Here's a funny story, Merv George Jr. says, leaning slightly forward in his chair and smiling. It's mid-August, George is just a couple weeks into his new role as the 13th supervisor of the Six Rivers National Forest, and his new office — the bigger one that his predecessor Tyrone Kelley just vacated to accept a new post in the regional office — isn't ready yet. So we're sitting in the office George has used as deputy supervisor for the past three years. The walls and shelves are still photo-bedecked: family, race boat, colleagues, events. George is looking relaxed in a patterned short-sleeved golf shirt and business slacks.
"I'll tell you a funny story if you want to listen to it," he says again. "You want to hear it?"
Back when he was chair of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, George says, he went to the White House for a conference on economic empowerment zones. About 10 tribal chairs and 40 mayors were at the deal, and at one point they were all waiting in a large room for Vice President Al Gore to show up and give a speech. George was chatting with Jerry Brown, who was sitting next to him — this was 1998, and Brown was mayor-elect of Oakland. George was saying it must be challenging to govern the city. Brown was saying he knew where Hoopa was and marveling at George's youth; George was 25, and the year before he'd become the youngest person ever elected tribal chair in Hoopa.
"Then all of a sudden there was all of this pomp and circumstance and a 'Ladies and gentlemen, the Vice President of the United States!' and the doors swing open and here comes Al Gore," recalls George, his face alight with humor. "And he was just like the quarterback from Yale, the big man on campus. And as he goes around from table to table, he's actually — I mean he's a handshake bully! He's grabbing people and he's just jerking them around and, 'How you doing! I'm Al Gore!' And I want to say the average age of the people in this room was probably 60. And so I'm sitting here next to Jerry Brown, and he elbows me and goes, 'Hey, you're a young, strong dude. Don't let him jerk you around.'"
Finally Gore was at George's table. "And I know what he's going to do," George says. "He had it in his eye. He'd raised his elbow and he was coming in for the shark attack. So I gripped him good and I nailed him, I nailed him hard — because I could hear his knuckles popping in my hand — Pop! Pop! — and I'm saying, 'Hi, Mr. Gore, my name is Merv George and I'm the tribal chair of Hoopa.' ... After he left, Jerry's like, 'Man, you got him!'"
Brown took a photograph of it; the picture's hanging on George's wall, right underneath the one of him shaking President Clinton's hand later that same day.
"I remember that he had the perfect handshake," George says of Clinton. "It was not too firm, but it was not too wussy. It was not too hot, and it was not too cold. It was almost like he had this thing mastered. And when he shook your hand and greeted you, he gave you the feeling like he was your first math teacher that you really took a liking to and you just hadn't seen him in a long time. He made you feel like that."
George seems to monitor himself that way. He's not a tall guy, and a warm smile comes readily to his youthful, round face. But he's broad and muscular; in 2012, he bench-pressed 465 pounds, and now, despite injuries, he tries to maintain his ability to press at least 400 pounds. He could be very intimidating if he wanted. And yet when he greets you for the first time — and if you're not Al Gore or some other handshake bully — he grips your hand lightly but firmly as he looks straight into your eyes.
It's the No. 1 rule of good business relations, mastering that handshake. In a metaphorical way, George also has been mastering the handshake between the two halves of his world — the tribal world of his family and ancestors and the non-tribal world in which he spent his schooldays — ever since he was a little kid at Lafayette Elementary School in Eureka trying to explain ceremonial Hupa regalia and dances to his classmates.
Connecting, forging bonds among disparate leanings, communicating well — these are the skills upon which the now 41-year-old George thrives, and which he plans to employ generously in his new role as head of the Six Rivers National Forest.
It's an important moment in the Six Rivers' history. George is the first Native American to be appointed forest supervisor of any of the 18 national forests in the agency's Pacific Southwest Region (which covers California and the Pacific Islands). He's the first local — with roots going back thousands of years, no less — to run the Six Rivers. And, countering the accepted agency tradition in which employees bounce around, gathering important posts for their resumes, George plans to stick around. This is his home.
