one sense then, the activity they were doin’, whatever else, if they were on national forest, they were in trespass because they didn’t even have a permit, but those are some of the kind of things that you get into in regard to how legalistic some of this stuff gets and what you can do and not do and everything. But, so, during my stay there, those five different areas I talked about – valuation, special uses, land ownership, you know, status and all that. What I did while I was there…I helped assist and in Washington, DC, a GS13, if you look on the charts and everything, it looks really good, but I was a glorified gopher is what I was, while I was there. But I was tryin to learn everything I could. And so I worked status and I worked in special uses and I worked all that kind of stuff doing all of the various things that they needed assistance with and everything and trying to learn and absorb all the various rules and things that you could do in regard to land ownership, the various laws and things passed by Congress that governed how we had to do things in order to accomplish that. There’s a tremendous process just in buying a piece of property and we have to do it in the way that we have been given the authority from Congress and everything else to do those things. So I learned all of that. I got to go up on the Hill and I got to watch hearings take place and things of that nature and like I say, it’s amazing any laws get passed or anything whenever you see exactly what goes in to all of that. It really is kind of a messy process.
Brad: Did you have to give much professional testimony?
Thurman: Well, I did not give any…well what happened was I worked with our legislative affairs people. I worked with them in getting information from the field on various laws that were trying to be passed or something they was trying to do. You’ll get laws for a certain Congressman or senator wanting to give away land or something to their constituent or something. Or there’s a permit or something. They’re wanting to make something happen by law or make…and so you get in the land and I helped participate with our legislative affairs group and I participated in briefing the people that would be getting the briefings on the hill or testimony that would be taking place. Course that testimony would have to be cleared through the Department of Agriculture, the Secretary of Agriculture before it could be delivered, but I helped with briefing those folks with the information because typically, the people that would be up on the Hill, settin’ on the panels, talkin’ to the Congress or senator was the chief and the associate chief and deputy chiefs and some of those people that were really in the high up positions and things. But I was a part, and I got to see those processes and how it worked and how the policy and the testimony was developed and what, you know they could say and what they could not say and things of that nature. And I was privileged to be able to go to some of the hearings and see some of that take place. I was a part of going up on the Hill itself and visiting with certain, well, staffers and things of Congressman and senators that, you know, information they wanted because really, you know, not very many people get to see the Congressman or senator, so even though I did get to see a few and everything, but for instance, one of the things that a lot of people, I think, don’t know too…they talk about these hearings, you see them on the news and all other kinds of stuff, all these questions that they’re grilling those people with? Well shoot, those Congressmen and senator, they’re already given, before they come up there and give that stuff on the hearing, they’re already given the briefing papers, all of the information that they don’t ask a single question that they don’t already know what the answer is. So in many ways, in many ways, it’s theatrics of showing it out there. They’re wanting to make certain points, they’re wanting their constituents to know that they’ve put something on the record or whatever else, but they already know the answer. They wouldn’t even ask a question if they didn’t know, because they don’t want to be surprised and they don’t want to give a wrong impression about not being informed or whatever else, cause they’re gonna know the answer cause they’re staff, either themselves, or through their staff and working with the agencies and everything else, they already know. They already know. So it’s kind of interesting whenever you see some of the stuff that come out there and whenever you know how all that stuff goes together. It’s like I say I felt like by the time I left there and everything, I understood better how our former government actually works. And then the ability to live in our nation’s capital is so much different than actually visiting some place like that. To actually live there for a while where the local news in DC is the national news everywhere else. And so we were there for two and a half years, two and three quarters years, something like that and it was a wonderful place, but for me, and I think for Karen too, also living in that environment up there…it’s, the press of people, it is just so congested up there and I just felt like, you always felt like, again, I’m kind of a country boy. That press of people, I would not have wanted, personally, to live up there, though a lot of people love it and everything of that nature and it’s a great experience. And to actually see some of the laws and things take place and things get passed and such, so…again, it was wonderful. And for myself, in regard to my career, if I had never worked in DC, I would not have had the job I had here in Atlanta as director of Lands, Minerals, and Uses. From DC we went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which was regional office for region 9. They call it the eastern region. And of course, Karen thought she, my wife thought…she just about died because at the time, again, and all these other, these jobs, I applied for DC. I had to apply for that. But you know, as with any organization or anything like that, there’s people who know your abilities and all that stuff, and so you put the things they evaluate and everything else and they make a selection and all and I was also being considered about the same time all this took place for a deputy forest supervisor job in Florida, in Tallahassee. And so we’d convinced ourselves that we were probably gonna go to Tallahassee and then all the sudden this came up, the assistant director of lands and mineral uses in Milwaukee had retired and then I got asked if I would consider that and of course, my boss there in DC had been one of the previous directors in Milwaukee and you know, we accused him of working for Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce and of course, Karen wasn’t too happy about going to, we’d never lived that far north or anything before, and I said, gosh, I said well…and then my boss, the Director, whose name was Gordon Small, who you guys are going to…I don’t know if, he’s on the list…Uhh, he told Karen, he said, well, she made him promise by golly, you’ll get us out of Milwaukee before you retire and he retired before we got to leave.
