Back When Men Were Men

ranger bill

During these Dog Days of Summer, I’ve been reading the Forest History Society’s interview of former Chief F. Dale Robertson. Dale was chief during the height of the spotted owl crisis, 1987-1993. The first region-wide injunction barring owl habitat logging issued in 1989, marking the beginning of the battle, with the Northwest Forest Plan ending the fight in 1994. All of the interview is worth skimming. I was struck with Dale’s recounting of his early days implementing the Taylor Grazing Act in Oklahoma where Dale was told to rein in ranchers who for generations had exercised unregulated, free access to federal forage:

This one guy, Joe Herbert, he was a tough nut. He was mean. He was defying us and he had his cattle out, so we had the U.S. marshals come and they arrested him, took him up to Muskogee to the U.S. Magistrate, and while he was in Muskogee we rounded up his cattle. There was even a shootout. Well, we had his cattle impounded. This was my predecessor, and he came up and shot the lock off the gate and let his cattle out. But anyway, it was tough.

We could use more Dale Robertsons to deal with today’s Cliven Bundys.

4 thoughts on “Back When Men Were Men”

  1. My grandfather, JDC Thomas, was the investigator/prosecutor for crimes against the Public Domain in Oregon in the 1920s and 30s. Had an office in the US Courthouse in Portland, and when his sons were of college age, he found office space in the US Courthouse in Eugene, rented out the house in St. Johns, Portland, and rented one in Eugene, moved the family to Eugene so the three boys could be Ducks.

    He told me about the only timber theft worth prosecuting was POC, in Coos and Curry counties. Other than that, it was mostly about dishonest mining claims in Southern Oregon, and his big court win against the SPRR, in their logging an extra few yards on either side of their R/W boundary from Eugene to Chemult on the new “cut-off”, and the settlement which was treble damages, was in the millions of Depression Era dollars. He, at the onset of WWII, was promoted to the position of overseeing investigation and prosecution of all crimes against the public domain in the 9th Circuit, and worked out of an office in SF. He was with the General Land Office until it was reorganized at the BLM and he retired in 1950. I think he was born in 1884. His father and maternal grandfather and both their wives were in the Washington County courthouse in the year he was born, to have a dispute settled by a board of farmers in some sort of early Oregon mediation deal. An argument broke out, and the farmers left the room and told them to get their cases in order and they would hear them. One pulled a gun and both had them, and both ended up shot dead with their widow’s between them. Grandpa was on his own at 14, and became a law grad of American University in Washington DC in 1912? I have a pic of him and his new bride in a motor car in DC. He was a GLO guy in S.D., quit over fraud deal involving Senators from Nebraska and S.D., with Binger Hermann the head of GLO. Phony homesteading deals. Moved to Oregon again, and homesteaded in Fort Rock valley. Became the Ft Rock and Fremont district land commissioner, and was the signature on your homestead approval form for the President to sign. My Dad was born on the Ft Rock ranch, and a UO grad lawyer with a letter of congratulations to his parents from Dean Wayne Morse.

    So Grandpa’s take on the Taylor and other grazing acts, was that the gypsy sheep outfits were sort of hard to get a handle on, and the most of his work was with horses turned out on the public domain after harvest, to fend for themselves until spring, when they would be brought in and readied for the next haying season. A horse was worth two and half times a cow/calf pair for a grazing fee. So the ranchers sold any branded horses, and found slick ones to do the haying work. And, of course, bought tractors which didn’t incur a Taylor Act grazing fee. So the “wild” horses we have in the West were mostly turned out work horses, slick, that were no longer needed the more mechanized haying became. You kept a couple teams to feed with in winter, and do ranch chores with, (horses can start at twenty below) and the rest of the remuda was turned out and never claimed. Precious wild horses. wink wink.

    Robertson was a good guy when he was SO on the Siuslaw. He was there when the various Federal land management acts of the Johnson/Nixon eras were enacted, and grew the “ologist” forces on the forest with a pretty good crew except for a couple of civil engineers who didn’t know sour owl poop from apple butter about building logging roads that would stay on the hillside. Used cloth tapes and an abney to lay out the “P” line, and then expected the road to be engineered to +- 1 yard excavation and fill standards with one of those new computer thingys. We built some huge “waste areas” from excess excavated material in the new full bench road standard. Over time, they got better at the job and new blood came aboard that had some idea of how to do the job as they were logging engineers educated in forestry programs, not veterans with civil service points and civil engineering degrees. Another time and place, of course. Now we don’t build roads and the art again has been lost. And Robertson was sacked and replaced by a biologist, and not a career big picture forest management person. Politics and political patronage now rule the USFS, and their ability to get the job done is reflected in that state of affairs. Instead of forest engineering, we now have social engineering and they are good at it. People managers and the resources under their command burn, in vast acreages, annually, because managing people is now what they do. Plan to manage people, and carry out that plan. Do it well. Someday, maybe, we will get back to resource management as well. My observation, opinion. Old guy view. Watching the re-invention of the wheel is a struggle for us grey haired…hell, white haired….people.

    • John, thanks for the history. I came aboard as one of the “newly trained new blood” types and it’s good to hear about what came before. One of my first ABC fires was on Fort Rock District, while we were out working on selecting trees.

  2. Sharon: Due south of the intersection that is now Fort Rock, about 10? miles, is Thomas Well. Grandpa dug a well, using a sand spud, and got water easily. It was artesian. I think I have a photograph of it and the pine boards that made the above ground sluice that delivered the water to livestock and the garden. The flu epidemic and a July killer frost (1918?) pretty much ended the “water follows the plow” homestead experience. Grandpa moved the family first to Brush Prairie, WA, just north of Portland. Then when he went to work for the Interior Dept again, moved to St. Johns in Portland, where his kids grew up and graduated from Roosevelt HS. RoughRiders, all. The DOD condemned and took the ranch in 1938? It was leased out at the time. Bombing range deal, I guess. No matter, the BLM has a notation on its maps of “Thomas Well.” The family artesian well that gave them abundant water. Now that area is closed to well drilling and water use is tightly regulated, the crop being dairy quality alfalfa hay.

    As a kid, we used to go to the annual “Fort Rock Picnic” which I think was at Peninsula Park in north Portland. My great grandmother was married to a Stratton from Fort Rock until his death. She lived in the St. Johns house, wood stove and all, when Grandpa moved to first Eugene, and then San Francisco. He retired to Quincy, WA, where as a Spanish American War vet, he drew an 80 acre irrigated allotment from the Grand Coulee water project. And from there he moved to Spokane for his final years of life and retirement, and worked in real estate as a government retiree. Driven man and successful at the Dept of Interior, which we must remember, was formed to move the public estate to private ownership, mostly within the Louisiana Purchase. My how things have changed!!!

    • Thanks, John…
      And of course making the National Forests took the land out of the “public to private” trajectory.. hence Pinchot’s assurances to the westerners that all would be well…

      Your historical observations remind me of a quote from a book I’m reading

      How can we fail to be fascinated by history when we are all us, its survivors? “To live at all is miracle enough” said Mervyn Peake and it is history that explains the mystery of how any of us are even walking the earth. Without that understanding we are adrift like goldfish in a bowl, condemned to greet every moment of the present with wide-eyed surprise.

      A History of Scotland by Neal Oliver. (p. 1 of the introduction).


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