The 957,590-acre Six Rivers National Forest encompasses some of the wildest, most rugged, mountainous land in California's Pacific Northwest. It stretches long and narrow from the Mendocino County border with Humboldt north 140 miles to Oregon, taking in portions of six rivers — the Eel, Van Duzen, Mad, Trinity, Klamath and Smith — and landscapes rising from near sea level up to almost 7,000 feet. The Six Rivers also manages the adjacent Klamath National Forest's Ukonom Ranger District, which means the supervisor of the Six Rivers actually oversees more than 1 million acres.
Six Rivers has wild and scenic rivers and endangered species, forests and grasslands, timber and grazing lands, recreational areas and wilderness. Nine percent of California's fresh water comes from the Six Rivers' 1,500 miles of streams. The region also enfolds numerous small communities, and overlays the territories of tribes whose people have lived there for thousands of years.
Merv George Jr. descends from several of these local tribes. He's a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, and his father, Merv George Sr., is the tribe's ceremonial leader for the white deerskin dance and jump dance. George Jr. makes ceremonial regalia and helps lead ceremonies. His wife, Wendy George, who is Karuk and Hupa, is vice chair of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. Her parents are ceremonial dance leaders for the Karuk Tribe. She weaves baskets and makes ceremonial dresses (she and her husband both have studied their ancestors' regalia in museums, including the Smithsonian). The Georges live in Hoopa and have three girls and one boy.
But George grew up in Eureka. Before he was born, his dad got laid off from a mill in Hoopa and took a maintenance job with the Eureka Public Works Department, where he worked for the next 30 years. George was born in Eureka and attended city schools. He loved math, football and track (as a Eureka High junior he became the county's 100-meter champion) and student government (being "in the throes of the decision-making process" thrilled him). He also played piano and drums and, at 16, started playing with his dad's rock 'n' roll band, the Merv George Band (he's still the band's main drummer).
Every weekend, holiday and summer, however, George was in Hoopa with his relatives. There, like all the males in his family, he got into hydroplane and jet boat racing on the Trinity River (twice he's been a U.S. champion). And he learned his tribe's religious traditions.
"My earliest memories were learning from my elders and being taught the lessons of what our dances mean and what our religious beliefs are," he says. "So I knew I was very different from the get-go. You know, these things were not what all my buddies in Eureka were doing. They weren't participating in jump dance ceremonies or white deerskin dance ceremonies."
It wasn't always easy, he says. He remembers distinctly how, during a homecoming, one of Eureka High's classes hung a dummy of an Indian from its float. He asked them to take it down; they told him he was overreacting and that it just represented the Del Norte High School Warriors' mascot. Even some of his best friends couldn't understand why it bothered him, he says.
"I remember thinking, 'Man, that's not right.'"
But instead of letting the duality of his upbringing get him down, he says it made him realize something important about himself: He enjoyed being an ambassador.
"Because it really made me uncomfortable to be so different from someone else," he says. "And you can do either one of two things: You can hide from that diversity of thought and shy away from it. Or you can just hit it head on and use it as an educational opportunity."
He says traveling around with his dad's band, playing all sorts of venues — the Ingomar Club, the casinos, the Elks Club, the rodeo — reinforced the idea that he was meant to bring people together.
"I talk to people," he explains, adding with laughter, "I'll talk your ear off if I sit next to you on the airplane; I'm the annoying person. And at break time or before and after the gigs, you get to hear what's important to people. You get a pretty good sense of what the politics and the issues are locally."
After high school, he started refereeing youth sports. And he signed up at Humboldt State University, where he thought he'd study engineering. He was good with numbers and problem solving. But it wasn't social enough, and he struggled to get Bs. He was getting straight As in his Native American studies classes, though, and when the university created a bachelor's program in that field he went for it.
He learned tribal history and tribal law, and soon took an interest in his own tribe's politics. At the age of 22, while still in college, George ran for a seat on the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council and won. He was the youngest council member the tribe had ever elected. Two years later, at 24, he became its youngest tribal chair.