Brad: Did you feel the same way about Milwaukee when you got there?
Thurman: Well now, let me just, I’ll say this and then I’ll comment specifically to that. I’ve never had an assignment, I’ve never lived anywhere with this agency that I didn’t love.
Brad: Oh okay.
Thurman: Everything has its strength and weaknesses. I mean, I spent seven years in east Texas. For your information – hot…it’s as bad as Miami, Florida, I mean east Texas, Houston. It’s hot humid, you know, ten months out of the year. I liked the winter times. I didn’t like the summers, but you know, you can adapt to anything but the people are so nice there, etc., etc. Every place has plusses and minuses. I liked every place we went. I told Karen when we went to Milwaukee, you know, I said gosh, you got millions of people. Look at Chicago and all that kind of stuff! Surely we can survive there. Well, talk a little about, and Karen was petrified of snow and ice and like I said she went, well, she went with me of course, but she had a job there too and if I was out of town everything for the whole time, some of the other people that lived fairly close to us, she said, “Thurman’s out of town. Ya’ll gotta come by and pick me up because I’m not driving” and that’s what they did for a good while. But she finally adapted and, but it did get cold up there. We did have one real cold snap and well, I was there from 92-97, so for five years and 95 or 96 we had a cold snap there where the actual temperature, we had a thing there where we went for ten days whenever the high didn’t come above zero. And we had one day where the actual temperature was 29 degrees below zero and the wind chill factors, you know 50 and 60 below. And county Stadium, where the Brewer’s played, at that time, even the Packers would play some games in Milwaukee rather than Lambeau Field, they had a big sign – time/temperature out there and we’d go by it and just laugh, ten below zero, four o’clock in the afternoon. And those temperatures, even though I had my car in the garage, even with these new tires, they’d have a flat spot in the morning before you could roll out and everything. But when it was that cold it was blue skies and it was pretty. It could be deadly cold. The thing my wife had the most difficult time up there was, especially in the fall, you get in November, it was very, very cloudy. The first year we were there the whole month of November the weather forecaster had said that toward the end of the month of November that we went the whole month and we didn’t see eight hours of sunshine, blue skies, all day. It might have been a little bit during the day, but we could go for weeks and it’d just be gray. And she can’t hardly stand that, about to pull her hair out. Though, the one place she said she’d never go with me, she said, “if you transfer to southeast Alaska, Luke and I will just wait, we’ll be back when you get here, but we’re not going to Southeast Alaska cause it’s even worse you know” it just rains all the time up there. But Milwaukee was a great experience, again, but the time I was there, in addition to lands, minerals, and uses with all the changes of being there five years. I was director of recreation, and like I said, minerals came back into the situation. Oh and going back to the minerals, even in Texas where they have all that oil and gas, remember when I had that Gs9 job, I did a lot of the activities that involved oil and gas activities and stuff like that on the national forest. BLM, Bureau of Land Management, has the ultimate authority for leasing and also for permits and things for the leasing and on public domain lands that had always been under the federal government. Though, the Forest Service is involved in telling which lands might be available for use that are not being used for other things and such. But, we had a great five years in Milwaukee and got to go all over the northeast and all. Really, a lot of the activity that took place in Milwaukee was the same job I had in Atlanta except I was the director here versus being the assistant director up there. And maybe I can talk just a little bit about land acquisition and some of those kind of things at this point. Is that, I mentioned the 25,000 actual acquisitions here in this region and it’s, from a land standpoint, it really is a complex region. Region 9 up in Milwaukee is too. And if you talk to a lot of the western regions, they think some of their stuff is complex, and it can very well be, however, the one advantage the west has over the east is the public land out west, in many cases, are large, solid blocks of lands, much more so than here in the east. I mean you can have places there where there’s a million acres and there’s not a single acre in that whole million acres that’s not already federal government. Now you go to the Smokey’s Park or someplace