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(A series of three articles appeared in the Pathfinder, following
the first one below. The other two are printed below this first story which
sparked local interest in these well-regarded rangers)
Swan Valley upset with rangers' dismissals
Rangers resume work | All
About Kari & Joe
by Suzanne Vernon
Lack of funding for wilderness management has forced the Swan Lake Ranger
District to curtail wilderness ranger services in the Mission Mountains
this year, district ranger Churck Harris announced last Friday.
For the Pathfinder
April 18, 1996
Kari Gunderson & Joe Flood
At a meeting in Condon the ranger and local residents all expressed frustration
with the Forest Service budget process as Harris tried to explain why the
four-year contract awarded last year to local residents Kari Gunderson and
Joe Flood was not being renewed for the upcoming season. Harris also answered
questions about resource degradation, garbage and bear problems that may
occur as a result of the decision.
Gunderson and Flood received notice of the decision on April 5, less than
five weeks from their anticipated start date. The husband and wife team
has contracted with the Forest Service to open 45 miles of trails, pack
out garbage and monitor visitor use between May and December in the Mission
Mountains for the past 12 years. Their unique contract, valued at $24,000
this year, has been hailed by wilderness advocates as being the most cost
effective form of wilderness management in the country. Harris said that
funding for the wilderness ranger contract has often been in jeopardy, but
money was usually found at the last minute. The extra "dribblings"
of money didn't materialize this year, he said.
Harris lamented the fact that the District wilderness budget has been reduced.
"The Regional Office takes its cut. The Supervisor's Office takes its
cut. We get what's left over. What's left over gets to the ground. I feel
like I'm at the end of the food chain." The Bigfork Ranger District
received about $36,000 in wilderness funding this year, compared to more
than $50,000 received last year. Fixed costs (salaries for permanent employees,
vehicle and buildings expenses) are funded first. What's left over-about
$5,000-will be used to pay employees by the hour to open a few trails along
the Swan Front and in the Mission Mountains Wilderness and to clean some
of the campsites in backcountry areas.
"This budget thing is widespread," he said. In addition to cutting
the wildernes ranger contract, the District will not fund trail crews, recreation
or YCC crews at Condon. The Swan Lake Ranger District, on average, hires
between 20 and 30 seasonal employees on fire, trails and recreation crews
each summer. "This year we'll hire eight-maybe only 6-and four of them
will be on fire crews," Harris said.
People at Friday's meeting questioned why work "on the ground"
was the lowest financial priority in the budget. Harris said that despite
downsizing and budget cuts, the Flathead Forest still has high fixed costs
related to big timber budgets in the past. "We still have all the people
on board who were here 20 years ago," Harris said, even though the
forest is no longer cutting large volumes of timber. "When you have
certain fixed costs-permament employees who've worked 20 years-you can't
just release them," he explained. However, he said the agency is trying
to deal with the problem. The Flathead is being asked to cut 42 people by
1998. "It's hard to force people to move. People don't want to leave
the Flathead. That doesn't help the downsizing," he said.
"This is quite a tale of woe," said Ron Hummel, area businessman.
"But I see lots of self-employed people in this room. Lots of things
we have to do (when budgets are reduced) get done. If we have to do that,
you should, too. You ought to start downsizing from the top."
Others at the meeting agreed. "You guys seem . . . top heavy, and here
you're going to cut the most efficient part of your operation. It doesn't
add up," said Dan Stone, Condon. Stone shared a story about how he
and his family were on a hike one day, and they could hear Joe Flood up
ahead, cutting logs out of the trail. "We never did catch up to him,"
he said. "That's efficiency." District Ranger Harris agreed that
contracting private wilderness ranger services has been more efficient than
hiring people by the hour to accomplish the same tasks. "Whoever does
it (by the hour) will not be able to do the job Joe and Kari did in wilderness,"
Retired wilderness ranger, Cal Tassanari of Condon, agreed. "I don't
think you can replace a Gunderson-Flood," he said. "I don't think
the Forest Service is capable of getting that job done."
"Maybe we don't need the Forest Service anymore. Chuck says its inefficient
at times. This Forest, this Region IS inefficient," he said, adding
that the Forest Service should "get rid of the people who are unproductive
and get the productive people back." Harris said that he, too, would
prefer a more reasonable budget process in the Forest Service. He also stated
that if the Forest Service doesn't start putting more money on the ground,
the agency may cease to exists. "Some people forget that you people
are asking 'Do we really need the Forest Service?' If the Forest Service
is going to be here as an agency in 10 or 20 years we better be seeing some
benefit for you folks on the ground."
