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The man from Alabama 

How Tyrone Kelley's roots influence his forest management

Photos by Heidi Walters

Laramie, Wyo., summer 1985. The bus shuddered along at a crawl and then stopped, brakes exhaling sharply — whshhhh . The driver pulled a lever, folding the door in with a thud, and stumped down the steps to the ground. A passenger, a black person, also got up and walked off the bus. And kept walking, away into that high-plains Western cowtown.

Now there was just one black person left on the bus, a college student on his first trip West. When the young man had got on the bus a whole day earlier in Tuskegee, Ala., to head across the country for a summer job with the Forest Service, the bus had been filled with black people. As the bus moved West, stop by stop all of those folks got off, and the white folks got on. The young man just sat there in wonder, watching that other guy disappear. “Why are you getting off in the middle of nowhere?” he silently asked him.

A day and a half later, of course, he was doing the same thing. The bus pulled into La Grande — propped in the high desert of northeast Oregon — and young Tyrone Kelley, son of tenant farmers from a small, rural black community, got off and walked for the first time into a small, rural white world — a setting that would become the nearly constant backdrop of the next 20 years or so of his life.

Not that he knew that, yet. It was summer. He had one more year to go at Tuskegee University for his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. And he had come West just to see something new and earn some money counting trees for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest’s silviculturist.

Orleans,*May 31, 2007.* The air inside the multipurpose room at Orleans Elementary School was stuffy and somebody had opened doors and windows to let the breeze in; outside, the early evening sun still held enough heat to soak the walls and earth, and a sunbaked spiciness mingled with the wet smell rising from the nearby Klamath River. A bright green canopy suffused with yellow light hung over the schoolgrounds, and the reclining hour was drawing out the birds. All around, the mountains — a densely packed diversity of alder, fir, madrone, maple and more — crowded close. Other than the birds and occasional passing cars, it was quiet — this far down Highway 96, on a weeknight, not much went on.

About 40 people had gathered inside, where sunlight slanting through windows and natural light from skylights illuminated walls covered in children’s paintings — mostly studies of birds, trees, mountains, rivers; things a kid would know best, growing up in this steep, green, isolated world. Several members of the Karuk Tribe were there. The rest of the faces were mostly some version of Caucasian transplant — aging back-to-the-landers, young farmers, loggers, foresters, retired and current Forest Service personnel, teachers, artists, environmentalists.

Standing in front of the group in a tan uniform, his brass name badge flashing as it caught the light, Six Rivers National Forest Supervisor Tyrone Kelley was explaining how his office was shifting its approach on the proposed, and highly contentious, Orleans Community Fuels Reduction Project. His office had submitted a plan for review that many conservation-oriented residents felt ignored suggestions they had offered during an intense year of round-table sessions. Fourteen miles of new roads, some through roadless old-growth reserves, 21 stream crossings, logging of 10 million board feet of timber, no limit to the diameter of that timber — this was exactly what they didn’t want. In his comments on the plan, Northcoast Environmental Center Director Greg King called the proposal “one of the heaviest applications of industrial logging ever proposed for a National Forest fuels project in California or Oregon ... .”

“We’re changing course,” Kelley said, “so we can get to a different point in the scoping process.”

They were going to now try to craft the plan together, under the authority of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. He said he and Orleans District Ranger Bill Rice would work collaboratively with the community — tribes, environmentalists, loggers, teachers, everyone — to come up with a plan they could all live with.

People fidgeted. A woman in a red dress asked, how could it be a collaboration if right off the bat the Forest Service was controlling the agenda? “This meeting was set up specifically to show how the collaboration process works,” Kelley replied, patiently.

The idea of getting to personally shape the project was nice. But under this HFRA process, the final plan was final — you couldn’t appeal the decision everyone had made together. And it was going to take a lot of daytime hours of actual field work — time many people with jobs couldn’t spare. So its shape would be defined by whoever was able to participate.

“I see the HFRA as a doorway we’re all walking through,” said Will Harling of the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council. “And once we’re through, we give up certain rights. And I’m trusting Tyrone here, who I just met tonight, to make a decision on what’s right.”