like that and when it was created, it was ordained to Congress that they were gonna own very acre, even if it had to be condemned, but for the national forest, there was very little condemnation of land in the entire east. Back in the 30s and 40s when a lot of this stuff was bought, they did do some condemnation, but it wasn’t…When people say the word “condemnation” there’s a lot of negative connotations attached to that. A lot of the condemnation that took place early on within the east really had to do because the lands had changed hands in many cases since the 1700s. A lot of time the title was screwed up. You couldn’t find heirs. I mean things had split. They hadn’t done it…it went to multiple heirs and then one person done in got over here. Things were screwed up and the only way that the title could be totally clean, cleared, was to go through what they called, they would condemn the title so there would be public notices and everything like that and such so it would give opportunity for people. The person that thought they owned everything wanted to sell it in most cases, but they condemned for title so that it gave opportunity for people that thought they had interest in that land opportunity to come forward and get their compensation as well. And under those terms, once you went through all that process, then the property was deemed clean from the courts, everything else to be vested in the United States without question. Again, a part of the job, if you’re gonna have public lands and everything you wanna make sure that someone can’t just come in there and take it out from under you. So a lot of that condemnation took place just to clear the title. That’s what it done. Now you and I can’t do that if we buy a piece of property, but the government being sovereign has laws and things that allows us to go ahead and do that and clean the title back up and such. So and then I was just gonna mention too that we talked about the Weeks Act and the hundredth anniversary and all of that. The Weeks Act was instrumental in creating and allowing the national forests in the east to begin. However, and most of the lands probably, if you go back to the people that have the records, most of the lands were probably acquired with Weeks Act fund, but the Land and Water Act, Conservation Fund has been very, very important here as well. But, up until World War II, that’s when most of the bulk of the lands were bought…when World War Ii happened the funds that were given to the federal government for the Weeks Act purposes started dwindling and they went down and I was talkin’ to somebody here recently and the last record I think that person had was like in 1977 was the last dollars that they saw from Weeks Act dollars. and then after the passage of the Land and Water conservation Act, then the Congress tended to fund land acquisition priorities and everything through the Land and Water rather than. They could have just as easily put it in the Weeks Act, but they didn’t. They put it in the Land and Water Conservation Fund act for all of that. So and then, with that, I’m trying to, there was a lot of interesting cases, especially, and most of my experience, of course, was with the land and water…
Brad: You mentioned working with the TVA and I think you mentioned that when you were director of…
Thurman: Oh, right. The land between the lakes (unintelligible) when the National Tall Grass Prairie is when I was in region 9 was when the land between the lakes took place. The Land Between the Lakes – the entire thing is administered by the Forest Service, see. It was administered by TVA for years and years and years and I guess I can’t remember the exact history of it. It was created back in the 30s for flood control and all that kind of stuff you know, and it’s in Kentucky and it’s got these two lakes and this little land between and all that land was owned by them. And there, some of the history between it, and I can’t remember exactly, and I’ll try to be, I guess politically correct, in a sense that there came a time whenever the powers to be – politically I’m talking about Congress and the senate and everything else, the locals and everything else – it was deemed that they didn’t want TVA to have that property anymore. They would be happier with that being administered by the Forest Service and so there was a law passed by Congress and basically the land was transferred over to the US Forest Service. all of this land being administered by – when I saw the Forest Service, by definition, all the deeds and everything like that, it says in the name of the united States of America, but we are charged by Congress to administer those lands for the public for the united States of America and so I say the Forest Service, but I mean the United States of America forest. so that’s how we wound up with