As I drank my coffee this past Sunday morning, basking in the sun shining through my windows and feeling thankful I wasn’t outside in the cold and icy aftermath of the first storm of winter, I did some reflection on where I am today, and how I got here.
It occurred to me that it’s been over ten years, nearly 15 in fact, since I decided to chase a career with the Forest Service, a decision made on a winter trip home during Christmas break my freshman year in college. At the time, the decision was made because it would allow me to (hopefully) make decent money while staying in Montana, and because I was rapidly realizing that I didn’t want to spend my life a slave to the nine to five, cubicle-bound office lifestyle. I wanted to work outdoors, do something meaningful, and stay in western Montana.
As I worked my way through a second cup of coffee, I realized that while I’ve had some great experiences during my 14 years in fire, somehow I ended up living in the 3rd largest metro area in the Northwest (if you consider Boise and Idaho to be in the “Northwest” that is), spending a majority of my working hours (outside of a few months in the summer) in a cubicle typing away, occasionally furiously, at a keyboard. My first question? What happened? Somehow, in trying to move up the ladder into a decent, year-round job with the agency, I’d ended up with almost exactly the situation I’d started working with the Forest Service to avoid. Ironic, isn’t it?
It strikes me as unfortunate that as time goes by, and the population of the US grows more and more urban, that the land management agencies are also growing more urban. I recently read an essay by noted fire historian Stephen Pyne that was looking at the importance of local culture in prescribed fire in the Southeast and elsewhere. I realized that culture is in fact a key player in land management, and as culture in the rural west changes, so will the culture and values of the people who manage the public lands in the west.
What does that have to do with me ending up in an office job in Boise? The answer is simple and complex. The simple part is that with the current trend towards consolidation and centralization within the agencies, many of the remote stations are being closed, and the people and crews that work there are being moved in to town. It’s especially evident in the fire world, where helitack crews and others are slowly being relocated from remote stations to airports and Supervisor’s Offices. The complex part is, well, complex, and I honestly don’t have my head wrapped around it quite yet. Part of it is that as culture and demographics change, it becomes more difficult to to live and work in remote areas, and not for the reasons you might think.
As the west has been discovered by retirees, wealthy second homeowners, and the like, the cost of living in some of these wild places has been driven up by huge amounts. For example, in my home community of Seeley Lake, MT, a large number of the Forest Service employees don’t live in Seeley because of the cost of housing. Instead they drive from nearby Missoula – an hour drive on good days. The same was true in the last remote station I worked at in Idaho – nearly everyone drove an hour or more from Boise or Meridian because it was too expensive to buy a place in Garden Valley if you only worked 6 or 9 months out of the year for the Forest Service. I know that in many places I’ve worked, including my hometown, I couldn’t afford to buy a house on my agency salary. The result then, is that many people like me are attracted to jobs where it’s more affordable to live on a government salary – which all to often is the urban areas like Boise and Missoula. It’s a sad state of affairs.
I wonder what we’re losing as land managers in this transition. I can’t help but think that we are losing touch with the land we work on, and losing that connection to the local that is so important.
I don’t have any answers. All I know for sure is that as my career unfolds for the next 25 years, I’m likely going to continue to be a city-dweller despite my dislike of the urban lifestyle. Nearly all of the jobs I’d like to pursue are located in the urban hubs for the area, places like Missoula, Boise, Bozeman, and Kalispell. Not a terrible thing by any means, but not exactly what I’d envisioned all those years ago as a blissfully ignorant college kid.
Until next time…