Region 8 Oral History Project
Forest Service & Community Relations Slidecast
Group 4- Catherine Rodriguez, Robin Brown, Justin Rudder and Jordan Ray
Region 8 Oral History Project
Forest Service & Community Relations Slidecast
Group 4- Catherine Rodriguez, Robin Brown, Justin Rudder and Jordan Ray
Region 8 description and introduction
[CATHERINE] Travel through the jungles of the only tropical forest in US territory to the grasslands of Texas, explore the mountains of Kentucky visit the swamplands of Florida and see the piney woods of Mississippi. The Southern Region (Region 8) of the United States Forest Service is comprised of thirteen states –Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia. Within this region are twenty-one national forests, national recreation areas, national grasslands, and the only tropical rain forest in Puerto Rico. This region is the fastest growing region in the country, with thirty-five percent of the nation’s population inhabiting it. The Region headquarters is located in Atlanta, Georgia and is managed by a Regional Forester.
The mission statement of the region is to:
- Restore the ecological systems to their national resilience and ensure they are sustained.
- Protect humans, natural and physical resources to ensure their security from degradation or harm.
- Respond- meet social needs in an environmentally sensitive manner.
The national forests in the region were purchased over decades from private owners to conserve existing natural resources, and repair overworked, over harvested southern lands. Region 8 is approximately twelve million acres. The purchase of these lands allowed for the restoration and later use for the benefit of the nation and small communities.
Biographies[ROBIN]: In order to answer our research question concerning the interaction between the Forest Service and communities surrounding a national forest, we rely on oral interviews conducted with retired Forest Service personnel. Auburn University and the Forest Service collaborated to find volunteers to participate in an oral history project. This project was carried out in conjunction with a public history course at Auburn, in which students interviewed retired Forest Service employees. While our interviews offered many interesting points of study, one theme extended through all four interviews: community relationships with the Forest Service.
JORDAN: W.V. “Mac” McConnell worked for the Forest Service from 1943 until 1973. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a BS in Forestry and has earned two Master’s Degrees in Urban and Regional Planning and Sociology from Florida State University. He spent his career working in the Southeastern national forests, known as Region 8. While in the Forest Service he worked as a ranger at national forests in Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, and Florida. After retiring from the Forest Service, McConnell began and continues to work as a consultant. He focuses on land management policies, the protection and management of national forests and timber management. He remains active in policy debates and maintains a website which highlights issues of land management.
CATHERINE: Jack Alcock worked for the Forest Service for thirty-three years before retiring in 1994. He graduated from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in Forestry before entering the agency in 1961. His career with the Forest Service took him and his family across the United States. He worked in national forests in Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Vermont, Kentucky, Oregon, Washington D.C. and Georgia. In addition to working as a ranger, Alcock served in the Job Corp, a program that helped young, underprivileged men receive vocational training. He served as Regional Forester of the Southern Region for twelve years before his retirement.
ROBIN: Raymond K. Mason began his career in the Forest Service in 1957, after graduating with a B.S. degree in Forestry from the University of Florida. Mason served as a forest ranger throughout the southeast in Arkansas, Mississippi, Virginia and Florida. Aside from being a ranger throughout the southeast, Mason also served as the Planner for National Forests in Florida and as an Assistant Forest Supervisor in Tallahassee, Florida where he managed planning, public affairs, and law enforcement. Mason retired in 1989 from the Forest Service, but that same year he took a position with the Florida Forest Service. He retired from that in 2003 and now works as an Independent Associate for Isagenix, Int.
JUSTIN: Bobby Bledsoe, after graduating from the University of Georgia in 1964, began working for the Forest Service. Until his retirement in 1995, Bledsoe worked as a landscape architect planning and designing scenic trails, highways and recreation areas. His work included planning and building the Bartram Trail in Tuskegee National Forest and relocating and restoring sections of the Appalachian Trail. His career took him across the southeast, to national forests in Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia. After retiring from the Forest Service, Bledsoe had his own landscape architecture consulting firm, from which he retired in 2005.