But it wasn’t really Kelley, said a woman, that this was about. “He seems like a lovely person,” she said. “And Bill [Rice, the district ranger], he’s amazing. But what we’re talking about is a collective agency, where Bill, he ceases to be ‘Bill, the wonderful person I sit next to at soccer games.’ Because there has been breached trust in the past by the Forest Service. Horrible things. And people are so gun-shy.”

The meeting continued. It grew productive, optimistic. But the question must’ve been on a number of people’s minds in that room: Collaboration or not, the ultimate decision-maker for the Six Rivers National Forest was Tyrone Kelley — would this new supervisor, just a year into the job, be able to restore the trust some people said had been broken for years? What sort of man was he? Who did he represent? Was he, as the NEC’s King suggests, “hired to get out the cut”?

It was partly youthful randomness, but mostly being in the woods, that hooked Tyrone Kelley into the Service.

Not that he’ll effuse about it. Though friendly and open — and thorough when answering questions — Kelley doesn’t offer up too much extraneous commentary. He rides his bicycle. Watches movies. Goes on walks. Wonders why there are so many homeless people here. Marvels at a place where people wear sweaters in the summer. And misses his friends and family back in Alabama.

Likewise, his office inside the Six Rivers National Forest headquarters in Eureka is spacious, uncluttered. On a small table sits an old Osborne Fire Finder, a handsome piece, round with a sepia topo map on its flat top and two thin arms with sighting apertures for eyeing a fire in the distance then plotting it on the map. It was surplus from a lookout; a ranger gave it to Kelley. There are a couple of chairs, a desk, some maps of the Six Rivers on the wall. Another table has an American flag folded into a triangular box on it. It was left behind by somebody who’d had the office before him.

And that’s pretty much it — as spare and clean as a backcountry campsite left in good order by the previous occupant.

Kelley has been here since last June, taking over from Jeff Walter, who left for Oregon to be the Ochoco National Forest’s supervisor. Kelley inherited a million-plus acres sandwiched between private and national park lands on the coast and the Trinities, and stretching 140 miles from the Oregon border to Mendocino County. Six Rivers National Forest is packed with trees of nearly every kind — pines, firs, cedars, tan oaks, madrones and more. Biologists call it a relic forest, a seedbank of the past. It has old-growth reserves, where the northern spotted owl lives, and plantations of same-age trees grown in after a timber harvest. It’s a forest famous for lightning strikes, and native tribes have long used fire to clear living space and promote basket-weaving grasses, so most of the species evolved under a regular fire regime. And, like other national forests where fire was mostly suppressed over the past hundred years, some areas of the Six are thick with overgrown brush, fire-intolerant plants and crowded, weedy tree stands. Clearcuts replaced by plantations haven’t helped matters.

Kelley got here just in time for a nasty fire season, by the end of which 27,959 acres of the Six had burned. But he knew all about these Western forests. He’d even served on some hand crews fighting fires, including one in Happy Camp. He’d been with the Forest Service for the past 20 years, mostly out West, mostly in California. The issues were familiar to him.

But still, it’s a little surprising to see him here — especially once you know that, after that summer job in La Grande back when he was in college, he’d pretty much had his fill of Western towns. Oh, the work had been wonderful — spending all day in the forest. La Grande, however, was a huge culture shock. “It was just so different, to come from a small black community, Tuskegee, and really small farms, and to go to a white cattle town — you know, where you had rodeos,” he says. “I had never been to a rodeo before — I had seen them on television. We didn’t have rodeos in Alabama. There weren’t a lot of horses in my community. There were cattle, but not cattle roundups — it was farms, and crops.”

Kelley, 48, grew up in a rural area called Creekstand, Ala., during the Civil Rights movement. His family lived on land whose owner lived elsewhere, and they paid the rent by raising seven to eight acres of cotton each year. Kelley and his eight siblings worked alongside their parents, picking cotton, plowing, tending the mules. “When I was a kid, we did everything by hand, and so we were out in the woods quite a bit, collecting firewood. And we grew all our vegetables. We grew 80 percent of the food we ate.”