that chunk of land and a similar thing to place up at the Joliet Arsenal that was a department of defense place up there where they hadn’t used it for a long time. Now we had a lot of problems. Any time defense has been involved in a piece of property you’ve got, in many cases, there’s big haz-mat concerns and things because of what they did and that was an ammunition place, they put together explosives and things like that, so there was a lot of issues that we dealt with there. But, the law was passed, well, yeah, I guess they did pass one for that. Anyway, it ultimately came to the Forest Service and of course that Joliet Arsenal became the Midewin National Tall Grass Prairie and I think it’s 10 or 12,000 acres or something like that and so the objective there is to restore it back to the tall grass prairie ecotype stuff versus what happened with TVA and I would say that, you know, that was an interesting thing on a transfer. And I know what I was gonna say now. Just from the standpoint of information about lands and things of that nature, again, and talking about how legalistic some of the things are and the authorities that Congress gave to various agencies is that with the Department of Defense, in 1956 they had an interchange act that was passed that basically said that anything that defense has that the agencies – Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service, Department of Defense – that we can exchange lands if we want to and it doesn’t even have to be on an equal acre basis, all right? And now when I talked about Midewin even though, a lot of times. Even though they had that, there was probably some specific things outside of that specific property that was the reason they went ahead and passed some legislation. I can’t remember. It may have had to do with haz-mat. I think that’s what it was about the military keeping responsibility for some of that, because we, and even though it’s all federal government, you don’t want a situation where they get to walk off scot free and the Forest Service winds up with the cleanup and all those other kinds of things and stuff. But that’s the only agency that we have the ability to exchange land with. If you had two properties with the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service sitting next to next and we thought it would be good to manage the properties differently or that would be better being national forest or something of that nature, we have no authority to transfer administration of those lands between that and we don’t have any authority to do that with the Department of Interior. It’s just with the military is the only one. So you know, it just kinda gives you a flavor and so sometimes things come up that says, well, why don’t we do that? Well sometimes it’s just because we don’t have the ability to do that and sometimes it’s good because then it forces it into the political arena and into the public where Congress has actually gotta decide. There are cases where Congress would prefer us to do something administratively because they don’t have to take the heat for it. The agency did it. But sometimes I think it really is better for the public that we don’t have the authority to do certain things. That indeed if they wanted to take the Chattahoochee National Forest and make it the Chattahoochee National Park then they have to have some debate about it in Congress and they actually have to pass a law to do that rather than having the agency do it, then if there’s any controversy, Congress has got to take the heat for that and not an administrative agency that works for the executive branch. So, you know, and, so I mean, there’s been all kinds of things over the years in regard to and different special use permits and I don’t really…some of those things are not just clickin’ to my mind on those issues. But did you have any other specific questions?
Brad: We are kinda running close on time. I did want to talk about, just a couple of closing things, specific questions. First of all, now that you are retired, are you still active at all in the service on any level? Do you still…have you been tempted to go back? Or?
Thurman: Umm, maybe I can answer this a couple ways is that first thing I would say is that I’m happy to be retired. It…I would…I stay in touch a little bit. The…primarily through the people that are near and dear to me in my heart and the people I worked with in the past that are scattered around the country, you know, stay in contact with them. The staff that worked for me whenever I was here in Atlanta, here. I talk with them occasionally. Once in a while somebody will ask me for some advice on something like that, but I have not really been involved in anything, any real, I haven’t volunteered and gone back and worked on any particular projects.
Brad: So you were serious about it.