ROBIN: Ray Mason expressed his view on the impact of Foresters presence in rural communities as positive. The service brought needed jobs and economic assistance to the people, but more importantly brought environmentally conscience land management practices to the area.
ROBIN: Forest Service as a Source of Economic Growth -Time: 31:10 -33:00
Brown: Uh hm. Absolutely. To what extent do you believe the Forest Service has fostered economic development in the Southeast?
Mason: Particularly early on, I think they were a major force because lumbering and pulp wood had become very dominant southern phenomena and we had large saw mills and many large mills moved in in the 40s, 50s, particularly, we had a number of them all over the state of Florida for instance. And they played a large part in the economic development of communities generally and the whole, specifically in the whole state generally.
Brown: Um hm.
Mason: In fact forest industry is still probably number two in Florida after tourism. Both from a land standpoint and a manufacture into valuable products of the forest products. So it was…and in the small communities, just having a ranger district office was an economic boost. In Gloster, Mississippi, the district ranger was grouped with the high school principal, the doctor and the mayor and the district ranger, they were the top of the heap you might say and uh, so uh, it was interesting living in that kind of environment and realizing that you and your organization were very important to that community.
ROBIN: How Forest Service helped Communities Financially and Socially – Time: 34:17 -35:44
Mason: And I think they’re going back into some of those areas now with new techniques and getting more oil. But this was a big economic boost. Also the Forest Service was giving 25 percent of our gross proceeds to the counties that had national forest land on them on a pro rata basis
Brown: Um hm.
Mason: And in Mississippi the taxes on forest land, good or bad, was about fifty cents an acre, and we were returning $3.75, one time over $4, per acre back to the counties
Mason: And, so they had some of the finest rural roads, schools, uh, they also got another 10 percent for roads, so in a highly productive forest they really returned a lot of money to the counties.
Brown: Um hm.
Mason: Uh, so it, they were quite an impact economically and then as I say, socially they were the agent of change in a lot of areas racially.
Mason: Because there just wasn’t anything else of consequence going on in the county but forest industry and the Forest Service sort were, if change were going to happen it would be through those organizations.
JORDAN: As Regional Forester, Jack Alcock recalled more broadly the goals of land rehabilitation the first concern of the agency. Because of these efforts, new development opportunities emerged in economically depressed areas in the region.
Alcock: the first job was to get the land back into some kind of shape where it could be productive, for the things I mentioned. Growing trees, and it really wasn’t productive from a recreation standpoint because it was so beat up no one wanted to go there and spend any time. It wasn’t at all productive from a wildlife and fisheries standpoint. So, you had to first repair the land, which took decades and is still going on in some places. And then uh you could start to harvest some timber, which created some jobs, recreation began to become more important to a lot of the smaller towns around the south. And uh, of course the watersheds, the improved watersheds had a lot to do with economy of many small towns gave them a decent water supply and made living a lot more attractive. So after, you know, after a few decades of work, a lot of dedicated people uh, it became more of an economic, uh economic importance all over the south.
JUSTIN: Foresters often relied on the help of untrained locals to help carry out needed task, which provided in some communities a way to make an extra income for their families.
Fs3Ray: Okay. Uh, you mentioned hiring local people. What kind of jobs did, I guess, untrained locals do; untrained in forestry?
McConnell: We, well, we had of course the warden crews. Well, first of all we had our, I guess, we called them sub-professional, but they were highly skilled woodsmen, and they comprised, the marking crew, and youngsters like me went through our training under these local people who had been, who familiar with the, the way their particular timber types worked. So, we hired them as sub-professionals we had warden crews, who, uh, each, each ranger district had one or two wardens who had their own contacts in and around the community, so, when there was a fire, we’d ring them up on the party line, and, the warden would assemble a crew, and we’d tell them where it was, and go out and put the fire out. So, we did a lot of that, uh, they were, they were doing, and we’d hire those of us who had clerical help, and I didn’t have any clerical help when I was a ranger at all, didn’t have it for years, uh, clerical help was quite, most often, local folks, who had some sort of training in this field.
JORDAN: In addition to maintaining federal forestlands, Forest Rangers were engaged in the community. The agency expected the Foresters to provide moral and civic leadership within their local community. Ray Mason described how the Forest Service expected their employees to serve as community leaders.
