When I sit down to visit with Doug Dodge for the second time (one hour on an earlier day got the interview started), his voice is hoarse and throat lozenges aren’t helping much. Dodge, in his usual Forest Service greens, sputters a bit and says, “I was cueing for a Helena dance group for four hours yesterday.” Dodge juggles - or balances - several important components in his life: Forest Service, family, dance, and volunteer duties. He seems to do much the same in his job as District Ranger for the Musselshell District of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. There are many facets to the United States Forest Service and his position.
To begin, one needs to know that the USFS has three divisions: Research, State & Private Forestry, and the National Forests. The Forest Service has Research Stations located all around the country which do practical research on fire, timber, hydrology and the like. How does research fit in to the Forest Service? “We can ask for help on specific problems. Or, just find out if previous research offers ready information for things we are dealing with. We try to use the best available science.”
Doug’s father worked at the California Department of Forestry which collaborated with the USFS Riverside Research Station. “He had a doctorate in fire ecology and did research on fire retardants for forest fires. This sort of research has widespread applications.”
This note leads to the second division called State and Private Forestry. All states have these divisions which allow for federal assistance to the states and private sector through the State Forestry Departments and through grants.
Then, there is the National Forest System Lands Division from which we get our usual picture of the Forest Service. This is where our local office works and where Doug Dodge’s responsibility lies in administering NF Service lands. “We are here to manage Lewis and Clark National Forest land for the benefit of the public and toward the greatest good for the most people always considering future needs and sustained yields.”
Teddy Roosevelt pulled the Forest Service together almost 100 years ago. His endeavors followed on Forest Reserves which were begun in 1890s and led to National Forests being moved from the Interior to the Agriculture Department.
“We are tasked with tough decisions to protect generational use of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. Not all uses are compatible. Priorities and desired uses change over time. Largely because of changes in social values.
“We have a long-range plan for managing multiple sustained use. But, some areas are overused while others look good. Resource management is a complex balancing act.”
This National Forest System Lands Division has multiple areas of concern. These resources are both renewable and nonrenewable: Timber, Grazing, Mining, Cultural (Historic and Prehistoric, Traditional), Recreational, Wildlife Habitat, Soils, Watershed, Lands Access.
Early on, the National Forests were created because of the need for timber. Based on historical forest losses in the eastern US, “we needed to do something to protect the forests and timber for future use -- timber as a sustainable crop and as a means of preserving watersheds.”
Since World War II, values have changed. The demand for homes again brought about heavy logging. But then, conservation and preservation movements followed. Now, over half of the lumber mills in Montana have been closed. Lobbies and litigation have become powerful forces in regard to public land use and national forest logging.
“Lawsuits have ground timber harvests to a halt on many national forests. The Lewis and Clark National Forest could potentially handle harvest up to 8 million board feet in a year on a sustained basis. But these days, very little is logged. Some forests are becoming purely recreational.”
Recreational use and attendant overuse sometimes becomes a major NF problem. Won’t that too turn around with increasing prices of gasoline? “Recreation may be expensive, but some people practically live to spend their weekends in the National Forest and spend accordingly.”
Recreational use is an area of prominent public and government interest. “Unconstrained use can produce lots of impacts. Erosion has major effects on soil, water, fish and the like. We have developed a travel plan which allows for forest use with reduced impacts. These include seasonal closures, rerouting of trails, changing roads to trails.”
What about buildings on USFS land? These include ranger stations, historic cabins, homesteads (law repealed in 1976), special permits (campgrounds and ski resorts), and recreational residences which date from the 50s. “These were intended to encourage recreational use of the National Forest. There are 150 to 200 in the Lewis and Clark NF. They have yearly leases and come up for review every ten years. All improvements to these properties require permits from the USFS. Properties can be transferred to heirs and sold. Honestly, they are a headache.”
The watershed is another very important concern, particularly under present long-term drought conditions. “The Forest Service manages several hundred million acres of land and 1/3 of the nation’s water drains off of National Forest lands. We spend much energy on water quality and production. Water is a big concern because of impacts. Especially in recent drought years, climate changes, and decreasing mountain snowpack.”
All of these concerns and more get woven and sometimes tangled together. But, THE major issues for the USFS at this time are forest health (because of drought, decreased snows, fires, and buildup of fuels in the forests), public access, and recreation.
Grazing is a recurring and interwoven theme in local work. “Grazing is everywhere. But, everything is based in water. And, ranchers in the Western states control a large percentage of water.
“We want ranchers to be successful and use the national forest well for grazing purposes. The alternative can be much worse. Public and private interests are decidedly intertwined. If ranchers stop grazing and sell their properties, the result is often housing tracts which definitely have far-ranging and often negative impacts to our living environments - wildlife habitat, open spaces, etc. It’s all one great big continuum: mountains, forests, valleys, rivers.”
“Everything is very connected and very complicated, these days. Forest health becomes more fragile and vulnerable because of the changes happening in and around them. Climate change and fires. We wonder if the forest will come back after the present drought and recent fires. Will we have enough regrowth of species if there is a fire. Maybe there will be a shift in species or change in terrain over time. We can see by way of archeological research where vegetation changes occurred over periods of centuries like with the pinion and creosote bush.
“Again, water is almost always the limiting factor. We don’t have the water in our area to sustain the grazing that ranchers often desire. The management of grazing on National Forest lands depends on how much you can harvest. You take so much off the land, then you have to allow time for it to recover. The more that is harvested, the longer the recovery required. We allow only a maximum of 50 percent grazing. Over 50 percent grazing is costly to the land, grasses and their roots. The ranchers want to harvest every year without rest. We can allow that if grazing is kept below 50 percent.”
