Tale of 2 eras
Job hunters take heed – Richard L.P. Bigelow elbowed his way into the fledgling U.S. Forest Service by illegally building a house on federal forest land.
The year was 1894 and the future Nevada City resident and head of the Tahoe National Forest had recently arrived in Fresno County, where he built a log cabin on what he believed was unclaimed land.
But then, a year or so later, a ranger showed up at the door with a warning. Through Bigelow’s efforts to maintain his home, he met up with the local forest supervisor.
Within months, Bigelow was a ranger, and six years later he was on his way to Nevada City to captain the newly formed Tahoe National Forest.
This year, as the Forest Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, Bigelow’s old job is held by Tahoe National Forest Supervisor Steve Eubanks (who got his job by submitting an application).
Differences between the two men and their positions extend beyond the manner through which they were hired.
Eubanks learned of forestry as an Oregon high school student and was drawn to the career because he liked math and enjoyed the outdoors.
Bigelow had more going for him than just his prowess in illegal real estate selection. According to entries in the diary he faithfully kept for 34 years, Bigelow was handy with horses and livestock, comfortable mending fences and building trails, and willing to devote at least six days a week to his work.
Not everything was different, however.
Both men were charged – in the words of Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot – with administering the land for “its most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people; and not for the temporary benefit of individuals or companies.”
Bigelow spent his days writing letters, traveling, dealing with grazing and timber permits, and writing in his diary, a required duty.
Eubanks said he gets to spend time in the field, but mostly he deals with personnel issues, general administration and interacting with groups who use the forest. Keeping officially diaries died out in the 1960s, Eubanks said.
“(My job) really just depends on the day, (but there are) lots of meetings,” Eubanks said.
Some days stand out, however, like when he recently joined a group of wildland firefighters preparing for fire season by studying Glenn County’s 1953 Rattlesnake Fire, which killed 15 men.
That session illustrated several changes in the past few decades, Eubanks said.
Many of the forest’s 845,094 acres would be clogged with brush now if efforts were not made to replicate the effects of fire on the landscape.
In contrast, Bigelow dealt with a young forest recovering from widespread timbering during the Gold Rush.
As for fire protection, there was really just one approach in the early years of the Forest Service.
“The dogma of those days (was), if you get a fire, put it out,” Eubanks said.
Now, land managers are much savvier, setting controlled blazes to mimic the natural state of the forest and limit catastrophic wildfires.
Safety is also given a greater emphasis, Eubanks said. The Forest Service is guided by elaborate procedures and expends considerable effort to protect firefighters and others, he said.
He relies on guidebooks that fill “10 or 12 feet of shelf space.”
Bigelow, however, had a simple handheld manual called the “Use Book.”
Spanning the hundred-year gap is a dedication to a public agency and the lands it manages that both men share.
While Bigelow went so far as to call the Forest Service the “best organization in the world,” Eubanks praised the agency’s accomplished employees charged with “managing what I consider an absolutely precious resource for the American public.”
Diary of a different time
Following are excerpts from the diary of Richard Bigelow, superintendent of Tahoe National Forest from 1908 to 1936.
After Bigelow became a ranger, he kept the daily diary, which was a job requirement. He began his career in the southern Sierra, where he built trails and monitored sheep and cattle grazing.
May 4, 1903 – “Got married in the morning and attended to Reserve (forest) business in the afternoon…”
June 1, 1904 – “It was getting towards 6 o’clock (p.m.) when I heard a shot. Thinking that Bell was on his way back I answered with a shot from my gun and yelled. I heard a very faint answer… That seemed strange to me and I decided something must be wrong so I caught my saddle horse, went up the trail he had taken, yelling occasionally…
“I found him lying on the ground and he told me that he was turning over a boulder in the in the trail and as it went between his knees his gun fell from its scabbard and the hammer hit the rock and the gun shot him through the left leg and hip…
“I didn’t dare to get him on the horse alone, so I made him as comfortable as I could and went after three men…
“We decided that it would be best to construct a litter and pack him on that rather than try to put him on the horse…”
Bigelow went after a doctor while the three men constructed a litter and began carrying Bell toward the road 12 miles away, where some campers had a wagon they were willing to loan. Once they arrived in town, doctors recommended amputating the leg, an idea Bell resoundingly rejected.
Although he kept his leg, Bell couldn’t work for a year, so his fellow rangers raised $100 for him.
Bigelow then moved north to the Weaverville area where he monitored junior rangers, supervised timber cutting, and briefly met Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot. With his wife and young daughter, Bigelow accepted a $1,600 a year job in Nevada City, where he rented a furnished house on Main Street.
On his first day, he went into the office…
Nov. 15, 1908 (Sunday) – “(A forest assistant, clerk, and two rangers) were all in the office with mops and brooms and buckets of water cleaning up the office for the new Supervisor. I got in and helped them finish the job and told them there should be no more janitor work for the office force and told (the clerk) to get a high school boy or someone to act as janitor in the future.”
Feb. 22, 1911 – “Climbed Banner Mt. to see if it would be a good fire lookout… There was about 3 ft. of snow on the mountain and (we) acted like a bunch of kids in the snow.”
Oct. 14, 1911 – “Went over Floriston Pulp and Paper’s Company’s sale and examined the brush piling. Not satisfactory and showed the contractor where he had done poor work.”
Bigelow fought many fires during his time in Nevada City, including a large fire along the North Fork of the American River, which began around Sept. 9
Sept. 18, 1913 – “Men working on the line all night… Fire working west very slowly. Went to river with crew at 12 midnight as we were out of water. Balance of day made line along river between two ravines and brought back fire round point gradually.”
Bigelow was also responsible for personnel matters.
May 20, 1916 – “Left for Camptonville at 10:45 a.m. Ate lunch at North San Juan and arrived at Camptonville at 2 p.m. Had a talk with Helbig about his work. Told him he was not cut out for a ranger… he was too slow and could not be depended on. … Hard job – didn’t like it a bit.”
The 677-page diary concludes:
April 30, 1936 – “Completed my work as a Supervisor of Tahoe National Forest and thirty-four years of service in the best organization in the world.”
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