George admits he's a competitive person. In high school, an HSU football coach came to watch him play and agreed he was fast, but too small to play at Humboldt.
"So all that did was it committed me to a weight room," he says. Three years later, he walked into HSU's weightlifting gym where the football players were hanging out and told the strength-training coach he could beat the record in the 185-pound weight class. George was in his street clothes — Levi's and a white T-shirt. The coach sized him up with a "really, now?" and said go ahead.
"And of course I'd been lifting at home, so I kind of brought this rez strength kind of thing into this Forbes [Physical Education] Complex," George says. He broke the record for his weight class, bench-pressing 360 pounds. "The coach is like, 'Who are you, where have you been, why aren't you playing football, and can you run?'"
He got to play. "And so it was a mental thing," he says. "Tell me I can't do something and I'll figure out a way to do it."
George is driven to succeed, it's apparent. Even so, says his wife, Wendy, he always puts his family first, coaching the kids' softball, football and wrestling teams, and never missing any of their events or birthdays.
This caring for others, combined with ambition, make him a natural leader, she says.
"It's his comfort zone," she says. "We both thrive off of fixing things — creating policy and following rules and making rules that help programs and departments run more efficiently, and working with people to implement those plans."
Leaf Hillman, 50, is director of natural resources for the Karuk Tribe and has known George all his life. The Karuk, Hoopa Valley and Yurok tribes share a number of traditions and their religious ceremonies often intersect. Hillman's family owns the rights to the Karuk's white deerskin dance; George's father is the Hoopa Valley Tribe's head ceremonial leader. And they've worked together on fish, river and fire management issues. George was executive director of the non-profit Klamath River Intertribal Fish and Water Commission for almost nine years (after his four-year term on the tribal council), and Hillman represented the Karuk Tribe on the commission. And George was executive director of another non-profit, the California Indian Forest and Fire Management Council, and later became deputy forest supervisor just as the Karuk and Forest Service were wrangling over a collaboratively hatched Orleans fuel-reduction plan that went awry.
"He's an easy guy to get along with," Hillman says. "He's easy to like, a lighthearted guy, open, honest, with good people skills and good management. ... He doesn't hold grudges."
Former Six Rivers Supervisor Kelley agrees, and adds that George "can also separate the things he likes from what the community needs."
He's also methodical, says Kelley. He makes checklists and works through them. He organizes his emails into folders. And his home files are as tidy as his office ones. Want to know where a Pacific Gas and Electric bill from 1995 is? He can find it in a snap. His zeal for organization, says his wife, is one of his best qualities.
"Right down to his socks being perfectly matched up," she says. "And that's what makes him very successful. He returns phone calls and he doesn't leave anybody hanging. He's never late on a bill; his credit's perfect."
"I take that really seriously," George says about his credit rating, laughing. "If I'm not up there close to 800 or so, I get really nervous."
He's like his mother that way: Laura Lee George, who has an MBA from Humboldt State, works in the university's Native American program and was superintendent of the Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District.
George is a bit of an anomaly in the Forest Service, apparently. According to studies, he says, the agency is populated overwhelmingly with people who are self-identified as being on the quiet side and like their office to "be out in the woods somewhere, or near a creek, near a lake."
George recalls the time he and Kelley took personality tests as part of a supervisor-deputy leadership training.
"Tyrone was off the charts introvert, and I was off the charts extrovert," George says, laughing heartily.
But they worked, and got along, well together. George sold Kelley his Harley, and Kelley watched George's son play ball. Curiously, Kelley says, in meetings he was the one who "was quick to go in and establish our position," whereas George would listen more. "You'd expect the reverse from an introvert and an extrovert," Kelley says. He attributes his confidence to his many years of Forest Service leadership.