Harris encouraged people to write letters to Congress. "We can cry
for more money, but it helps more if you write and let them know that the
Forest Service needs to, number one, become more efficient, putting more
money to the ground and, number two, it needs to downsize, to reduce the
fixed costs." Politics, he said, will determine whether or not wilderness
receives more funding in the future. People at the meeting said that a lack
of rangers in the wilderness this season would cost taxpayers money in the
"We are going to end up paying more if it isn't maintained," Sue
Stone said, ponting out that preventing degradation is cheaper than trying
to restore damaged sites. Anne Dahl of Condon agreed. "It's not acceptable
to take people (rangers) out. Anyone can see the potential for damage. Serveral
restoration sites could be destroyed quickly. We have to find solutions."
Solutions were discussed at Friday's meeting. Several people said they would
help open trails and clean campsites. The Forest Service can use volunteers,
Harris said, and the agency coordinates the work.
One solution proposed Friday was a possible partnership between private
citizens and the agency. Private donations could be matched by agency funds.
Several local residents volunteered to contact private foundations, such
as the Ortenberg Foundation, REI and Patagonia, to see if grant money might
be available to help fund the necessary work this summer.
Trail openings would typically start around May 15 and continue through
the 4th of July. After opening trails, rangers would normally spend the
balance of the season cleaning campsites and monitoring visitor use in the
Rangers resume work | All
About Kari & Joe
Rangers return to service
Wilderness rangers are back to work in the Mission Mountains this week,
opening trails and talking to visitors, thanks to succesful fundraising
efforts by local residents and wilderness advocates.
According to Anne Dahl of Friends of the Missions at Condon, the group has
received about $11,000 in donations-just $1,000 short of their $12,000 goal.
Money raised by the local group will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the
Forest Service to pay for wilderness ranger services in the Mission Mountains
Wilderness this summer. Rangers clear trails, pack out garbage, accomplish
restoration work and visit with wilderness users.
Joe Flood and Kari Gunderson, wilderness rangers in the Missions for the
past 12 years, would have begun work for the Forest Service last month,
but their contract was terminated by the Forest Service in April due to
Gunderson and Flood will now be paid by wilderness advocates, with the Forest
Service reimbursing half of the cost of services provided, thanks to a new
According to Dahl, local residents decided to pursue the cost-share method
of funding wilderness work this summer after learning that the Forest Service
lacked funding for backcountry work. Since fundraising efforts have been
so successful, the Forest Service and representatives of Friends of the
Missions will meet later this week to iron out the details of the cost-share
Cost-share agreements are not new to the Forest Service. According to Remy
Pochelon, recreation manager at the Swan Lake Ranger District in Bigfork,
several local projects have been accomplished with this type of funding.
The Owl Creek Packer Camp reconstruction near Holland Lake several years
ago was accomplished through a cost-share agreement between the Forest Service,
Backcountry Horsemen, the Montana Logging Association and the local CARE
organization, he said.
Wilderness advocates, concerned about possible degradation of the wilderness
resource due to lack of rangers in the backcountry this summer, organized
the Friends of the Missions group in April, and held fundraisers in May.
Friends of the Missions is a chapter of the national Wilderness Watch organization
headquartered in Missoula.
According to rangers, trail openings in the Mission Mountains may be slower
this year, due in part to delays in funding, but also because of the heavy
snowpack and above average blowdown. Forest Service spokesmen caution visitors
to inquire locally before scheduling trips into the backcountry this month.
Rangers resume work | All
About Kari & Joe
All About Kari & Joe - Wilderness Rangers
Wilderness rangers help people learn about the natural world, according
to the husband and wife team who have contracted with the Forest Service
for the past 12 years to manage the 74,000-acre Mission Mountains Wilderness
Area west of Condon. Joe Flood and Kari Gunderson encourage people to take
care of the land as if they owned it-because they DO own it, Flood said
during a recent interview. Rangers resume work | All
About Kari & Joe
"One of our goals is to encourage the American people to feel like
wilderness is their land, not the government's. People should take care
of it," he said.
Wilderness should receive minimal impact from humans, Flood explained. Ironically,
people must work in the wilderness in order to keep it looking like few
humans have ever been there. During the busy summer season, rangers work
full-time packing out garbage and educating users about "leave no trace"
camping. "We see ourselves as temporary caretakers of a real valuable
resource," Kari Gunderson said.
Joe and Kari each hike over 1,000 miles every summer in the Mission Mountains.
