Wilderness Travels with a Scientist-Naturalist: A Review Essay

By James Lewis on March 11, 2016
Below is an extended version of a review of Jack Ward Thomas’s new set of books originally written for the Journal of Forestry by FHS historian Jamie Lewis. All three books were published in 2015 by the Boone and Crockett Club and each retails for $24.95.

Forks in the Trail: A Conservationist’s Trek to the Pinnacles of Natural Resource Leadership, foreword by Char Miller

Wilderness Journals: Wandering the High Lonesome, foreword by John Maclean

Hunting Around the World: Fair Chase Pursuits from Backcountry Wilderness to the Scottish Highlands, foreword by Robert Model


Jack Ward Thomas served as chief from 1994-1996. (FHS Photo)

Jack Ward Thomas served as Forest Service chief from 1993-1996. (FHS Photo)

“My idea of heaven would be to, simply, do it all over again.” Jack Ward Thomas, a wildlife biologist who concluded thirty years with the U.S. Forest Service by serving as chief from 1993 to 1996, closes the author’s acknowledgements at the end of each of his three books with that line. After reading the accounts of his career and hunting trips drawn from journals written over a sixty-five year period, I have little doubt about why he feels that way. I feel similarly about the books, in particular Forks in the Trail and Wilderness Journals in their entirety and parts of Hunting Around the World. When I finished, I wanted to read them again.

In all three, Thomas makes you feel as if you are there with him—and at times, that you want to be there with him—whether deep in the snow hunting elk or recording the day’s events in his journal by fire light. You sympathize over the loss of his first wife Meg and then his long-time hunting companion and mentor Bill Brown, the long-time regional director of the Northwest Region of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, who helped Thomas better understand the emotional and political values of wilderness areas. Thomas is open and honest about these losses and the impact of the ravages of time and hard work on his body and how it affects each new venture into the wilderness. (Older readers will be able to relate; younger ones should take heed!) Each book, in its own way, is an elegy to an outdoorsman’s life well lived and an ode to some beautiful places. Thomas has no regrets that he has hung up his gun because of age and infirmities; he has his memories to look back upon, and now so do we.

Each book is designed to stand alone, but I suggest reading Forks in the Trail first because it covers from childhood through his second retirement and provides the framework and background to better understand events in the other books. It is for all intents and purposes his memoir (which can be rounded out with Journals of a Forest Service Chief, published in 2004 by the Forest History Society). Forks in the Trail—Thomas’s phrase for turning points in his life—covers his childhood in Texas during the Great Depression to the “pinnacles of natural resource leadership”—his appointment as Forest Service chief and then his time as the Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Montana.

JWT_FitRStarting with Forks will introduce you to deepen the reader’s understanding of why his packhorse trips with Brown into “the High Lonesome” backcountry area—the Eagle Cap and Hells Canyon Wilderness Areas in eastern Oregon—that are the focus of much of Wilderness Journals brought him such joy and unleashed the naturalist-poet inside. Furthermore, in Forks Thomas helpfully explains and discusses the historical background or significance of a fork in the trail, such as a law or policy change, when necessary. The forewords and prefaces of Wilderness Journals and Hunting lack enough information or context for deeply understanding his heartfelt meditations on the beauty provided by federal natural resource management or the night sky in Alaska, or his distaste towards those who pay to hunt on game farms. The other two books supplement and complement Forks, and a few journal entries are split up between books depending on the topics. Each has entries several pages long, though they never feel like they are dragging on for several pages. Most all are a delight to read. Each book ends with an epilogue that offers his reflections on the journal entries and where he is now in his thought process.

JTW_WJWilderness Journals covers a narrow but pivotal time in Thomas’s life, from 1986 to 1999, when he found himself in thick of the northern spotted owl controversy and then reluctantly serving as Forest Service chief. The High Lonesome became a refuge from the pressures of work, a place to both recreate and “re-create” himself. On several occasions, he recorded the benefits of time spent in the wilderness. One in particular, written while he was chief, captures the feeling and offers a strong defense for maintaining protected wilderness areas, something Thomas strived to do while chief.

