Society of American Foresters

Northwest Regions

The Olden Days of Forestry

By Steve Ricketts, CF

Steve Ricketts, CF“It takes bulldog courage to succeed as a forester.” That was the first line on a brochure advertising the forestry major at the University of Illinois where I initially enrolled in a liberal arts program. What did they mean by “bulldog courage?” I had no idea about what I wanted to major in or what career I might be interested in. However, the forestry brochure seemed interesting, and I wanted to take a general forestry class to just see what it was about. Unfortunately, to take that course meant you had to be either a forestry major or a sophomore, so I decided to major in forestry to take the course. I never changed back.

Apart from a stint in the Air Force to fulfill my military obligation during the Vietnam War, my career has been exclusively with the US Forest Service in Washington State. I started as a GS-5 junior forester on the Quinault Ranger District on the Olympic National Forest, and gradually moved into silviculture because it seemed a better fit with my forest and shade tree pathology background I obtained in graduate school. Later I became the district’s ecosystem’s staff officer, which meant I supervised all the silviculture, soil, water, and fish and wildlife activities. In the last years of my career, I became the recreation manager so I could try something new and different. It was definitely different, and I’m glad to have experienced it.

Does it take bulldog courage to be a forester? Well, yes, but not in the way I expected. I’ve had many experiences, and here’s a snapshot of my “olden days.”

What a difference technology has made!

In 1965 and 1966, as a student employee I worked on the Kootenai and then the Lolo National Forests in western Montana. I was part of a team assigned field inventory. We were given aerial photographs with a pin prick in them and had to navigate cross country with the photo, a map, and compass to find an identifiable place. From there we measured to our plot location and put in 10-point cluster plots.

While a junior forester on the Quinault Ranger District, I was also assigned to work on Total Resource Information (TRI). On orthophotos, every change in vegetation was delineated by a line, and the space or cell created by the lines was assigned a number. There was a corresponding numbered card that listed the history of activities in that cell. There were different cards for each activity, such as harvesting, reforestation, fuel reduction, etc. If I wanted to know what happened within a given area, I would look at the orthophoto and search for the numbered cards.

As a silviculturist on the Quilcene Ranger District, when I did stand exams, the data had to be typed in a document sent via a modem attached to a phone to a computer in Denver. That computer would then send back the information, which was automatically printed out on a roll of computer paper. It was very touchy getting that to work correctly. Sometimes it took a number of times to properly connect with the computer.

In May 1985, Forest Level Information Processing arrived, and it was accessible through the Data General computer. There was only one computer in the supervisor’s office and one terminal at each ranger district. This system had electronic mail, word processing, data tables, spreadsheets, etc. and was the workhorse for 15 years. We could send coworkers emails, but we each had to sit at the one terminal to receive them. Eventually each district had its own computer.With the computer, we could access the Internet with difficulty but not receive any images.

After 1995, we had several personal computers around the office. These were slow to gain use, because most employees didn’t see a need for them or know how to use them.

I also remember the first time I used a cell phone; I was on a ridge behind the office. It was a black telephone handset with a cord to a box. I could dial the office and talk with no phone lines.

Changes in environmental policy

In 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act came into effect. We now had to write an Environmental Analysis for timber sales, but no one knew what that was! Although we were told it should describe the area and tell what we were going to do, it was also supposed to have alternatives including no action. We had no idea what the finished document was supposed to look like or what should be included. Should streams that dry out during the summer count only if fish were present? Were buffers needed?

I was once told by a fisheries biologist that it was best to log to the stream and that if the stream warmed up, it would be more productive—that’s not what they said later. We had a sale administrator who had logs felled into the stream, so that other logs could be yarded across them without tearing up the stream banks and then they would pull the logs out of the stream last. Was this protection?

The spotted owl came onto the scene during the 1980s. The first time I heard a spotted owl’s call was when a wildfire researcher visited the ranger station and demonstrated the call. I was told that protecting the spotted owl would have major ramifications in the future. Logging restrictions did become more restrictive and eventually almost shut harvesting down on the Olympic National Forest. This created a major challenge to our budgets, but luckily, we had Knudson-Vandenberg (KV) funds that were set aside from timber harvest receipts for follow-up activities, such as fuel treatment, habitat improvement and reforestation.

Through it all a SAF member

Not long before graduating from the University of Illinois, my instructor suggested that it would be beneficial to join the Society of American Foresters because it would help to network with other foresters. I asked my father, who was a professor in Metallurgical Engineering at the university, if this was worthwhile advice. “You should support your profession,” he said. I joined SAF in 1967. Forestry temporarily got put aside while I was in the Air Force, though I remained a forester at heart and paid my SAF dues.

While at the Quinault Ranger District, I would have benefited from SAF involvement. However, other foresters on the district weren’t members, and the only SAF meetings were in Olympia or Port Angeles. That was about a two-hour travel to a meeting either way. I did not have gas money for that kind of travel—my wife and I didn’t have two nickels to rub together—so I didn’t get involved.

A number of years later when I worked at the Quilcene Ranger District, there were a number of foresters from federal, state, and private organizations who decided to create a new SAF chapter on the Northeast Olympic Peninsula. We created the Admiralty Inlet Chapter, and I was a founding member.

Now, as a retiree, I see young foresters struggling to get their feet on the ground and find a place in the field. I have seen our Washington State leadership help students and young foresters with a one-year dues payment. Being a Golden Member, I no longer pay dues, but I find young foresters without two nickels to rub together and ask them if I can pay their dues for a year to help get their feet on the ground.

Steve Ricketts, CF is a retired forester who was a Forest Service Certified Silviculturist for 20 years and then a recreation manager. He remains active with the SAF Admiralty Inlet Chapter and is the Washington State SAF Historian. Ricketts can be reached at

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