11 April 2012


In August 1989, my then-partner and I moved to Charleston, SC, where she was to serve her internship for her PhD in psychology.  A month later, Hurricane Hugo hit the South Carolina coast, its eye precisely centered on Mount Pleasant, our Charleston suburb.  The entire city was ordered to evacuate inland, and the all-clear to return wasn't issued for three days.

During the drive from Columbia to Charleston, the closer we got to the coast, the more devastation we saw.  The region is home to the Francis Marion National Forest, most of whose trees had been snapped off just above the ground, the fallen trunks all pointed in the same wind-dictated direction.  As we neared Charleston, we had no idea what to expect.  Were the Cooper River bridges intact?  If not, we would have to backtrack and circle around for several hundred miles.  Had homes (including ours) been destroyed by flying debris, falling trees, or the 20-foot storm surge?  Would blocked streets prevent us from reaching our house?  

Those wonderful, high-arching bridges were intact.  Crews has cleared much of the debris from most streets.  And though many homes were damaged or destroyed, especially those nearest to the beach, ours was a mile inland, and had been largely spared (though most of those tall pines and even some oak trees along our street and in our yard were reduced to ruin).  Even our windows had been spared.  We spent the next two weeks camping out in our own home, with no electricity, but we did have clean running water.  All told, we were extremely lucky.

Hurricane Hugo, paradoxically, provided another boon ~ a job.  Among those forest creatures displaced by Hugo were the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (RCW).  U.S. Forest Service (USFS) biologists and other researchers had studied the RCW for years, recording its feeding and mating habits, and (importantly) mapping the locations of RCW colonies within the forest.  With so many colonies destroyed and so many birds unaccounted for, the Forest Service put out an emergency nationwide call for young, fit wildlife biologists, preferably ornithologists, to come to South Carolina and help with habitat recovery.  Because I lived only 30 miles from the biologist's work station in the forest, I was one of eight fortunate applicants to be hired.

Our efforts were multiple.  At dawn and dusk (when RCWs exit and enter their nesting cavities), we each drove and hiked through downed timber and swamp to selected clan sites to perform a census of the surviving birds.  During daylight hours we installed artificial nesting cavities in suitable surviving trees, at or near known colony sites.  Some crews used chainsaws to create a space for a pre-fabricated nesting box, while the remaining crews used drills to approximate the birds' own excavating method.  To reach a site, we often had to leave vehicles behind and carry 50-60 lb. of gear across terrain that looked post-apolcalyptic, then use Swedish ladders (stackable, with a safety chain securing each section to the trunk) and safety gear to climb 20, 30, even 50 feet to the best height for a new cavity.  All of this was done (during the warmer months) in humid, searing heat, with clouds of mosquitoes greeting our passage and arrival.  Even the cooler months were grueling labor.

But it was one of the two most fulfilling jobs I've ever had.  Return visits to artificial cavities proved that the formerly-homeless RCWs were taking full advantage of this mysterious bounty.  The most rewarding evidence came the following spring, when numerous pairs produced young, both in surviving natural cavities and in artificial cavities.  The work introduced me to a part of the natural world which entranced me ~ a part populated by copperheads and water moccasins, black bear and wild boar, alligators and snapping turtles, all three species of carnivorous plants native to North American .... and birds.  Southern birds.  Anhingas, painted buntings, northern bobwhites, ground doves, bald eagles, great egrets, acadian and great crested flycatchers, red-shouldered hawks, yellow-crowned night herons, eastern kingbirds, black vultures, ruby-throated hummingbirds, orchard orioles, eastern wood pewees, fox sparrows, brown thrashers, yellow-throated vireos, pine warblers, woodcocks, red-headed woodpeckers.  My birder's life list grew and grew.  Probably the most thrilling sighting was a scissor-tailed kite, silently diving and swooping among the trees.  

My year with the Forest Service came to an end the following summer, when we moved to Philadelphia.  But it had not been my first encounter with the agency.  In southern Arizona, from 1978-1982, I was caretaker for a Nature Conservancy preserve.  My supervisor, H.L. Bill, had worked for the USFS in the 1930s and 40s in Louisiana.  It was he who introduced me to the concept of using controlled burns to lessen the impact of dry-year wildfires.  The preserve where I worked was part pine/oak woodland, part grassland, and part upland marsh, fed by a year-round stream ~ an extreme rarity in the Southwest, but once more common before Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo ranchers overgrazed the land, allowing rainfall to erode the topsoil, lowering the water table.  The central feature was the riparian habitat and the marsh.  One year I asked a Forest Service fire crew to come in and do a controlled burn to remove dead accumulations of marsh grasses, allowing new growth to take hold.  

Controlled burns were just beginning to gain acceptance within USFS philosophy.  Before that, and even for years after, the guiding policy was to prevent wildfires at any cost.  This had the unfortunate effect of allowing massive amounts of dry timber to build up in the nation's forests, accumulating fuel just waiting to explode into firestorms like the Yellowstone fires of 1988.  Only after such disasters did policy shift toward a more enlightened approach.  Since fire has always been a cleansing and revitalizing force in forests and on prairies, it was decided that unless a given fire directly threatened humans or their structures, it would be allowed to burn unimpeded.  

I was reminded of this evolution the other night when I watched a riveting PBS documentary called The Greatest Good.  It traces the 100-year history of the Forest Service, and describes the evolution of policy from preservation to conservation, under the influences of Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, and others.  Forest rangers were a rough bunch in the early days.  They wore sidearms, rode horses, enforced the law with their fists if need be, and were called upon to survey the boundaries of new national forests, establish fire lookouts, rig and lead pack trains of horses and mules into roadless back country, and a myriad of other tasks.  Today's rangers are trained to use words over brute force, but they are still responsible for law enforcement and the application of modern methods of forestry ~ which sometimes has meant watching as our forests were clearcut by the timber industry.  Politicians finance the agency and influence policy, and politicians are legendary for being for sale to the highest bidder.  It takes a man or woman of sterling integrity to balance the needs of wildlife, recreation, conservation, and special interests like the mining, timber, and livestock industries.  My own bias is toward preservation over conservation.  Preservation focuses on maintaining the natural world uninfluenced by humans as nearly as possible ~ wilderness for its won sake.  Conservation focuses on managing the environment as a resource, generally with the result that human needs come first, and the needs of wildlife and habitat second.

I looked but could not find a website where one can simply watch the program.  One can purchase the DVD here at the Forest History Society (scroll down to find it), or here at Channel9Store.com.  If I do locate a site where you can view the program via live streaming, I'll amend this post with the information.  In the meantime, please watch for it on your local PBS station's schedule.  It is a great history not only of the USFS, but of society's evolving attitudes toward wilderness.  I'm proud to have spent a year in the Forest Service.

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