28 Jul 2008, 10:10pm
Rural Life
by admin

The Free Life of a Ranger

Murchie, Archie. 1991. The Free Life of a Ranger : Archie Murchie in the U.S. Forest Service, 1929-1965 with R.T. (Robert Thomas) King. Univ of Nevada Oral History Program, 324 pgs.

Review by John Thomas, Jr.

This book is an account of a person who spent considerable time and effort to get the job done, no matter the conditions. Grit. That is a word that comes to mind. Unafraid is another. Archie Murchie’s life was one that had him involved in Forest and community affairs on many fronts, and having the ability to get along with most people was his self described greatest asset.

In a different time and a different place, Archie Murchie made a conscious effort to get an education and rise above his parent’s life of hard work, injury, and poverty. He went to college for pre- forestry in North Dakota, and in 1928, to Forestry School at U. of Montana. In those days, he says, if you could pass the civil service test you went to work for the USFS, and if not, for the forest products industry.

He relates that the USFS paid a fair wage, although not as much as the forest products industry. Even so, as many did in his lifetime, he chose to work for the USFS. As a civil servant you had a year round job, job security if you worked smart, hard, and had a modicum of people skills. In a difficult era for the United States economy, he most likely made the right choice for himself. In later years, he talks about people jealous of the money USFS Rangers made before WWII.

Archie tells a tale of hard work, trying conditions, long hours, even longer days, and weeks without end. A Ranger’s life was one of being the caretaker for vast areas of public land, at times by yourself. You had seasonal help, mostly to fight fire, but when fires were not burning you used those people to make and clear trails, build bridges and cabins, repair or construct lookout stations, and be a presence on the Forest.

It was a life of toil, much of which was spent as a solitary quest. Archie talks about family and moving his family to town so his kids could attend school. I don’t know if many modern women would accept a husband’s lot that kept him from home for much of the year.

Archie Murchie was more of a range manager than a forest manager. In either case, Rangers come and go, but the grazing permit stays with the ranch in most cases. A great deal of the book is devoted to an assessment of permittees, grazier tricks and strategies, and how to foil a permittee who was still steeped in the culture of the free range, of the times before the Taylor Grazing Act and other public land regulations were enacted to control transient herders. There was a time when bands of sheep were grazed from lambing grounds to spring graze, to shearing graze, to summer graze, to weaning graze and on to winter graze. One big circle of movement of bands of sheep, and all on public lands with out any responsibility to the land or private property.

USFS Rangers were the ones who took control when Congress gave them the authority to manage National Forest lands. Some ranchers made the transition better than others, and Archie’s book is a good study in the delicate dance of Agency and Permittees (who ran to their Congressman each time they felt wronged), in upholding the sovereignty of the Forest and the rights of a grazier. Connected livestock growers could make life miserable for a civil servant if they though they were being short changed. Archie makes the case that a Ranger could do his job based on how well his Forest Supervisor and the Regional Office would support their Rangers.

Anyone who takes an honest look at their life realizes that if it were possible, he or she would do some things differently, and Archie is one who writes down some of his misgivings about how his Rangering would have changed had he known what he later came to understand about his earlier decisions. I always have looked at that as the proverbial double edged sword, because we would not know the results of a different mode of action or a different decision made with the empirical knowledge of the time. What is done is done, and now we try to do better. Hand wringing over past decisions only produces abraded hands.

Archie did his Rangering in the best of all USFS worlds in a historical sense. He was in early in the game, and was able to see the changes as they came. Like many of us, he did not think all of the change was for the better. He notes that when you sent some summer help out to build a trail from here to there, someone looked at a topo map, took a compass course, brought out the Abney, shot a grade, and off they went. No EIS, no engineering, no consultations with myriad disciplines, no public hearings, no NGO interference. They built the trail. Some were built in bad locations, but most were built with economy and skill.

