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A Good Life Writing After Years In The Forest Service

Naturalist-Essayist-Novelist Susan Marsh Found Her Second Wind After She Left The Forest Service

Susan Marsh moved to Jackson Hole from Bozeman during a fateful year—1988—when around 700,000 acres were touched by wildfire in Yellowstone National Park. That same summer, the place of her new assignment, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, was dealing with the giant Mink Creek blaze. 

Marsh, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service, now retired, had worked on the Gallatin National Forest, and developed an expertise in leading recreation and wilderness programs.

For years, she has been a naturalist putting her insights into award-winning books. They include War Creek, A Hunger for High Country, Cache Creek: A Trailside Guide to Jackson Hole’s Backyard Wilderness and Saving Wyoming’s Hoback, winner of the 2016-17 Wallace Stegner Prize in Environmental Humanities.

Mountain Journal welcomes Marsh into the fold of columnists.

MOUNTAIN JOURNAL: Tell us about your career with the Forest Service. What appealed to you about civil service, what did you learn that you were unprepared for, and what worries do you have about the agency going forward?

SUSAN MARSH:  Having grown up in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, I had a natural affinity to forests. In college I was drawn to natural sciences, and on weekends we would high-tail it for Mt. Baker or somewhere nearby for marathon hikes and climbs. I knew I wanted to work outdoors, but my geology degree would only offer employment in the mineral extraction industry, which felt like a betrayal to the places I loved. I tried my hand at private practice after earning my masters of landscape architecture, but designing courtyards for people whose only interest was in “making the place look like someone cared about it” was less than inspiring. I loved wilderness and wanted to work toward its stewardship, and the US Forest Service has more wilderness than any other land management agency.

MOJO: How did your thinking evolve?

MARSH: I wasn’t prepared for much of anything as someone in my late 20s right out of graduate school, but I learned that forest planning was an ever-changing yet hidebound process that bore little relation to the interdisciplinary planning exercises I had done in college. There were rules and processes for everything, and at the time I began with the Forest Service full time in 1980, few women professionals. I learned about discrimination and exclusion, yet the forest was always there for my solace. I also learned—slowly—how to have a small influence in the pursuit of conservation.

MOJO:  What concerns you about the future of the Forest Service in these highly charged political times with fewer resource positions being funded and a huge percentage of the agency’s budget getting funneled into paying for the costs of firefighting?

MARSH: My main worries about the agency going forward are many. I doubt the Forest Service will cease to exist anytime soon, but Americans spend less time than they once did in truly wild country, so I worry that we may no longer care about it the way we did fifty years ago.

I think the mission of the Forest Service and the laws that apply, especially the two-page Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960, spell out pretty clearly what the agency is meant to do. Yet more people are expecting more from these lands, and current pressures threaten long-standing legislation, including the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act.

If the large wild lands of Greater Yellowstone cannot be conserved for the future, what future will there be for rare plants and animals, resiliency to climate change, and a degree of wilderness that hints at what the earth once was?

MOJO: You've spent portions of your career on both sides of Greater Yellowstone—north and south. How is the community of Bozeman different from Jackson? 

MARSH: I think these two communities are more similar than different in many ways; both are sought-after destinations with natural amenities, surrounded by mountains and of about equal distance to Yellowstone.

Bozeman had a population of about 25,000 when I left there in 1988, and places like Three Forks, and even Gallatin Gateway, were out in the country. Big Sky was just a ski area, surrounded by public land. Downtown businesses were casual and welcoming and prices were reasonable. Much of this has changed. Jackson has changed in the same ways as well, but one factor distinguishes the two places in my mind: the amount of protected public land.
"The priceless public land is all around us, though it is increasingly hard to find parking at trailheads or quiet on trails. The question both communities face is how much growth is possible, and what kind, before we completely overrun what drew us to this region?"  —Susan Marsh
MOJO: Riff a little on that.

MARSH:  Most of Gallatin Valley is private, and the pressure for growth has resulted in endless sprawl as the last open land is gobbled up. People in our old neighborhood where the wells were 80 feet deep have had to deepen them twice because the additional residential subdivision of once open ranchlands nearby is drawing down the water table.

In contrast, most of Jackson Hole is within Grand Teton National Park or the National Elk Refuge, and the valley is surrounded by national forest. The lack of buildable private land has prevented the kind of sprawl seen in the Gallatin Valley, but has also contributed to skyrocketing prices for housing.

MOJO: What kinds of conversations are you having with friends in both communities about change?

MARSH: My friends in Bozeman who have lived there for a long time say you can still find community there. My friends in Jackson Hole who have lived here for decades are all talking about leaving. Some have slipped over the hill to Teton Valley or out of the area altogether.

Most feel that the community is changing with the influx of great wealth and the pressure to build more and more high-end hotels where neighborhoods once stood. Property taxes are soaring, noise and congestion has greatly increased, and people say this is simply not the place it used to be.

There’s still a lot to like about the community here—for such a small population it rivals Bozeman in terms of opportunities for music, entertainment, and activities. The priceless public land is all around us, though it is increasingly hard to find parking at trailheads or quiet on trails. The question both communities face is how much growth is possible, and what kind, before we completely overrun what drew us to this region?

MOJO: Who are your naturalist writing heroes, and why?

MARSH: I am drawn to writers who go beyond the journalistic/scientific layers of nature writing. I don’t have space to name them all but I must include as heroes my late friend Ellen Meloy, a lover of the rivers and deserts of southern Utah, and an eloquent and insightful essayist. Also David James Duncan, whose every word inspires me. He’s also a very nice person. Both of these writers have dug deeper than the surface beauty of the natural world to explore it in terms of human nature and our absolute need for the wild. And I return often to the works of Wallace Stegner and Ivan Doig for their honesty and love of the West.