George's Forest Service career has zoomed like a jet boat, putting him at the top of the Six Rivers in just six years. He started with the agency in 2008, at a whopping GS-13 pay level ("GS" stands for "general schedule," and the higher the number, the higher the pay). It's typical for a person with a bachelor's degree and some experience to start at the Forest Service around GS-7; it's not uncommon for a person with a Ph.D. to start at GS-11.
His first position was the Pacific Southwest Region's tribal relations program manager, where he was the liaison between 210 tribes and the supervisors and resource managers of 18 national forests. In 2011, he became the deputy forest supervisor for the Six Rivers National Forest. And for a brief stint this year he filled in as temporary supervisor on the Lassen National Forest.
Is he ready now to lead the Six Rivers?
Absolutely, says Kelley. Among the biggest challenges facing the Six Rivers is managing an overly fuel-loaded forest where catastrophic wildfires are a constant threat. When George joined the Forest Service, the agency was just starting to shift its fire management policy away from wildfire suppression and toward ecological restoration. In conjunction, the agency began opening its arms to collaboration with other agencies and community and private partners. One example is the recent formation of the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership, a private-public group working to restore a million acres of historically fire-adapted (but long-suppressed) lands.
"I think [George] is the perfect person to continue that dialogue because of his outgoing personality and how he really can develop and maintain relationships," Kelley says. "And, he knows the issues very well — salmon, spotted owl, landscape types. Even if he wasn't a tribal member, he'd be the right person."
But his tribal connections help. Hillman, with the Karuk Tribe, most of whose territory is overseen by the Six Rivers, says George can see through modern politics to focus on the traditions local tribes hold in common. Tribal mistrust of the Forest Service runs deep, Hillman says, going back to the early days when the agency first banned many traditional and ceremonial practices, including the use of fire to improve crops and hunting grounds. The agency has only recently, slowly, begun allowing those practices.
"It helps that we can [look at George] and say, this guy isn't going anywhere," Hillman says. "I know where he lives. He's got a family here. And he's going to be here a long time."
George and his family moved away once, spending three years in Vallejo for his tribal relations job at the regional office. He loved the job, but they all missed home. Now he plans to grow old here.
And he believes in the Forest Service's mission of "serving the greatest good for the greatest number of people over the greatest amount of time." He thinks it can do that in sync with tribes, rather than in opposition.
"We're a conservation-minded organization," he says. "So we save things to use things. Which falls right in line with what tribes have done."
George learned at an early age about the tensions between tribes and the Forest Service. In Hoopa, he'd hear people complaining about how the Forest Service wouldn't let them do traditional burns, or use their sacred sites. Back in Eureka, he'd pepper his youth football coach, Tony Montana, with questions. Montana was the only guy George knew then who worked for the Forest Service.
"I'd ask him, or his son, Nick, nonchalantly, 'What is the Forest Service?'" George recalls. "And Tony helped give me a more balanced approach. ... What I think the future needs is a blend of current best management practices and modern science and laws, combined with some traditional ecological knowledge."
He's looking forward to tackling that. And his main approach will be to improve communication. For starters, he plans to hold a series of meet-and-greets in the communities of the Six Rivers. This will encourage his staff, many of them those "quiet types," to interact more, as well as inform residents about the Six Rivers — about its many creeks and rivers, its campgrounds, its roads and wildlife.
"I want to become better neighbors," George says. "I want to include more of our public in decision-making."
Hearing all of this — George's success at virtually every endeavor, his rise through the Forest Service and his brash confidence — a person might wonder if maybe he is a little full of himself. But he likes to point out the things that have humbled him, too. He's hurt someone he loves. He saw two close cousins die in boat-racing accidents. And he's had three near-death experiences: a burst appendix at 14; a boat-racing crash under the Trinity River Bridge in Hoopa at 22; and almost blowing his own head off at 26 when he tripped while hunting. These, he says, taught him "what matters."
"People matter," he says. "Feelings matter. Things that you work on to give back to others matter. Helping others. Leaving something better than when you found it. Sharing, that matters. Taking care of things and not taking them for granted matters. Family matters. Pride — pride really matters. Pain matters, and what you do with that pain."