And I would guess we could go into a year long discussion of modern Forest Service engineering and environmental analysis and find hundreds of examples where the modern process has produced just as poor a result, or worse. My life experience was observing a P line and slopes shot with a transit and a cloth tape in the rain, far from the Ranger Station, so that the crew spent half the day riding to and from the Ranger Station, and an hour each way hiking into the site, in order that they might accomplish two hours of work in a day, with the lunch break and mandated breaks taken into account. What has become a month or more of effort by an engineering crew in the 21st century could have been accomplished by Archie and a summer helper in a couple of days. They would have packed in with mules, set up camp, and worked daylight to dark in the summer shooting grades and clearing the P line, and then packed out to do the next job.

That is so yesterday’s Forest Service. Archie’s USFS is no longer recognizable in any form except maybe badges. There were no pony tailed, bearded men, no obese men or women, no time for anything but long hard days and endless work, far from home or creature comforts. And the Forest Supervisor would take a dim view of someone not clean shaven and fit. Archie’s USFS was more fit, more task oriented, less concerned about working conditions, wages, unions and who could say what to whom. No wonder it takes ten people today to do what one man would accomplish 75 years ago.

Early in his career, Archie was involved with CCC personnel in various Forest activities. His admiration, respect, and personal appreciation of the kind of person the CCC produced from raw kids stayed with him for life. He states in his book that the best cat skinner he ever saw was an 18 year old CCC kid. He had CCC kids on fires, and their ability to work all the daylight hours, eat a big dinner, go to sleep and get up and do it again, day after day, made a life long impression on him. I find that observation to be important from a guy who appeared to have considerable stamina himself. And I think that it is a ringing endorsement of that kind of program for young people who have few options at an important time in their lives. We as a country need to learn from the works of the CCC programs and what their lasting benefits were to the US. In just a few years all the CCC boys will be dead, and their contribution to the country a memory generationally removed from today. If that is all you get from reading Archie’s oral history, you will have learned something important about how we were and what we could again could become.

The one issue that I see in Archie’s life was that his family got short shrift from his work ethic. He was gone a lot. He put in long, long hours. And was expected to. He notes that for years the family’s belongings would fit in a coupe and they could be gone from one posting to another in hours. They just did not have the “stuff” that so clutters peoples’ lives today. The big deals in their lives were adequate food stores and perhaps a washing machine. He recounts their spending the winter on a remote posting in the Idaho back country, and when they came out in the spring, delayed a couple of months by the refusal of snow to melt in a timely fashion, they hid their kids in their tattered, outgrown clothes until they got to where the packages of Sears clothes they had ordered were located. The kids came out of the warehouse dressed in new clothes from the skin out, before the daily bath. Today, the Children and Family Services would have taken those poor abused kids into State care, in their disheveled condition, obviously victims of abuse. One would hope that remark from me was in jest, and I will say it is.

The kids finally moved to town for good when Archie took the Ranger job in Ely, Nevada. His kids had to make adjustments to school and other kids. He felt his being snowed in with them in winter and other occasions where they were close for months at a time gave him a chance to know his kids. His observation that his four kids were only possible because of his steady family wage income as a civil servant, which is another value from long ago, having the number of children you could support. No dole or welfare crossed his mind. When they had troubles adjusting to town life and other kids, he was able to help his wife steer them in a productive direction. Again, he looks at the problem and proceeds to solve with common sense and direct action.

The value of oral histories is that we get to see a segment of time from the perspective of one person’s unique experiences and vision. How Archie saw the world, and how he interacted with it represents only his part in the grand scheme of things, but these bits of recollection, insight, and personal perspective are what make history. From this type of first person telling, future historians can paint a more accurate picture of what that time was like in our history. It is a bridge from then to now, even with the 43 year blank from the end of Archie’s career to today, which will be filled with another’s oral history we would hope, of someone in the same capacity with the USFS who started about when Archie retired, and another starting from when that person retired until sometime in the near future. Perhaps the retired USFS folks can get that job done.