Kelley was big enough to “really do some meaningful work” by the time he turned 8. But as the youngest of the nine children, he had certain privileges. “We used to trade days at school because we had to work the farm,” he says. “So, I would go to school three days a week, whereas my oldest brothers could only go two. ... When talking to people about it, especially people from out West — it’s so distant to them. People nowadays don’t realize there was still a whole generation, the last of the baby boomers, who were still part of that life.”

He doesn’t romanticize it. “I hated to work,” he says. “But I look back — I loved being with my brothers and sisters. And I was an outdoors kid. Living that life, as a child, and growing up during that time, and loving the outdoors, that’s what brought me to the Forest Service.”

And once he was in, he even dreamed that he might like to be Deputy Chief someday.

OK. But, the Forest Service ? In a speech delivered last August at a Forest Service forum called Blacks in Government, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth noted that African-American employment in the agency had declined in the past four years. But it’s been low for decades, anyway. “African Americans make up more than 10 percent of the civilian labor force … but only 4 percent of the Forest Service,” Bosworth said. He added that “not nearly enough of the jobs” they hold “are on a line officer track.”

Which makes Kelley, as a supervisor with ambition to rise higher, a rarity. And there’s a reason blacks aren’t flocking to the agency.

“The Forest Service, it’s a hometown kind of agency,” Kelley says. “What you find is, the supervisors offices, they’re going to be in small towns like this; ranger districts are going to be in rural areas; and they’re in the West. And most of the African Americans live east. That means you’re going to be somewhat isolated. Some of the things that normally would be there for me — something, say, as simple as a haircut, it’s just not there. Food, churches. There’s no place to get grits. Those were big changes for me. And so you have to adjust to the culture that you’re living in. It goes back to that guy getting off the bus in Laramie — I was like, why is he doing that?

“And I keep going back to the rodeo — that was one of the big adjustments I had to make. I mean, that’s the main event in La Grande. ... The art to, not to just survive, but to like it and grow in that culture, is understanding what is fun about going to rodeo.”

After his summer job in La Grande was over, back in 1985, Kelley told the Forest Service folks he probably wouldn’t be back. But after he graduated, friends advised him not to hang around Tuskegee. He was divorced, his three kids were with their mother. He should do something. “So I called La Grande, they said yeah, and I said I’d be there in two weeks.” This time, he had a full-time position with the forest in the civil engineering department, building roads.

Here is where the attentive reader will sit up. An engineer, building roads in the forest.

“That’s about the time the owl issue was starting to heat up,” says Kelley. Road construction and density, timber harvests, clearcutting — these issues took hold. “But I was young, I didn’t pay much attention to that. And I was in roads — by the time it got to us, we were in the implementation phase. I read a lot of stuff that was coming out, but I kind of kept my head down and did my job.”

After La Grande, he went to San Dimas to work in the Forest Service’s Technology Development Center, where he tested fire-retardant chemicals and, in a different project, came to the Pacific Northwest for the first time to test a prototype truck tire whose pressure could be adjusted on the go, allowing for varying road conditions. He missed home, so eventually took a job back in Alabama at the Southern Research Station, developing instruments to collect data on forest harvest techniques. In 1995 he moved to national headquarters in D.C., where he worked on engineering budgets, drinking water issues, abandoned mine cleanup legislation, among other things. By 1999, he was back in California, as a staff officer on the Eldorado National Forest, on the west slope of the Sierra. Missing home again, in 2003 he transferred to the National Forests in Alabama. Then, in 2005, he moved back to California to be deputy forest supervisor in Tahoe. The supervisor left for another job, and suddenly Kelley was the acting supervisor. When a permanent supervisor was hired, he applied for the supervisor job at Six Rivers.

So, was he hired to “get out the cut”?

Kelley laughs — an open, boisterous sound. “There is some truth to that, actually, yeah, absolutely,” he says. “The way we like to approach the dialog is, there is work that needs to be done on the national forest as far as vegetation management, and some of that work can and should yield some commercial harvest.”


