JOHN DAY - Stan Benes is the acting forest supervisor for the Malheur National Forest, while a new supervisor is being selected. He grew up in northern Wisconsin, but has spent much of his adult life in the West. Among the stations where he has worked are West Yellowstone, Mont., where he served as district ranger from 1993-2003, and the Custer National Forest in Billings, where he is the deputy forest supervisor. His wife, Patricia, remains in Billings.
Where did you start working for the Forest Service?
I started in Silver Lake. That was around 1970. I was a recreation guard at the time. We lived up at Thompson Reservoir. That was just my introduction to the forest service.
Did that experience direct you into the Forest Service?
Well, actually, the place I was impressed with, (but it) was my old friend in high school, his brothers, who went west. One went to Red Eye, which is in Idaho, and the other went to the Kaniksu, which I think is in part of the Idaho Panhandle.
Anyway, they came back and told the tall tales of going up in the mountains and sleeping in tents and knowing the mules personally and things like that. It was pretty intriguing. Actually, since I was a kid, gosh, eight or nine years old, it was my dream to move west and live in the mountains.
How familiar with the Malheur National Forest were you before you came here?
The only real experience I had was when I flew in here in '96 as a fire behavior analyst for the Wildcat Complex. And I remember how beautiful it was around here and Prairie City. I also remember, it wasn't a real happy time, because of fires going on.
I've spent most of my time in the northern region, Idaho and Montana.
As you move around from different forests, there are priorities, issues, challenges, call them what you will.
In West Yellowstone, it was the snowmobiles and the bison. Plenty of challenges living right in the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
What kind of challenges did you face?
Well, there's so many issues. I think there was 20-some ecosystem groups or environmentalist groups, so there was more scrutiny for anything you possibly did there. Everybody had their version of what was right. West Yellowstone (is) surrounded by federal land, much like John Day. Their success, their living, all depended on the national forest. So that was kind of a challenge to find a balance about utilizing the resources for the present generation while trying to preserve them for the future.
I find that every natural resource decision has economic, ecological, and socio-political considerations. We try to find some kind of balance between all three of those considerations, if at all possible. When that is not possible, I will first take care of the land. Without good stewardship of the land, the other two considerations become far less significant.
I got there (West Yellowstone) after the times had changed. They were doing 20 million board feet a year, they had a mill, and the economy was based on that. And then it just ... collapsed is just too harsh a word. But active management is needed for the health of the forest. I know we won't get back to the old way, and there's various interpretations of the ... old way. But I do think there's room for the active management still out of West Yellowstone, (and) there's room for active management on the Custer, where I am now.
When you get major wildfires, I think it's because we haven't done just a small measure of active management, and we not only lose the timber value, we also lose the wildlife corridors, we lose the wildlife habitat, we lose the streamside protection, we lose homes, and sometimes we lose lives.
I recall two years ago on the Fish Creek Complex, it was called, out of Missoula, people were discussing whether we should have a protection zone of 150 feet or 200 feet from the stream; the number of particulates in the stream, and whether we could stand any active management. Meanwhile, the absolute entire drainage went out (due to a fire), 80,000 acres in five hours, absolutely consumed it.
There's got to be some common sense middle ground where we can find some balance. I think that balance comes from people like Charlie O'Rorke to Judge Reynolds to the forest supervisor to Congressman Walden, that whole stretch; we all have to work together, and find that common ground where we can do something. It's not only good for the health of the landscape; it's going to be good for the health of the community.
I just think, with some persistence and common sense, and working from the people on the ground, who really know the forest and the work out there, right up to the congressional types, I sincerely believe that we can find that balance, if we really work at it.
These three things have served me well in 17-18 years as a line officer: Customer service: we work for the taxpayers, they should expect service. I know the public itself is not interested in multimillion dollar EISs in the Columbia Basin. They want to know, can I get some firewood? Are there signs so our visitors can find their way around? Can we get up the trails we like to hunt on? Have the roads been graded in the last six-eight years? That's the customer service they want.
Community support should be a big part of what we're all about. In fact, I've got the original forest service manual, and it says right there that we're supposed to support local communities.
Common sense (means to) take care of the people. We've got some good, hard-working professional people here. Big part of the community.
I consider this to be as much a privilege as it is a job, just to be part of the decision-making of the natural resources.