Thurman: It’s kinda like what one of the regional appraisers that worked for me, whenever he retired, eight or nine years ago, and because, if you’re an appraiser, you’ve got a skill that can really be used well in the private sector and stuff and so the questions to him was is that, well, whenever you retire, what are you gonna do? Are you gonna go ahead and go into private practice on the appraisal and stuff like that and Bill said, no, I’m not gonna do that. I want…I’m retiring. He said, if I wanted to work in appraisal, I’d just continue working for the agency and do what I love here. Why retire and go out and do that when I’d just keep working if that’s what I wanna do. So I wanna retire. And to a large degree, that’s how I feel too. I mean, I’m interested in the agency and all of that. I feel honored that the well, after I left, another person got the job and then he’s since retired and there’s a second person who I knew. He was in the Washington Office and on Thursday I’m gonna go in and have lunch with him and so I feel honored that you know, they remember me a little bit and everything, to do that. But I don’t really have any intention. There’s a few. Gordon Small, for ins…He stayed involved with some conservation groups in North Carolina. Cause he moved from Washington, DC. to western North Carolina and then he got involved in a lot of the land acquisition stuff and everything and I even worked with him a little bit on some stuff there after he had retired. But I just haven’t really felt the desire to do that. One of the reasons I went ahead and retired…I felt like I’d had a fantastic career with the Forest Service, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I got to live in places well, like for instance, Hot Springs, North Carolina, population 650, you know. You could take a dart and throw it at the map and what was the chance it would even land there. I’ve got to live in places because of the agencies that I would never have dreamed of being there and all of that has just been wonderful. I just wouldn’t trade any of that for the world, but you know, there comes a time in everybody’s life when you say, you know, there’s other things that are important too. One of the nice things about the Forest Service, and I think for a lot of us that worked for the agency is, regardless of all the controversy or anything else that took place and anything on that end, the public or whatever, I feel deep in my soul that it’s important for our nation. It is great that the national forests exist. We could never create ’em today, not with the population pressures and things like that. Our forefathers had great vision and everything else and the fact that they’re there is so, so great. And so, I feel, I have felt privileged to work with an agency where I’ve thought that it was important. But, there’s also your family and the way that I counseled the people that worked for me and in talking everything else about retiring or whether they should transfer or do this one thing or another, is that you’ve gotta do what’s right for your family first. If you’ll do that, everything else will fall in line. And for Karen and I, we wanted, well again, from a retirement standpoint, I was in the old civil service retirement system, not even in the new one in FERS. And like I say, you never get rich with if you work for the federal government, but it does have a nice secure retirement. I have my medical with everything else too. And so, you know, Karen and I just wanted some time before we got too old to enjoy things to travel and to see some things, you know, and it’s okay, I guess, if some people work right up to the day they die, but Karen and I wanted to do some other things. We wanted to spend more time together and I’d even joke with people from time to time too, I’d say, you know, there’s some people where they’re wife says, gosh, I just don’t want him to retire. I mean, I don’t know what ‘d do, I don’t want him around all the time! Well, what I say is, you know, Karen and I actually like each other, you know, so we want to retire and do some things together and enjoy that other aspect because in the end, my feelings is that, and that’s what I say, I shared with the people that worked for me and everything too, in the end, it’s your family and everything else that counts. the Forest Service is fantastic, and again, that former appraiser that I talked about, people that you’ve known and everything, a lot of them’s gonna miss you and I miss them and you know, times change and everything like that, but for the organization, he told, it was a joke about retiring and about the organization and sometimes people