Fs4Mason:I took pride in the fact when I would talk to a garden club or everything, as a remembrance I mentioned the first day of the job and orientation by the boss, uh, he said, “now you know we would prefer that your wife not work unless she’s a teacher or a nurse. A wife should be at home, being a homemaker, uh, we expect you to be a member of the Society of American Forester and a local civic organization.” Now a lot of business and so forth, would pay certain employees to be members but of course the Forest Service didn’t, you did that on your own. But you were upstanding and outstanding person in that community and to recognize that a lot of people like in Gloster and those small towns did look up to you?
Mason: and expect you to be nothing but a good example in everything you did, either on the job or off the job. But you were on the job twenty-four hours a day in one sense. You had a reputation of the organization and yourself to maintain.
CATHERINE: The Forest Service played an integral role in building community relations by the purchase and incorporation of private lands into the national forests system. When foresters first entered rural lands or small communities, people living there were very suspicious of the federal government. Foresters often experienced resistance and backlash against their work, however, despite these hardships they worked hard to establish strong connections with key citizens and eventually win over the townspeople. With the help of these key individuals, the forest service could carry out their mission, while the community benefitted from the economic and preservation efforts of the service. Each of the retired foresters we interviewed agreed that community played a significant role in the work they conducted. Each experienced a time in which the community helped them meet an objective.
ROBIN: Regional Forester Jack Alcock related his experience in building community relations during his career as a challenge. He also recalled his method of building networks that created support for the needs of the local foresters, and also gained influence amongst United States congressmen and Senators.
Uh, It wasn’t always easy because a lot of times they didn’t like the government coming in at all. If you were from the government, well sometimes you were not welcome from day one. So, that was job to go in and we call them “key people,” “key persons,” and uh, I probably, I had a book I bet it was about that thick, of people- just name, name, name, name and what they did and where they lived- from all over the south in thirteen states. People I could pick up the phone and say, “hey look, here’s a thing that’s a problem for us, can you help us?” And if they were a key person in that community, you know through, may be through the churches, maybe through the rotary club, through the lions club or the Jaycees, or whatever; these people would bring you, go with you, you know, and go around meet other key people and say look. If you have enough key people you pretty well get anything done. You’d still have problems, but as long as you have the community behind you, you can get a lot done.
CATHERINE: It is also important to note, without the cooperation of private landowners the growth of national forests in the region would not have occurred. Foresters negotiated with landowners on an acceptable price, only resulting to land condemnations as a last result. Land acquisitions brought rangers to the front steps of a range of people. Foresters had to be prepared for any situation they might walk into, and understand that every owner would not be a willing buyer, thus it was important to make an effort to get to know the homeowner.
JUSTIN: After land was acquired and incorporated into the national forest, new projects designed for public use could begin. Recreational tourism fostered new economic opportunities in rural areas of the country, but also created challenges for the Forest Service. New programs and management policies were adopted to protect the land with increased public use.
JUSTIN: Bobby Bledsoe, retired landscape architect for the Forest Service, spent much of his childhood and free time as an adult in the woods. He developed both a passion for living off the land and a respect for preserving the balance and beauty of nature, and applied these principles when designing recreational areas.
Bledsoe on how the Forest Service fostered economic development in the Southeast – Time: 14:09 – 16:13
Rudder: Well, um, kind of looking at how the Forest Service has benefited the Southeast, do you believe it’s fostered economic development?
Bledsoe: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I mean when you have recreation areas – nice ones, you know. There are different types. You have primitive camping for hunters out in the woods, but you have others like Clear Creek up on Lake Lewis Smith where you are attracting people with all types of camping equipment – RVs, you know, pop-up tents, and some tents, and they bring money into the community. And in the mountains…you look at the Smokey National Park. Back when I was there, I could drive through that Smokey National Park in the cage cold no problem. You go up there, it may take you an hour to get into that area. So all of this, people wanna go to the mountains or campgrounds to get away up on Lake Lewis Smith, up here on Lake Martin, you know we have Wind Creek State Park up there, and people love it. It’s a vacation or a weekend getaway, it doesn’t matter. But there’s a lot of economic benefits to it. And hunters come into the National Forest – you know, it’s public land. Nobody controls it except Game and Fish – you know, as far as huntin’, you have to comply with those laws. But on private land, you can’t get on it anymore. When I was growing up, I could walk around anywhere around my home, walk on private land and people didn’t care. But now you have people who will go out there with those four-wheelers and tear up their fence and abuse other people’s land. There are a lot of city folks who don’t have any ethics on hunting. (laughing) But, yeah, I think the National Forest provides an economic benefit other than, you know, timber management things like that.