The Forest Service was a part of my life early on, as my Scoutmaster was the Siuslaw NF fire officer, Carl Hawks. He had the master key, and we stayed in many a USFS lookout or CCC camp bunkhouse when we were in Scouts in the Northwest winters. I spent summers hiking the Skyline Trail, now called the Pacific Crest Trail. In some sort of institutional insanity and zealotry, all the CCC three-sided log shelters in the Big W Wilderness along the Trail were razed and burned by the USFS after the 1964 Wilderness Act. The Rogue River Trail got a shot of rural renewal about that time, and much of the old mining and homestead stuff that was fun to look at was removed from the trail. In some sort of Agency mind fart, green and blue fiberglass outhouses were helicoptered in to give comfort to the current crop of squatters. Since then I have gradually lost all trust and belief in the USFS or BLM as agencies with some sort of common sense idea of what their job should be.

The Archie Murchies of the world spent a lifetime doing hard work so that some desk bound idiot can burn their work to ashes in some sort of soul cleansing that ought to be accomplished on private time with private resources. Archie relates that he thinks some fires could have been left to burn, the ones high in the rocks, or the cool ones on the ground, but when help was so scarce, so far away, the only way not to have burned the entirety of the Forest was to put out fires when you could with the best effort you could muster. You did the best you could with what you had. You could wish to have done some things different, but as a crusty old hooktender once told me, “Hummer, you can wish in one hand and crap in the other, and you don’t have to guess which one will fill up first.”

Much of my life was in the timber game, and I was constantly looking at USFS and BLM timber sales, and on occasion, buying one. In the time I was in the business, which started about the time Archie retired, I knew many USFS folks, even a Chief and a couple of Supervisors as well as many Rangers, timber staff officers, and engineers. The Agency grew very fast after Archie retired, and has since 1990 devolved to most likely less of an agency than it was when he retired. Archie’s work ethic, common sense approach to problem solving, the latitude he was given to exercise his judgement and perform the work he felt was necessary, is no longer possible in that agency, and they are not the better for it.

There are times when I can’t figure out what their mission really is, and I know they don’t know exactly what it is, either. The time I had a pre-sale meeting with the Ranger, her 272 days pregnant and lying on a cot in her office, probably tells it all about the difference between the Archie Murchie USFS and today’s. Today it looks like a place where everyone is trying to keep their heads below the line of fire until retirement, and someone else can be lackeys to the NGOs and to a Congress growing more corrupt with each election cycle. The USFS budget gets reduced every time Congress meets, and the whole of the resource is less than what a developed country ought to expect in these times of instant information and experts galore. Maybe too many cooks do spoil the broth. Maybe being missionless means being lost in a bureaucratic jungle.

Whatever, reading The Free Life of a Ranger can be a pleasant journey into the past or a jarring jolt to the senses of how far the USFS has eroded into no more than a poor social engineering experiment that has an ancillary mission to manage a couple hundred million acres of land and resources. Perhaps reading about what once was will excite some people to find a way for the agency to regain some sense of mission. Or it might be looked at as a quaint look back at a time when people didn’t know any better and worked too hard.

I learned about how and why sheep are herded in the manner that they are. I learned that if you get to a single tree lightening strike soon enough, you can put it out with one person which would really miff the OSHA enforcement officer in these times. Mostly I learned the hows and whys of doing things with primitive tools and sweat in the time before power tools and unfit workers.

The Free Life of a Ranger is not War and Peace, nor is it that long. It is a glimpse into the head of a hard working civil servant who gave it his all. That should be good enough, and worth the time to read.

6 Aug 2008, 1:28pm
by Bob Zybach

An excellent review of a good story, and excellent insights regarding the need for histories of this nature. Also, good humor and provocative observations.

Who could ask for more in a book review?

6 Aug 2008, 5:20pm
by Mike

The preceding comments are wise and kind, especially considering that Dr. Zybach is a leading historian and has published numerous oral histories himself.

Tom King did an wonderful job in drawing out tales from Archie Murchie and merits kudos for putting this book together.

29 Oct 2008, 11:09am
by Martin L.

A great review of a what appears to be a fine book. Would prove a useful source for anyone attempting to write a book about how feminism destroyed the US Forest Service.

29 Oct 2008, 12:25pm
by Mike

If feminism was the only problem, it could be easily fixed. Gender is not the problem; education, training, experience, capability, and altered policies are. If the USFS had a coherent mission and competent employees, it would not matter what their gender is.



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