It seems a shame that now [the] most common meaning of the word is to “have fun.” The original meaning, the one that appeals most to me, was to create anew, to refresh strength and spirit. For me, there was no other “re-creational” experience that could match a retreat into the wilderness…. Having an experience that fosters re-creation of purpose, zeal, and faith is much more than simply having a good time. For people like me, it is a necessity. Without periodic re-creation, there is danger of diminished spirit, purpose, confidence, belief, and effectiveness.(188)

Wilderness Journals includes two appendices that are journal entries from his time as chief that don’t quite fit in with the main text but make nice additions. They were written around the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act of 1964. On two occasions he attempted to improve the agency’s wilderness management efforts by announcing his intention of turning the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness Area into a single management entity, complete with a supervisor of equal rank to a forest supervisor. He wanted to show that wilderness areas were equal to that of multiple-use landscapes. “Thwarted” by Idaho’s congressional delegation and possibly members of his own staff who perhaps didn’t want to lose power, he concluded, “It is well to remember that changes in the status quo will be resisted and that ‘turf wars’ are with us always.”(260)

JWT_HuntingHunting Around World covers from 1986 to his last hunting trip in 2004 in Scotland; the entries on Scotland are the highlight of this book as he waxes poetic about the breathtaking Highlands countryside and falls in love with it. (Bob Model, who contributes the book’s foreword, hosted Thomas on his Scotland trips.) As someone who had studied the ecology of elk for much of his career, Thomas was excited about observing Scotland’s red deer, a member of the same species but a different subspecies. The contrast between hunting styles and rituals is quite interesting—one dresses in a “shooting suit” of tweed and wool when going “a-stalking” in Scotland, for example, and traditionally carries a walking stick to help traverse the uneven terrain. He also hunted in Argentina, Alaska, and other places, and some entries are from his trips into the High Lonesome. So one learns a good deal about the different cultures and attitudes about hunting as seen through Thomas’s eyes. His entries about hunting on game farms and hunting preserves versus a fair chase pursuit offer much to think about on that subject.

Born in 1934, Thomas grew up on a farm in Handley, Texas, at the height of both the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, in a family where hunting was necessary to put meat on the family table. He learned how to ethically hunt and fish from his father, uncle, and grandfather, the last affectionately known as “Big Dad.” It was from Big Dad that Jack learned how to tell a story, which he does quite well. Just as importantly, he learned from Big Dad what “husbandry” meant: just as a husband cares for his wife and children, he told young Jack, it is the responsibility of all husbands, wives, and children to care for, or “husband,” the earth. This concept stuck with Jack, as did Big Dad’s observation that the Dust Bowl “was the inevitable result of inappropriate treatment of the land too long and too carelessly pursued.”(Forks, 5)

Young Jack would help Big Dad when he had clients out hunting quail on the family property. It was on one such excursion that Jack encountered his first fork in the trail, when he was accidently shot by a client but escaped injury because of the heavy winter clothing he was wearing. “When I told the story over the years to come, at the conclusion I was nearly always asked ‘What if?’ Likely many a fork in the trail would engender that question: ‘What if?’”(Forks, 16) What if he had been standing ten yards closer, or had not been looking down and avoided taking buckshot in the eye because of his hat? Thus began a series of “what if” incidents that changed his life: What if he did not have a football injury that led him to apply to Texas A&M and put him on a trail towards a career in wildlife management? What if he had not failed organic chemistry and decided as a result against becoming a veterinarian? Or if his temporary position with what was then known as the Texas Game Department (TGD) had not been converted to a permanent job while he waited for assignment to active military duty? Life is a series of turning points, or “forks in the trail,” and so Thomas shares some that changed his life, many of which he came to later recognize also as “teachable moments.” Other stories are amusing anecdotes that reveal the author’s ability to laugh at himself or illuminate a time, place, and culture now mostly gone.

Hunting elk in 1994 in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. (L-R) Rober Nelson, Director of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service; Thomas; and James Applegate, professor, Rutgers University (FHS Photo Collection)

Hunting elk in 1994 in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. (L-R) Robert Nelson, Director of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service; Thomas; and James Applegate, professor, Rutgers University (FHS Photo Collection)

The tone and stories found in Forks reminded me of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Written late in Maclean’s life, the semi-autobiographical essay “A River Runs Through It” is in part an elegy for his younger brother Paul. Punctuated with humor, Maclean tells of his struggle to understand and connect to his emotionally distant brother, a gifted fly-fisherman who was murdered at a young age under mysterious conditions, by reflecting and telling several episodes from their lives together. What the brothers had in common was a love of fly fishing, and much of this story centers on some of their times spent on the water in western Montana.

