Blaine Cook is retiring from the United States Forest Service after 43 years of service. It's quite an accomplishment.
Forest planning would begin in 1980, just four years after Blaine arrived at his first job, fresh from forestry school. Leadership punched his ticket, and he was on his way to a great career in government with a beloved agency.
The Vietnam war was ending. People were working to find a new relationship with the government. The Forest Service commanded respect across the West as the premier firefighting agency, a robust timber producer like its neighboring private forest lands, and the seat of a sober and steadfast workforce dedicated to the public good.It was a good fit for an enlightened and dedicated young man who wanted to make a difference.
Blaine would rise to become a central figure in timber management and forest policy in the Black Hills for the past 20 years. Blaine Cook was the quintessential forester, a dedicated public servant who worked to understand the past so he could anticipate the future.
Behind Blaine's desk in the forest supervisor's office in Custer is a library with well-worn books, publications and photographs of the Black Hills National Forest back to 1891. The pages of each are familiar to Blaine, a sort of forest management Bible memorializing those who went before, a series of benchmarks and beacons about what happened, what worked, and what didn't.
Blaine would work with Ken Marchand in geographic information systems to build visual displays so others could have a shared understanding about what past management looked like and what we might do today to either embrace past practices or avoid them.
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Part historian and part prophet, Blaine worked to foresee outcomes of management and how we might best face an uncertain future while providing renewable resources for the present and future. The mid-70s were the end of an era, the end of horses as our culturally preferred mode of transport, the end of the old hand-cranked telephones for communications, and the end of the dominance of the forester as the principal expert in forest management.
When Blaine started working for the Forest Service, the ubiquitous yellow Nomex fire shirts were not in wide use. There were few fire shelters and most firefighters saw shelters as a sign of weakness to be avoided and scorned. The annual wildfire fighting budget was 15 percent of the Agency's total budget.
The Forest Service stood at the top of a mountain of timber cutting, a drafty height that would rapidly dwindle from 12 billion board feet per year in 1977 to 2 billion feet in 2018. It was the best of times and the worst of time for natural resources management. Forest officers still enjoyed much discretion in making decisions, but that discretion would come under increasing scrutiny.
The American public, long used to letting foresters manage the forests, developed a new and often inconvenient interest in managing natural resources by plebiscite. Blaine's world moved from the quiet surety of professionals getting on with the slow methodical work of growing trees to a new and noisy circus of competing interests, all clamoring for attention from the stewards of an increasingly scarce resource.
Blaine did his best to understand, to convince, to persuade, and to lead responsible timber management in the brave new world, and he enjoyed lots of success. We'll remember Blaine's earnest determination to do the right things, to inform himself about the past, to help us understand what went before and what would likely come next. Well done by a good and faithful servant. Have a great retirement.