get to thinking that the organization can’t do without ’em and all, you know, and they talk about the brain drain and all these other kinds of stuff and some of that is kind of true. It’s really hard to keep the expertise whenever you get less and less money every year and stuff, but he said, well the guy told him, he said, I want you to take a bucket, fill it full of water, take your hand, and stick it down into that water and jerk it out just as fast as you can and see how long that hole lasts in that water. He said, that’s just about how long the agency will miss you. (laughing) And to an extent, that’s true. I’m talkin’ about the unfeeling, the organization itself, it’s gonna go on. Things are not gonna fall on their face just cause you’re not there. Now there’s individual people that will miss you and lament that you’re not there and that kinda stuff, but the organization won’t and so that’s why you gotta do what you do for family. And that’s what we decided to do and like I say, I felt fortunate to be able to retire as young as I have and that we’re not old and decrepit yet and (laughing) so, but it was a fantastic career and I would do it again. And again, the only thing that didn’t happen that I would have done if I’d had…I never actually got to work out west. But the tradeoff that I had was, when I left the district and went to Washington, when I was in Milwaukee and when I was here was, we had lots of national meetings . There were other issues that’d come up and occasionally I got to travel and do, you know. I’ve been in 48 of the 50 states. I mean when I was in the regional office in region 9, I visited every national forest in the region 9 from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massa…I was in every state, the Finger Links, the little bitty national forest in New York State, you know, and the same thing here. Plus, if you talk about, I mean, I’ve been to all over the west. I’ve been to San Diego. I’ve been to places. I even got one trip to Alaska, to southeast Alaska, and all of that. So I got to travel to see some of the things. I didn’t get to live there like I would have liked to, but I got to see them. And actually, in a lot of these meetings, one part of the meeting would be to go out onto the national forest and tour an area, or especially in the lands area seek some kind of deal they were making and when I was in Washington, a lot of those deals that were taking place were taking place out on various national forests, so we actually got to go out and do those things. And again, I would be out there in an environment where most people go to vacation and I was paid to do it. So it was a great experience. It really was.
Thurman’s wife: North Carolina was the best because we lived right in front of the Appalachian Trail.
Thurman: Yeah, you could walk. It wasn’t even a hundred yards to the Appalachian Trail from where we lived.
Thurman’s wife: And so this little bitty, little bitty town that we lived in that we love, um, people from Raleigh, from all over, they would come to see the colors. I would look out my picture window with my coffee cup and…
Thurman: Yeah, you’re there and when the rains come, you know, and the clouds play with the mountains and all that other kinda stuff. And like you say, I loved being in Texas. I wouldn’t have met her if I hadn’t been in Texas, but I love those mountains. I really do.
Brad: Well it has been a privilege listening to you. Thanks for doing this for us.
Thurman’s wife: And one more thing. One more thing. If we lived, when we lived in North Carolina for the first six months that we lived there, everywhere I went they said, “You’re the ranger’s wife.” And I’d say, “Yes, and my name is Karen.’ “No, you’re the ranger’s wife.” “Yes, and my name is Karen.” (laughing)
Thurman: In that little town of 650, and we only had fifteen people that worked there on the district, so with the exception of the school, I was the largest employer in town. So it’s one of those things there too where I got to experience both ends of it where I was kinda like, you talk about the fish bowl. I was district ranger in a little bitty fish bowl, you know I wanna say it’s kind of like the big cheese, so everybody knew who he was, and then I worked in Atlanta, you know, where nobody even knew who you were, so it was different perspective, but. So I hope this accomplished kind of what you were envisioning.
Brad: It definitely did. It’s amazing. You…I didn’t have to ask many questions that were on my list because it’s almost like you read my list, because as soon as I started asking a question, you were already answering it. It was more than I could have asked for.