JORDAN: Mr. Bledsoe indicated that while timber-cutting and hunting were necessary activities, doing such things in excess destroyed the ecosystem of the forest. In order to regulate these actions, the Forest Service created land management policies including legislation for the development of National Recreation Areas and Wild and Scenic Rivers. The southern extension of the Appalachian Trail known as the Pinhoti Trail served as a major attempt to set aside national forest land as a scenic area, as well as a wildlife and timber preserve. The Pinhoti Trail project also allowed citizen organizations in the surrounding communities to participate in the formation of the trail and to gain a perspective concerning the importance of preserving the wilderness for society’s benefit.
Bledsoe on the community initiatives of the Pinhoti Trail (Part I) – Time: 23:23 – 25:02
Rudder: I know you mention quite a bit of it in your letter as well. You were talking about several, I assume they were local, organizations helping out with the development of the trail, kind of maintaining…
Bledsoe: What, like YAC… the YCC program was a government program to put these young, say high school-age students or that age anyway, to give them a summer job to work out into the natural environment. And when we started the Pinhoti Trail there at I believe it was Forest Service Road 500 Coleman Lake, we had YCC kids and that’s basically all we had. We weren’t getting a lot of money to build trails back in those years, and that’s just one way of starting a trail system is with volunteers. And these were day students, they did not spend the night in the forest or anything else. And it gave them a working experience out into the woods, and they enjoyed it. And then we had the senior citizens program that came along so now we had two programs, the senior citizens and the YCC working on that trail and were headed south. And that was about ’63, ’64, ’65, in those early years.
Bledsoe’s view on the Forest Service’s definitive contribution to the nation – Time: 57:26 – 59:21
Bledsoe: I think the Forest Service played a significant role in helping the nation. In Alabama, I’ll give you an example, they got this Forever Wild program to buy more lands. Well, the Forest Service has somewhere around 600,000 acres of land, public land, in Alabama. We got the Conecuh on the South, we got the Tuskegee over here. Then we got the Talladega Division, the Ocmulgee Division, and the Bank(head). Every one of them is scattered around the state, and the public can go hunt, they can go fish, they can go camp, they can go out there and just walk around if they want to. Public land, beside the economic benefit, there’s the opportunity for the average Joe Q. Public to go out and enjoy his land. And I think and the Chattahoochee is in the North Georgia, you got the Tennessee which extends from the Georgia line to the Virginia line with the Smokey Mountain National Park in-between. And then from Virginia, Damascus on up, I was part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, which was 60 miles long. So we had I think 80,000 acres in that NRA up there. And Congress set it up as a National Recreation Area, which you could still cut timber on it but not to the degree that you would on some other forests, because it had a legitimate purpose to be there and that’s what you had to comply with. What was the purpose of the land – the direction of supply and demand for different uses.
CATHERINE: These programs brought industry and tourism to small rural communities. In addition to National Recreation Areas and Wild and Scenic Rivers, states like Alabama instituted initiatives like the Forever Wild Program that set aside public lands for conservation and long-term enjoyment by campers and hunters.
ROBIN: Building a diverse community amongst foresters was an important milestone for the agency. During the 1960s and 70s the Forest Service made a concerned effort to integrate African-Americans. Women were later integrated into the agency. Integrating the Forest Service in the 60s was a heated issue, and officials were concerned about a community backlash. Overall, however, integration occurred without any major disturbances in the opinion of Ray Mason. Jack Alcock believes the forest service was amongst the first in government agencies to lead the way for the integration all minorities. The integration of minorities was met with challenge, as Ray Mason describes with African Americans. However, Jack Alcock believes the forest service was one of the first in government agencies to lead the way for the integration all minorities. WV McConnell hired the first African American employee in Texas.