It would seem that Public Relations must be a Forest Ranger’s main job. “Right. My particular job is largely PR. That is part of the reason I belong to Kiwanis and the Chamber. I need to be out there talking to people. Beyond that, I do get to volunteer!? A big part of my job is to involved, be in the loop and inform people I meet. I need to get around. So, I talk to ATV and motorcycle groups, the Magic City Fly Fishers and others.”
Covering the Musselshell Ranger District causes Dodge to get around as well. The district includes parts of five mountain ranges all of which the Musselshell River drains: the Little Snowies, south side of the Big Snowies, north side of the Crazies, south side of the Belts, and east side of the Castles. This covers a huge area. “It’s a hundred mile drive to the Little Snowies from here.”
The greater Lewis and Clark National Forest is composed of five districts and an interpretive center with its headquarters in Great Falls. It is just over 2 million acres in size. The Musselshell Ranger district has just under 300,000 acres. This Region of the Forest Service includes 13 forests in Montana, Idaho and North Dakota. The USFS has nine regions all together.
Years ago, Doug Dodge started his work life in the Bureau of Land Management which was borne out of the FLPMA (Federal Land Policy Management Act) of 1976. “At one time, the government was trying to sell off all its excess lands. These were lands that nobody wanted. But, someone said, ‘Whoa! That may not be in the public’s best interest.’ So now, the BLM manages a LOT of federal land. Much more than the Forest Service. But a huge part of it is in Alaska. Under the Department of Interior, the BLM also manages oil and gas leases on National Forest lands.
“We use the same land management principles in the Forest Service as in BLM. We work on similar issues.”
Having taken a degree in history, how did Dodge get started in the BLM? “It was a fluke. I had worked at Yellowstone Park for three or four summers during college. I just loved it. I thought I would like to be a Park Service naturalist. As it happened, my sister, mother, father and I all graduated from the University of California the same year. Dad got a PhD from UC Riverside, the rest of us got our Bachelors degrees from UC Davis.”
Doug and his mother took the PACE exam (Dodge did really well) and got his name, ranking and preferences on a roster. “BLM was looking for an Outdoor Recreational Planner in Yuma, Arizona, and I took the job.” He managed recreational campgrounds and undeveloped desert areas along the Colorado River and around Quartzite. He also did some interpretive work there.
“We used to have thousands of people come out from California to ride dune buggies and play on the river.” Dodge spent four years in the Yuma area dealing with six months of 100 degree+ temperatures plus humidity in August and September.
His next stop was for three years in Salt Lake City where he was initially a District Recreational Planner. Before long, he was able to study archeology at the University of Utah and take on a position as Cultural Resources Manager. “We had a lot of prehistoric artifacts there dating from 10 to 12,000 years old around the shoreline of Lake Bonneville. We also managed ninety miles of the historic Continental Railroad as well as Pony Express routes. My job was to inventory, protect, preserve and interpret for the next five years.”
Then, he got tired of the bureaucracy (really?) and moved on to be Assistant Area Manager for the BLM (700,000 acres) at Bishop, California. Dodge worked on a variety of programs and projects while there including a Grazing Analysis Project which has prepared him well for his present responsibilities. One of his major involvements was working on a land use plan for the intact ghost town of Bodie located ninety miles north of Bishop in the high desert. “This was a cooperative federal, state and local effort which also involvement mining companies and interests. It got pretty contentious at times. Lots of public relations there.
“Congress had to pass a law to get the situation resolved. We helped put together new gold mining regulations. Eventually, conservation groups bought the private land within Bodie and the mining interests relinquished their claims. This was high level political stuff.”
Prior to turning toward the US Forest Service, Dodge took on Acting Field Manager jobs in Alaska including a four-month stint at the Valdez Oil Terminal. Doug had tried for ten years to make that next step. “I just couldn’t get that job. I had applied for over 200 different positions and got interviews on numerous occasions. But, no luck. So, I decided to try the Forest Service. I interviewed at Great Falls and it was like sitting down with a bunch of friends.”
“But, I hadn’t been to Harlowton and day that Leslie and I came to town was hot and smokey, dreary, gray and ugly. It was over 100 degrees. We were wondering what we had committed to. I returned and checked on the schools and said, ‘Yes’ because of Nancy Widdicombe.
“The move has been a good one. We were welcomed all around. The kids here are so much more polite and better mannered. It’s like California was twenty years ago.
“Sarah is now at MSU and loves it. She’s getting a good education. Gwen was a foreign exchange student last year and loved Belgium. She came back with a lot more confidence in herself.”
For Doug, it was “an interesting transition moving from BLM to the Forest Service. There’s lots of red tape. But, all of the Forest Service people accepted me when I took Bill Fortune’s job as District Ranger.”
How is the Forest Service like a business? “Well, we have a budget. A regular business tries to make money. We have tasks and targets to meet. We watch them and the money we are allocated closely. We have line items with budget constraints.
“The budget is staying flat these days. There has been lots of realignment here. We have lost half of our staff since I came here. Our personnel budget has shrunk. But, we have been able to manage that through attrition. All of our people are shared except for me and one other employee.
“Recently, the Forest Service purchased a video conferencing system for our office which allows us to communicate in real time with other offices. This saves four hours of driving to go to meetings in Great Falls plus other expenses.”
When not doing family, forest or volunteer service, Doug joins his wife Leslie in teaching and cuing for all kinds of venues for all kinds of dances. DodgeDance has been going strong for many years. “Dancing is OK! We were in Helena Sunday teaching and cueing. We’re going back in February and March. We worked with ten couples on the waltz.
“I particularly like to cue round dancing which is really choreographed ballroom dancing. I’ve been cueing for 25 years.”
Is dancing holding up in the 21st century? “The technology is changing and we have to keep up with that. With Dancing with the Stars, we may see a comeback.”
Any way you look it, dancing is a big part of the act!