While most of us were busy making plans for New Year's Eve, Bill Anthony was packing boxes and making plans for the rest of his life. Or, if he followed his wife's advice, Anthony was resisting the temptation to make plans.
Anthony officially retired from the U.S. Forest Service at the end of the year, ending a three-decade career that culminated with a 14-year stint as the district ranger for the Sisters area. His departure marks the end of one of the more notable, and in some ways unlikely, forestry careers that saw Anthony transform the way people think about forestry with pioneering consensus-based projects that turned critics into collaborators and allies.
"He took the changing mission of the Forest Service to heart and is probably one of the most innovative and creative district rangers that I've ever met," said Tim Lillebo, field organizer for Oregon Wild and a longtime forest activist in Central Oregon.
There's nothing traditional about Bill Anthony's path to a career in the Forest Service. An East Coaster whose own father quit his Forest Service job over a dispute with his bosses, Anthony didn't entertain the idea of entering a field that his father had left in disgust. That changed in the mid-1970s when Anthony, an MBA, was working a desk job in Washington, D.C. as an international marketing specialist. That's when he met a veteran Forest Service employee who was on sabbatical in the capitol. At his friend's urging, Anthony tossed aside his suit and tie and lit out for the West in search of a career that would align with his values.
Anthony sold his Volkswagen and bought a pick-up truck and drove to Utah where he started taking classes toward a recreation degree. Before he was done, he had a second master's degree, this one in forestry. The new career fit perfectly, says Anthony, who 30 years later says he is blessed to have found a career in the Forest Service.
"I believe a lot of people go through life without ever connecting what's in their head and their heart even though its only 15 inches space difference. And I feel like I did."
When Anthony arrived in Sisters in 1997 from Boulder, Colo. where he had served half a decade as the district ranger, the dust had largely settled from the Northwest forest wars and the spotted owl controversy. However, there was still a great amount of distrust among the environmental community and many locals questioned the Forest Service's motives as it related to timber management. Anthony quickly set about building bridges to the agency's former adversaries and engaging a skeptical public. Those efforts ultimately bore fruit in the form of the Metolius demonstration project, a large-scale restoration effort that thinned out crowded and unhealthy areas around the Metolius River that had become choked with second-generation undergrowth. The results can be seen today by anyone who drives along the road to Camp Sherman north of Hwy 26. Healthy and mature ponderosa stands dominate the area, creating a fire-resistant ecosystem that more closely resembles the conditions found 100 years ago around the Deschutes National Forest.
Other successful projects followed, including the Glaze Meadow restoration project with Lillebo's Oregon Wild. For Anthony the transformation is a point of pride.
"The landscape has changed significantly in the last 15 years, acre by acre. Instead of fighting us and not wanting us to do forest thinning, they say, "When are you going to thin around our place," and I feel really glad that I've been a part of that," Anthony says.
Last year, the district was recognized for its innovative work by the Forest Service, which gave Anthony and company the Chief's Award for Sustaining Forests. District ecologist Maret Pajutee who has worked in the office for two decades credits Anthony's leadership for the accomplishments that have distinguished the district. Pajutee, who describes Anthony as both affable and meticulous, said he motivated his employees to transcend the challenges of catastrophic fires, of which there were several, and declining revenues to do great work.
"A lot of the things we accomplished were sort of like, 'Why don't we try this.' A leader needs to be optimistic and he's sort of a case study of optimism," Pajutee said.
Anthony credits the success he and the district had in that regard to the deliberate efforts to enlist community input on the forest. Given Anthony's marketing background and his easy way with people, that approach came naturally. But in the late 1980s and to a certain extent the early 1990s, that was a new way of doing business for an agency with 100 years of near autonomy when it came to managing the nation's forest. It was a change that Anthony saw firsthand here and elsewhere around the country. It was on the Deschutes National Forest that Anthony first donned a Forest Service uniform as a temporary employee. It was 1979 and Anthony was part of the new wave of Forest Service employees who were emerging from colleges and universities with new and, in some ways, radical ideas about how to take care of our nation's forests. Those ideas included valuing forests for more than their timber production, something that had long served as the agency's barometer for success or failure.
It's probably fitting that Anthony's first job was helping to write the Deschutes National Forest's first Forest Plan, a long-range policy and planning document that is required under the then-new National Environmental Policy Act. The landmark act, which was signed into a law during the early 1970s by President Nixon was one of several pieces of key environmental legislation, including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act that changed the way businesses and government agencyies conducted business. It remains one of the cornerstones of the Forest Service's environmental policy. It has never been without controversy.
"That was a big change. Up to that point in time, from the creation of the agency in 1905 to then, the forester was used to deciding what he wanted, getting in the truck and going out and doing it. So this whole process of ... involving the public was a big, big change," Anthony said.
It was one that came about with more than a dose of consternation, particularly from the Forest Service's old guard. Many of whom had decades of experience under their belts and were accustomed to their way of doing things.
"This change was hard for the agency and it took probably 10 or 15 years for it to really infiltrate the culture of the leadership," Anthony said.
By the early 1990s, the old guard was moving out of the agency and the young generation, which included Anthony and his peers, was taking their positions in ranger stations and supervisors' offices around the country. But leadership wasn't the only change, transforming the agency. The shift in timber policy and the impact of global forest imports were radically changing the role of the Forest Service. The most immediate measure was a precipitous decline in timber output, which declined from roughly 250 million board feet in 1979 to under 50 million board feet this year, according to Anthony.
The drop in timber production has had a seismic impact on budgets at the agency, which has shed thousands of jobs over the past two decades. At the same time, the public's interest in recreation on the national forests has only increased. The agency's answer has been an increased reliance on outside contractors to help it accomplish the work it once did on its own. As a career Forest Service employee, Anthony hates the word privatization. But he is quick to acknowledge that nearly all of the campgrounds are now administered by contractors, such as Hoodoo Ski Area, which manages all of the campgrounds on Anthony's district.
For Anthony, whose office has shrunk from a staff of around 100 in the early 1980s to less than 50 today it's a sign of the times. And the belt tightening continues. This year, his office will see another 15 percent budget reduction. That means fewer bodies to do the work that many in the public want to see done- - from forest restoration, to fish passage and trail maintenance.
While there are plenty of recreation-related jobs better suited for the private sector, such as operating ski tours, Anthony laments the absence of the Forest Service on the front lines, particularly at the campgrounds where he believes the public wants to see a Forest Service uniform.
"It would be wonderful if we were able to do campgrounds and I think it's important for Forest Service people to be engaged with the public. And the more we do things through the private sector, the harder it is for us to stay engaged with the public. And that's the downside," Anthony said.
Reflecting on what it means to leave, Anthony said he would most miss the people he's worked with over the last decade-plus. But he will also miss the work that has helped to define who he is for the better part of his adult life. And it's clear that it's a bittersweet departure for Anthony who looks forward to traveling across Europe and South America with his wife, Tracey, while improving their Spanish and Italian. He's also looking to spend more time with friends, something that he hasn't done enough of over the years because of the demands of his career. Anthony said he and his wife have been casually tracing out a travel route across the United States that connects with all of their longtime friends. He's also looking to spend more time biking and fishing, two of his favorite hobbies. He's also hoping to rekindle a few interests that have fallen by the wayside, including playing guitar and woodworking.
He should have plenty of time to do all of it. He's promised his wife that he won't make big plans for at least year. But Anthony, a man whose active mind helped him collect two master's degrees before he settled on a career in forestry, intimates that he isn't done teaching and leading just yet. But what that will look like and when it will happen is anyone's guess.
"What I'm going to do is just relax, have some fun and see what emerges," Anthony said.