ROBIN: Mason on the racial demographics of communities he worked in the 1960s and 1970s – Time: 26:18-27:06
Mason: But, whereas there was overt racism in Mississippi, there was covert racial prejudiced in Virginia where I went. There were very, very few blacks, probably 1 percent of the population in northern, northwestern Virginia. And on the surface everything looked great. But, uh, when people felt like they were in like company, they let their prejudices be known. Mississippi was sort of taking all the flack during the 60s, during integration times. They were just a little more honest about it.
CATHERINE Mason Integration and the Forest Service – Time: 27:10-28:16
Mason: In fact, I might go ahead and say it now, I think one of the, during my career one of the greatest achievements of the Forest Service was the integration of the Forest Service. I had difficulties philosophically and ethically with some of the ways they tried to achieve a diver…diverse work force at that time it was strictly trying to get blacks in. I applauded the effort, I think we could have done it a better way. But uh, with very little conse…bad consequences. I think it was over a period of about ten years accomplished very well. The communities didn’t object as much as a lot of people feared, and uh, I think it went over quite well.
ROBIN: McConnell on hiring the first African American Employee [year?]
There was one thing I did that I’m pretty proud of, and I don’t think of it too often, because now it’s commonplace. When I was ranger in the Yellow Pines, I hired the first black laborer we hired in Texas we had in Texas, and set up a crew of black laborers. Of course, that was pretty revolutionary in those days, because all of our employees were white, and I was the first ranger in Texas, and I don’t know where else, to do this. But anyhow, I did have an accepting supervisor who went along with that, and it worked very, very well. So, that’s something I did that I’m, I’m glad I did.
CATHERINE: Jack Alcock view of integration of minorities over the course of his career.
When I retired we had 105 ranger districts in the south over thirteen states, and I hope this right but its really close and uh, 12 of those had rangers that who minorities, women and, or minorities. And I was pretty proud of that and it took a lot of doing, you’re talking about some places where you needed some key people to help you. If you’re going to a guy out in a tough place and he’s the first minority or she is, he’s going to need some help. Not from the forest service but from the community, from the churches, from the schools there’s a support group.
JORDAN: WV McConnell saw many factors as contributing to the changing dynamic between local communities and the Forest Service.
(Approximately 10 minutes into the interview)
McConnell: So the difference, the change, was of course it was official, and the consolidation of the ranger districts, for example, removed the ranger from the community in many cases, where he played a very important role, and was part of the community, and today I don’t sense that the ranger is, in any way, a member of the, of the community. He’s a, he’s a transient who comes in and does his job, he meets a few of the industry people, and then leaves, and his tenure, I think, is probably shorter than ours were, on the district, and I always like to think, he hardly gets to know the road system, where the trouble spots are before he’s moved out.
(Approximately 11 minutes into the interview)
McConnell: these men [rangers] were institutions in their, in their, uh, community, and were very, very, very, very well known and respected and spent a lot of time interacting with local folks, and today there’s little or none of that.
JORDAN: As a result, McConnell expresses his concern of the agency’s lack of today’s connection with the communities.
JUSTIN: Those who worked in Region 8 of the U.S. Forest Service played a major role in promoting the nation’s economy, fostering community development, and improving race relations in American society over the course of the twentieth century. Many foresters grew up in the woods and understood the importance of preserving natural resources for their scenic beauty as well as their abundance of wildlife and timber for the use of hunters, campers, and loggers. Most importantly, the Forest Service taught surrounding communities how to respect the fragility of the forest, and that such a task required the efforts of people from various backgrounds to take care of the forest in such a way that it could be enjoyed by future generations.
CATHERINE: The U.S. Forest Service Oral History Project indicates how crucial the Forest Service’s actions were in the development of the United States over the last century. It teaches the public the importance of being good stewards of the environment, but also illustrates how ordinary people can work together to accomplish extraordinary things.