Community and Public Perception

The men interviewed for this project often developed strong ties with the communities in which they worked. Many of their duties involved interacting with locals and the Forest Service often contributed to local economic development by hiring residents. Because of this, the Forest Service tended to enjoy a positive perception from the public.

Forest Ranger Boyd Ritchie explains the purpose of a Box Turtle Shell to students at Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area August 15, 1968

Source: Foresters at Work: Virginia; Photographs Relating to National Forests, Resource Management Practices, Personnel, and Cultural and Economic History, compiled ca. 1897-ca. 1980; Records of the Forest Service, 1870-2008, Record Group 95; National Archives at College Park, MD [online version available through the Archival Research Catalog (ARC Identifier 7001511) at www.archives.gov, June 14, 2013].

One of the many ways these men contributed to community development involved providing young people with the opportunity to work with the Forest Service to acquire professional skills. Some of these programs included Job Corps, Youth Conservation Corps (YCC), and the Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC). As part of the Job Corps program, the Forest Service brought disadvantaged young people, often male and from urban areas, to Forest Service land and helped them acquire basic education, such as a GED, and job skills that would help them seek gainful employment in the future. Jack Alcock, who worked with the Job Corps programs within the Forest Service, noted that because of the Forest Service’s history with the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the Forest Service proved to be a natural fit for Job Corps as well. He recalled that in the 1960s and 1970s, Region 8 oversaw nine Job Corps centers that each hosted around two hundred young people at a time. Mr. Alcock noted that many of the young men he supervised through the Job Corps program stayed in touch with him and other Forest Service people over the years, and that most of them were able to find good jobs with the help of the training they received through the program.

Bobby Bledsoe talks about the YCC and YACC:
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The YCC and the YACC also provided opportunities for young people to gain experience working with the Forest Service. The YCC allowed high school students to work with the Forest Service over the summer and learn skills needed for different Forest Service jobs, while the YACC provided young locals with the opportunity to work for longer periods of time. Bobby Bledsoe worked with both groups when he oversaw the development of the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama. Thurman Harp worked with the YCC and served as assistant camp director for the residential YCC groups. The kids would pick up trash, build fences, and work in the fisheries. Additionally, the Forest Service also worked with other community members by organizing volunteer programs for senior citizens and allowing groups like the Boy Scouts to volunteer to help build trails and recreation areas on national forests.

Bob James remembers the local communities
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Forest Service employees also became involved within their local communities in other ways. The Forest Service often hired local people for temporary work. While working in North Carolina, Thurman Harp recalled that the Forest Service was the largest employer in town. In addition to hiring locals, the Forest Service also used its resources to help the local community in times of need. Bob James remembered that while working in California, the locals often depended on the Forest Service in the winter because the agency had the only emergency vehicle that could traverse the snow. While only permitted for official use, the feeling was that contributing to community needs could fit within those parameters. Moreover, Forest Service staff often joined local civic clubs like the Rotary, the Kiwanis, and the Elks as a way to engage with the local community. This community involvement allowed the Forest Service to attain a high level of trust and prestige in local communities. Ray Mason noted that when he was stationed in Gloster, Mississippi, the district ranger was viewed as being on par with the school principal and the town mayor in terms of respect and influence within the community. These close relationships that developed between the Forest Service staff and locals sometimes led to rangers and other staff being consulted on personal matters. Bob James recalled a ranger that had become so trusted within his community that a local resident once consulted with him about his daughter’s choice of husband.

While the Forest Service was able to gain trust and respect within local communities, the growing environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s led to increased nationwide scrutiny and criticism of Forest Service policies. Books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring led to a growing public awareness of environmental issues. Timber management, in particular, gained nationwide attention as concerns over wildlife, deforestation, and the preservation of scenic areas grew. The reputation of the Forest Service and other federal agencies suffered; the public no longer associated the agency with taking care of the land. Instead, many people viewed the Forest Service as responsible for the changes they were seeing in the environment and challenged Forest Service policies by protesting and filing legal suits.

In response, the federal government passed a series of acts that would change the way the Forest Service did business. In 1969, the federal government passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), requiring that all federal agencies develop environmental impact statements for any new projects. These impact statements would be shared with the public, who would be able to provide feedback and suggest alternatives. Many of the men interviewed for this project noted that once NEPA was passed, their jobs were sometimes more difficult because creating the environmental impact statements and meeting with the public consumed a lot of time. However, they also noted that following NEPA guidelines often brought them closer to the public and allowed for better relations between the public and the agency. In his assessment of the impact NEPA had on the Forest Service, Dave Jolly stated, “The law itself, my sense is it was really good.  It impacted us tremendously, but our decisions were always better having done it than they would of having not done it.  Doesn’t mean we were making bad decisions, prior to the time that we, the requirement became with the law, but I can’t remember a time when I felt any better about a decision because we did that.”