Veteran district ranger retires
Sitting at a nearly empty desk in the last week of his career, Jim Dawson wastes no time dwelling on the past. His mood is already mellowed to suit his future as an artist.
With an easy smile, he says life after leaving the office the following Friday will consist of “doing a little of this and a little of that.”
For more than two decades, Dawson has been helping to manage the public’s land as the Gunnison National Forest district ranger, sometimes spending his free time with oil paints to create scenes of tranquil western landscapes—art mimicking a hope for life.
“I’ve been with the outfit [U.S. Forest Service] for 36 years and done art as hobby for all of that time. So we’re going to get a little more serious about that,” Dawson, who retired Friday, May 1, says of the plans he and his wife, Carol, have made. “God forbid we’re going to have a website at some point as I understand it.”
And just as technology, like the Internet, is changing his relationship with art, Dawson says technology changed the Forest Service before his eyes. When he started as a range conservationist in southern New Mexico (“probably the best job I ever had with the Forest Service”) there was no computer anywhere in the Forest Service offices.
“I think the biggest single influence on the Forest Service in my time has been technology. In the old days we’d take off with a horse and a mule and be gone for a week. They’d have a general idea of where you were but they didn’t know exactly where you were,” he says.
Today he sees rangers sitting at desks, studying the landscape from space—although sometimes in great detail—thanks to Google Earth.
Now he fears that a failure to interact with the land by the next generation of forest rangers could lead to a disconnection from it.
“In one way, technology has really facilitated the job that we do… GPS, Google Earth and all of those kinds of things. It’s incredible,” he says. “But on the other hand you have to guard against that taking you away from being there on the ground, because there is no substitute for being in a place at a certain time. Then you know what the resource looks like.”
Dawson started out with intentions of being a rancher, getting a degree in range science from New Mexico State University. And as a rancher or a district ranger, he says he learned the most about the land when he was directly connected to it.
He took that belief with him when he signed on with the Forest Service 36 years ago, and even a move away from the range into administration couldn’t keep him confined to the office.
“I’ve always gravitated to the outdoors and that’s one of the things that I do like about being a district ranger—I do still have a connection to the ground. When things get crazy in the office, I have been known to just shut the door, grab a vehicle and go somewhere,” he says.
But being connected to the land isn’t only for those who have to manage it. It ought to be for the public to enjoy and benefit from, according to Dawson, and some of that is being lost.
“With all of the technology these days, kids and people in general don’t have the connection to the ground, to the resource, that they used to have,” he says, with a little disappointment. “Now they’re listening to their iPods, they’re sitting in front of a computer … and that’s a part of today. But in doing that you do lose a connection with nature.”
Dawson says the move to retirement will only increase the amount of time he spends outside. He chose a retirement home partially for its proximity to fishing, hunting and public lands.
That type of outdoor recreation, he says, is becoming “huge” across the National Forest system. And although he says the health of the forest has improved during his tenure, due to an increased environmental awareness, he wants people to be aware of the impact they are having, even when they think they’re not.
“One of the things that people have to understand is that recreation has its own impact upon the ground, whether it’s a disturbance to wildlife, increased erosion or any of those types of things,” he says. “I think generally these days, recreation is viewed as kind of a non-impactive kind of activity, and our job is to show people that it’s not without impacts.”
If people have a greater understanding of the impact they are having on the forest, they might be more attuned to the changes that are taking place in it, and Dawson says the health of the forest is changing constantly.
He points to the mountain pine beetle outbreak that has ravaged the evergreen forests of northwestern Colorado and hopes people understand that it’s only a matter of time before the outbreak makes it to Gunnison.
Changing forest conditions, coupled with the new “green movement” he hopes will bring about a change in the way people view the forest, moving from the feeling that the forest is a resource for recreation to also seeing the forest as a resource for much more.
“As far as the timber resource goes, we have an awful lot of that commodity out there that is essentially dead and dying and it’s because it’s getting old. I hope the thing that’s going to come from the emphasis on being green is biomass,” says Dawson.
“Certainly there is a place for wilderness and a place for old growth forest and that sort of thing. But there is also a place for society putting a relatively clean renewable source of energy to work,” he adds. “That is one of the things I see coming in the future.”
But in the more immediate future, Dawson sees himself enjoying the forests and rivers and making the “very occasional” appearance at local art and craft fairs, sharing a vision of his hope for real life.