It’s these passages where I think Thomas and Maclean are kindred spirits, with Maclean writing meditatively about fishing (and life) and Thomas about hunting (and life). Thomas, for his part, is trying to better understand his friendship with Bill Brown as it’s changing due to Brown’s advancing age. (It’s probably not a coincidence that Norman’s son John, a respected nonfiction writer who wrote about the South Canyon Fire that occurred while Thomas was chief, penned the foreword to Wilderness Journals.) I don’t want to draw too close of a parallel between Thomas and the elder Maclean, but the other two stories in Maclean’s book, “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your pal, Jim’” and “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky,” are each about single episodes drawn from his experiences working, respectively, as a lumberjack and for the Forest Service while a teenager and are quite funny. Thomas has several journal entries like “‘Can I Shoot One Now?’” and “When the Game Goes Sour” in Forks that would fit nicely alongside Maclean’s in some sort of collection of humor and wilderness workplace experiences.

Taken in combination, this suite of books is Thomas’s A Sand County Almanac, too. Much like Aldo Leopold’s classic, Thomas’s journal entries in all three books slowly unveil the conservationist’s growth and evolution over a lifetime spent in service to the outdoors. And unlike the young Leopold in “Thinking Like a Mountain,” the young Thomas was never full of “trigger itch.” But he did have a great deal to learn about how the natural world worked and how humans fit into it (and how the “working” world functioned and how he should operate in it), and he does come to share Leopold’s respect and awe for both predator and prey. Towards the end of his hunting “career,” Thomas finds great (if not greater) contentment from being with friends and observing his surroundings. A good day of hunting sometimes is just a good day spent in the woods watching deer or elk go about their business or napping in the warm sun ruminating about nature, topped off with a cup of cowboy coffee and bit of whiskey. “There was, after all, more than one kind of trophy,” he writes in Hunting. “Sometimes trophies of memory are the most significant of all.”(62)

Ironically, Thomas had read Sand County when a senior at Texas A&M and dismissed it “as the esoteric, somewhat maudlin ramblings of some dead college professor.”(Forks, 105) Within two years, though, he was reading Leopold with reverence and applying the lessons about predators found in “Thinking Like a Mountain” while working as a wildlife biologist for the TGD. Thomas has said that he reads Sand County every year around his own birthday.

While working for TGD, he was also learning lessons from the first of his many mentors. Thomas credits Nolan Johnson with teaching him that, first, “wildlife management is mostly people management. Second, the most sensitive nerve in the human body runs between the heart and the pocketbook. Third, all things are political, and all politics are local. Fourth, everything is connected to everything else, and there is no free lunch…. The key to success was intertwining and balancing those four truths, always keeping the welfare and proper management of wildlife in mind.” (Forks, 36) Intertwining and balancing these truths proved extremely challenging for the young wildlife biologist working in a relatively new profession in a place that did not respect authority or college-educated “bugologist,” as one grizzled game warden jokingly called him. (Forks, 47) There are many lessons for young professionals to learn from Thomas’s experiences. Chief among them is that showing respect and deference can sometimes do more for your standing in the community than can your college degree.

In 1966, another fork in the trail appeared for Thomas. Faced with a growing family but a stagnant salary, Thomas took a position with the U.S. Forest Service as a research wildlife biologist at their Forestry Sciences Laboratory in West Virginia and then moved in 1969 to Amherst, Massachusetts, where he directed the nation’s first research unit focused on urban forestry and wildlife. He and his staff did groundbreaking research there, though Thomas only briefly discusses it before moving on to the next chapter of his life (and book) as director of the Range and Wildlife Habitat Laboratory in La Grande, Oregon. It was towards the end of his twenty years in Oregon that Thomas rose to national prominence because of the northern spotted owl controversy, which centered on dealing with the implications of the Endangered Species Act. The controversy was a trail fork for both Thomas and the agency that forever changed both; consequently, the trips to the High Lonesome took on greater importance for Thomas. Following his wife’s death not long after being named chief in 1996, the trips became bittersweet—they provide escape from his job but not necessarily from the memories of time spent there with her—and became more so as Bill Brown saw each trip as the end of his own trail.

In sum, Forks in the Trail is a well-written memoir, and it makes reading the other two that much more enjoyable and profitable if read first. Forks is the one that can be used in a variety of classes, from history to wildlife management. Wilderness Journals can deepen one’s appreciation for the restorative powers of wilderness on the human soul and why those areas need continued protection and management. Hunting Around the World helps the uninitiated understand the powerful draw of a skill and way of life some say is dying, and reminds us of why hunters have long been leaders in conservation.


Filed under: Historian’s Desk Tagged: conservation, hunting, Jack Ward Thomas, Oregon, recreation, U.S. Forest Service, Wilderness