Thurman: I always said that when people talk about the Forest Service and people have this mental activity. They think about Smokey Bear or they think about the fire towers and this other kinda thing, I tell people, I had the job that most people think that they would like to have. And when I say that, what I mean is that every job, there’s parts of it that’s a job and there’s part of it that is just drudgery and you’re tired and I don’t want to get up and go to work this morning and that kind of stuff and all, and then it’s kinda like you were saying, there’s a lot about it I miss. Shoot, I still have dreams about it and things of that nature and I probably always will, but I’m glad we retired, especially after moving here and we moved down here about three years before I retired and my commute into town. I would have to get up at 4:30 in the morning and then I’d come over and get on the bus and get into town, be at my desk at 6:30 because of traffic. Then I’d leave there at 3:30, it’d be 5:30 before I’d get back home and some mornings when that alarm’d go off at 4:30 you’d sit up in bed and say, “How much longer can I do this?” and so when you consider all that kinda stuff, I’m glad we retired and I really don’t wanna go back to work or do those kinda things, though there’s a lot of people that have, especially if they worked in fire before, there’s a lot of people that still volunteer and go fire and all of that. And I’ll leave you with this one last thing is that, one of the reasons that a lot of people love fire, it’s very exciting. And even, part of it, there’s some times, shoot, we’d be here out at 12:00 at night, this is in North Carolina, we’d get out there and there’s a little fire got started where there was a lightning strike or something that’d start it and here we are to fight it and everything and the wind’d get to blowin’ and you’re about, you’re wanting to leave and go back home and stuff, here it’s the middle of the night and you’ve got these, some of the stumps are on fire and the wind’ll come up and it’ll blow sparks, some of the most beautiful things. Some of those experiences and stuff, you couldn’t have got that anywhere else. And so you can have those kinds of experiences and stuff. You get to go to different places when they’re fighting the fire and I mentioned the controversy and all that kind of stuff and some of those controversies for people who that are trying their heart and souls in it, it where’s you down emotionally, but when we’re talking about a fire, they go out on these details out west and everything and where they’re and gone for a month. I was out in Yellowstone in 89. I was out there for 23 days and the whole time that you’re fighting a fire, there’s only one thing on your mind, actually, you know, you’re busy, your family’s not a concern. It’s life is simple. You eat and you sleep and you do that one job. And so it’s the last time, when I was in Yellowstone in 89. You ever remember whenever you was a little kid and you woke up in the morning and man you felt vibrant, and man you guys probably still feel that way, but feel vibrant and man, I’m alive and strong and oh, I just feel so good? Well I was in my late 30s whenever I went out there and we had a big tarp thing up over the top and we were sleeping in sleeping bags and it was getting down to, even in Yellowstone it’s 25 degrees at night, and they’ve been out there three weeks, I’d wake up and I felt great, you know. That is the last time I remember experiencing what it felt like when I was a kid and I would wake up just rearin’ to go and it was so great and part of it I think has to do with the stress of everyday life and all of the hassle and all the other kinds of things we’re dealing with and the worries and all that kind of stuff because when you’re on a fire, it gets down to the very basics of life. None of the other stuff matters. You were just focused on one thing and your body actually relaxes and so that’s why a lot of people love fire. It’s really a satisfying type of thing. But, I’m glad you guys came!
Brad: I’m glad you had us in your home. This has been great. This has been really good.
The Interviewee: After graduating with a degree in Forest Management from Oklahoma State University, Thurman Harp, entered the United States Forest Service in 1978 as a trainee forester in the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia. With the Forest Service, Mr. Harp held positions in Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, Washington D.C., Wisconsin, and Georgia. He participated in prescribed burning activities, efforts to combat the largest pine beetle epidemic that took place in the southern forests, district management, legislative cases, land ownership adjustment, land appraisals, and served as the Director of the Lands, Minerals, and Uses in Region 8. Mr. Harp is now retired from the Forest Service and currently lives with his wife in Griffin, Georgia.
The Interviewer: Brad Peinhardt is an undergraduate student at Auburn University.
Description of the Interview: The interview lasts approximately two hours and 16 minutes and was conducted at the home of Mr. Harp in Griffin, GA.
Content of the Interview: The interview focuses on Mr. Harp’s entire career in the Forest Service, from beginning to end. The structure of the interview follows Mr. Harp from position to position until his retirement in 2011. He talks extensively about his involvement in fighting the southern pine beetle epidemic, as well as a detailed description of why the Forest Service utilized prescribed burning techniques. Mr. Harp discusses both the professional and personal experiences he and his family had as a “Forest Service family,” and overall, his interview lends excellent insight into the life of a Forest Service employee.
Note on Recording: Thurman Harp’s interview was conducted with a Zoom Handy Recorder, model H4N.