MOJO: Fiction or non-fiction: you've won plaudits for both. Which form of storytelling do you prefer?  Which has greater impact?

MARSH: I like the essay form, in which I can explore many aspects to a subject and include my personal reactions in a way that places me in the position of a character, as in fiction. But I struggle with a recurring little voice that asks Who cares? What makes you think your story matters? etc. It’s the writer’s curse, I think. I greatly admire those essayists who can tie many threads together into a cohesive whole, and whose intense love of place comes through. Such works have a great impact on me.

As for fiction, I like getting into the heads of imaginary people until they become almost real. I love the process of writing fiction but it is also the hardest thing I have ever done. I must temporarily but completely abandon my life in favor of those of my characters. I can pick up and drop an essay as daily chores call, and get right back to it. Not so with fiction. I don’t know which has greater impact. I can be moved and changed by either form.

Saving Wyoming's Hoback, a book that Susan Marsh wrote with co-author Florence Shepard
Saving Wyoming's Hoback, a book that Susan Marsh wrote with co-author Florence Shepard
: In Saving Wyoming's Hoback, your new book with Florence Shepard, you tell the story of how the Hoback was protected from oil and gas development thanks to diverse interests coming together and making the case for protection.  Here's a question because it's much on the minds of many: how much of the effort was really the work of conservationists convincing politicians to do the right thing and how much of it involved political sympathies from Sen. John Barrasso, U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis and others following through on a promise to honor the late Sen. Craig Thomas' legacy?

MARSH: To answer the question of how much of the effort was due to conservationist influence and how much was via sympathy of the politicians, I would have to say both and neither.

Gary Amerine of Citizens Protecting the Wyoming Range said it best, comparing the efforts of many that came together like a perfect storm. There was a great deal of effort by conservationists, especially a few key people with savvy for organizing. Also much effort by local residents unaffiliated with any organization—ranchers, union workers, schoolteachers, outfitters, sportsmen—and these are the kinds of people Wyoming politicians listen to.

If it had just been a national environmental group leading the effort, they would have been dismissed as outsiders and greenies. The national groups did get involved, but not at center stage.

MOJO: So what made the difference?

MARSH: Governor Dave Freudenthal was very much concerned about the pace and extent of energy development in the upper Green River and was very critical of Forest Service leasing policies in the Wyoming Range. I don’t think anyone had to convince him. Also some state senators like Grant Larson of Jackson. It helped to have politicians who were already on board, and others came along as more people talked to them, including Craig Thomas. I’m not sure that it was the conservation interests who convinced him to do the right thing as much as his own opinion after seeing the area that the Forest Service was opening to energy development. And his discussions with local people.
"Governor Dave Fruedenthal was very much concerned about the pace and extent of energy development in the upper Green River and was very critical of Forest Service leasing policies in the Wyoming Range."  —Marsh
MOJO: The Forest Service was roundly criticized for issuing leases when it really had no idea of what the cumulative effects on the landscape might be, especially if exploration moved into full-field development. Had normal political forces prevailed, would protection have happened?

MARSH: It mattered to Senator Thomas that local residents of many walks of life were behind saving the Wyoming Range, as well as the Snake River headwaters. Passage of the Wyoming Range and Snake River Headwaters Legacy Acts paved the way for a serious look at how to deal with existing leases within the boundaries of the protected areas.

Prior rights were not taken away by the legislation, but the conflict between its purpose and the potential development of those existing leases was obvious to all. The only way around this would be for someone to purchase development rights from the companies that held them, and in the case of the PXP leases in the Hoback, this is what happened. For this we have locals, philanthropists, organizations from labor unions to national wildlife and conservation groups, politicians, the Trust for Public Land and PXP Inc. to thank.

MOJO:  So it did really come down to something as simple as honoring the memory of the late Sen. Thomas and heeding the wishes of his widow, Susan?

MARSH: As for the political sympathies of the Wyoming Congressional delegation, I don’t have any real insight. When Sen. Thomas died, the state Republican Party offered the governor [Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat] three choices to serve out his term. From what I have read, Sen.  Barrasso was the only one of the three who promised to follow through with the legislation that Craig Thomas began, and thus he was appointed by Gov. Freudenthal.  In 2007, Senators Barrasso and Enzi co-sponsored the bill that was introduced in the Senate and eventually became part of a larger omnibus public lands bill signed in 2009. I do not know how Cynthia Lummis voted.

MOJO: Why does the Greater Yellowstone matter?

MARSH: How much time to you have? I’ll try to summarize why I think it matters, beyond my personal need for wild beautiful places. Many of us in the region think of it as one of the last intact temperate ecosystems on earth.  Two factors that seem to matter most are the nine million acres roadless public wildlands that support natural ecological processes and give the region the ability to adapt to changing conditions, climate being one. The other thing high on people’s minds is the range of native wildlife, including long-ranging carnivores that serve as keystone species for healthy, functioning ecosystems. 

We have one of the few remaining grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states, the largest elk herds in North America (assuming CWD doesn’t take over), the largest free-roaming bison herds in the country, the longest elk, pronghorn and moose migrations in North America, and the greatest concentration of bighorn sheep in the contiguous 48 states.

So many superlatives. It’s easy for us to list them, but it’s also worth remembering that these conditions have long been altered in the rest of North America and much of the world.  So when the crowds drive you nuts in the middle of a bison jam remember that most of these people have never seen one before. Imagine.
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