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Fire Season, Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout

Author : Philip Connors
Published : 2011-04-05

Without doubt, this was the most enjoyable read I’ve had all year.  Author Phillip Conners left a job with the Wall Street Journal to take up summer residence in a fire tower perched atop Apache Peak in the Gila National Forest’s Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area. 

After eight years of watching over the forest from his mountain peak, Mr. Conners shares with readers the fascination of his life as an observer of nature.  His writing is a mix of biography, history, fire ecology, and much more, all told in a poetic style that kept me reading long after bedtime.  His rich vocabulary adds seasoning to his words and makes the story literally sing in places.

Mr. Conners retraces changes in fire management policies of the U.S. Forest Service – or as he calls it more than once, the Forest Circus.  Not all his observations are kindly, but all seem to be right on the mark as he recounts political, economic, and cultural tensions that have shaped management of fire on public lands.  Although this is a story mainly of the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, he comments frequently on parallel stories within Interior’s National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.

He ties stories of fire and ecological management of forest lands into a web of recollections from his own life and experiences and the contributions to our natural heritage by his predecessors in the forests – particularly giants like Aldo Leopold, Gifford Pinchot, Norman Maclean, and John Muir. 

Mr. Conners was an avid reader of writings by other fire lookout/writers, such as Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Edward Abbey, and he sprinkles his book with tidbits of their prose.

This is a journal from a lonely mountaintop where its sole inhabitant not only watches for smoke, but also observes and rejoices in life all around him.  A mountaintop distant from the nearest road that he shared only with his dog, Alice, occasional visits from his wife, and packers who haul supplies to him, and infrequent hikers along the forest’s trails.

This reader found his acidic commentary regarding our government’s management of our resources particularly entertaining.  One example comes as he recounts part of a summer when he found himself reassigned from the lookout to rebuilding a section of fence around a grazing allotment:

“The job was not only the worst kind of grunt work, it was counterproductive: cutting down old barbed wire, rolling it up, pounding new fence posts, stringing and stretching new wire – all in rocky, steep, undulating mountain terrain so a rancher could resume running cattle on the public domain at below-market lease rates, his efforts subsidized by my mindless labor.  It’s one thing to rail against government farm subsidies; it’s quite another to suffer the humiliation of being the subsidy.”

Mr. Conners tells us of Aldo Leopold’s change of heart as he gained more experience and knowledge in his days of work in the Gila’s forests.  Days in which Leopold first joined in efforts to eradicate wolves and then came to realize the proper role of the Mexican gray wolf in the natural scheme of things. 

Mr. Conners also recounts efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce wolves into the Gila wilderness and opposition by ranchers with the following:

“The wolves’ tenuous toehold has been a symbolic blow to a ranching culture long buttressed by a sense of entitlement and a righteous nostalgia for a time when the national forests were carved into a series of private ranching fiefdoms and anything that stood in the way could be crushed by political power or simply shot on sight. 

"To the eyes of an outsider it verges on the tragic to see members of an iconic American livelihood reduced to curdled bitterness and benighted propaganda in their public statements, even if the iconography never did square with reality.  When you drive around the Gila you’re bound to encounter homemade placards warning you that wolves are on the prowl nearby, hungry for your pets and even your children, never mind that wolf attacks on humans are practically nonexistent in the historical record.” 

He continues: “Some modern cattlemen proudly proclaim their descent from the pioneers who settled the region in the face of renegade Apaches and cold-blooded criminals, while at the same time they complain to the local newspapers about the psychological trauma and sleepless nights they and their children suffer after hearing a wolf howl.  They’re either the toughest people on earth or the most timorous, depending on the proximity of Canis lupus baileyi.”

His wolf comments could very well be applied right now to efforts by the state of Wyoming to deal with wolf reintroduction around Yellowstone.

All in all, here’s an excellent book, an entertaining read, and a lot of food for thought.


It would be interesting for NP Traveler to ask some questions of John Wessels in IMR and Jon Jarvis about their recent decision to stop the removal of small plastic water bottles from Grand Canyon at the threat of Coke withdrawing donation from the NP foundation.  The park had spent a bunch of money to make the transition seamless and educational and safe. Jarvis and Wessels had originally approved the move but then were pressured by NPF.  Are the park policies up for highest bidder?

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