He laughs again, says, “Me being from a small farm, rather than us always asking, ‘Say, just give us money’ — that wood’s valuable. We’re still looking to enhance the forest. You know, forest health. We’re looking to do those projects that are habitat enhancement — for the owl, and for the marbled murrelet (which we don’t have much of). Not to mention the fuel reduction work, for fire. And some of those can yield some commercial product. And that commercial product can offset the cost of doing that work. And so those are very reasonable things for us to look at. Because, one of the things we struggle with is the budget. It is going down. Most of it is going into fire protection.

“One of things I see that’s kind of eye-opening to me is, when I talk to folks — the mission of caring for the land and serving people, everyone seems to be pretty much in tune with that. But we can’t agree on how to get it done.”

In the past year, Kelley has met with a number of environmentalists. It’s part of being the supervisor. One of them is Scott Greacen, with the Environmental Protection Information Center. He says that, on a personal level, he can sympathize with Kelley. “I was the only white kid in my Kindergarten class in D.C.,” he says. “I’m always aware of how lily white we are up here. It’s something that’s pained me about the Northwest. “

Professionally — talking forests — Greacen is skeptical. Greacen serves on a public advisory committee created under the Northwest Forest Plan, which provides guidelines for forest management on 20 million acres. The Bush administration, he says, has been systematically trying to unravel the NW Forest Plan. One example is a shift in interpreting the term “PSQ” — “probable sale quantity” of timber on a forest. Under the Clinton administration, PSQ was a target number, a ceiling not to be exceeded. But, says Greacen, now the PSQ is a floor — that is, a sales quota to be met.

“This dramatically increases the pressure on people like Tyrone,” says Greacen. And timber targets for the Six Rivers Forest have increased significantly since last year. “Tyrone’s being ratcheted between the demands that he produce more timber and the requirement that he follow the [environmental] laws. The problem with being a forest supervisor [now] is, do you keep your head down and be a company guy? Or do you show some leaders hip and lose your job?”

Greacen suspects Kelley “is the first kind of guy,” and adds that the supervisor’s experience with the Southeastern landscape — mostly flat, completely modified — “is not particularly useful, and may be even counterproductive. He’s schooled in viewing the forest as a crop. The problem is: having a road engineer who doesn’t understand old growth forests and maybe doesn’t even believe in them.”

Kelley says he may have some personal qualms about certain aspects of the Bush administration. But he isn’t daunted by direction he’s receiving from his higher-ups in the Forest Service. “My job is to understand what the administration is directing me to do, and make sure I try to listen carefully to the public and understand how to get that direction onto the ground — and do it in an environmentally friendly way. Just because I’m being directed to do the work doesn’t mean I have to go out and tear up the ground. I don’t believe that at all.”

It may sound like just talk. But Kelley seems sincere. And even Greacen says he actually feels “guardedly optimistic” that the supervisor and his staff are listening now on the Orleans Community Fuels Reduction Project.

And Sandi Tripp, director of natural resources for the Karuk Tribe, and who was at the May 31 meeting in Orleans, says the tribe’s relationship with the Forest has actually improved since Ranger Bill Rice, and later Kelley, came on board.

Orleans*, May 31* . The meeting was nearly over, and community member Ben Riggan was chatting with Forest Supervisor Kelley. “You could have done a better job” earlier on in shaping the project, Riggan told Kelley, nicely.

“I agree with you,” said Kelley, “we could’ve done a better job.”

And then — the meeting attendees having agreed to get together again to define the collaborative process, and having signed up to go into different sections of the forest to look at what work needed to be done — Kelley stood up. “Thanks a whole lot,” he said. “I enjoyed the conversation tonight. I look forward to more like it. I’m not afraid of controversy; all I ask is we be respectful to each other.”

After everyone left, Kelley helped take down the big maps of the forest they had set up, dismantled the easels and carried an armload out to the Forest Service vehicle he and several staffers had come up from Eureka in. Walking back toward the school entrance, he passed someone leaving and said exuberantly, smiling, “Well, did you have fun? I sure did!”

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About The Author

Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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