They open most of the 45 miles of trails and contact some 2,000 visitors
apiece each season between May and November.
Eight years ago, the rangers were packing out up to 800 pounds of garbage
a season. It's not uncommon, they say, to find food in the fire rings at
unoccupied campsites. They have found T-bone steaks, bacon packages, and
half-eaten cans of beans. Food scraps attract bears, so Joe and Kari clean
campsites, hoping to prevent bear-human conflicts. Most users, they say,
abide by the 'pack it in, pack it out' rule, but some people just don't
know any better. That's why wilderness advocates feel that it's important
to have "ranger presence" at popular backcountry areas. Some visitors
hear about appropriate camping for the first time from wilderness rangers.
Among the people who Kari talks to during the summer, the most frequently
asked questions-"Where's the bathroom?" and "Where's the
bears?"-may seem ridiculous to veteran hikers. But newcomers need honest
"You need to have a liaison between the woods, the wilderness and the
user public. A ranger needs to be an interpreter of the natural world, an
interpreter of natural resource policy, and an interpreter of the Wilderness
Act," Kari explained recently.
Many people just don't understand how "wild" wilderness really
is. They think it's just another public camping area.
"I have run into people at Glacier Lake who want to know where the
lodge is," Gunderson laughed. "Or they ask at the trailhead if
they can drive their RV to Turquoise Lake."
Glacier Lake is one of the most popular lakes in the Mission Mountains Wilderness.
But there is no lodge there. Nor is there a road to Turquoise Lake some
six miles above Glacier.
"People don't distinguish between Glacier National Park and wilderness
areas on national forests," she said. "We try to help them understand
the differences between national parks, national forests, and wilderness."
Although Joe and Kari are passionate about wilderness, they are not purists.
Ropes and pulleys are used to hoist food and camping gear out of reach of
bears and enable campers to comply with food containment rules in wilderness.
Some "man-made" things are allowed at campsites to reduce impacts
from stock. With help from stock users, rangers have installed high lines
at suitable campsites as an educational tool to minimize impacts to soil,
vegetation and trees. These lines are left in place so campers don't have
to tie horses to trees.
Joe and Kari freely share what they have learned about wilderness over the
past twenty years. Kari's experience in wilderness education started when
she went to work seasonally for the Forest Service as the outdoor recreation
leader for the YCC (Youth Conservation Corps) crews at Condon in the late
1970s. She helped with trail work in the Bob Marshall and the Mission Mountains.
"The program had a good, strong conservation and environmental education
component," she said. After a couple of years with the YCC crews, the
Forest Service offered Kari the job of hiking "all over the mountains"
doing environmental education. "There was only one catch," Kari
laughed. "It was a volunteer position!"
She took the job, and considers the experience better than a college education.
Her volunteerism paid off, and the Forest Service later began paying her
as a seasonal employee.
Kari worked a few months each summer for the Forest Service, and spent the
rest of the year working as a teacher. She finished her college education
at the University of Montana with degrees in elementary education, special
ed and environmental studies.
She first came to the Swan Valley in 1978 to teach at Salmon Prairie. One
of her fondest memories is taking a group of five-year olds on a hike to
Glacier Lake. "They loved it," she said, adding that the students
probably each have lasting memories of climbing on the big rocks at that
While teaching in the Swan, she met Joe, who was working as a log-home builder
at the time. They were later married.
Joe had moved to Montana from Michigan, where he had worked as a park ranger.
He also finished his college education at the University of Montana, with
degrees in counseling and recreation management. Joe grew up the youngest
of nine children on a dairy farm in Michigan.
Kari grew up on a wheat ranch at Power, Montana, along the Rocky Mountain
Front. They both love being close to the land. They have a particular passion
for wild lands, and both wanted to settle in the Swan Valley, because of
its close proximity to wilderness, even though their work has led them out
of the valley at times.
In the 1980s, Kari and Joe worked for a school district in Alaska, where
Kari taught at remote native villages. They enjoyed the subsistence lifestyle.
Kari traveled by bush plane to and from work every day, and Joe worked as
a maintenance supervisor. He also took up marathon running, often jogging
20 or 30 miles a day along snowmobile trails and jeep roads between villages.
After two years the young couple decided to return to Montana.
At about that time, a major change in recreation management in the Mission
Mountains opened the door for them to bid on the local wilderness ranger
As is the case today, a decade ago the Forest Service lacked money for trail
work. In the constant search for an economical way to manage wilderness,
Cal Tassinari, the wilderness ranger in the Missions at that time, had proposed
that the Forest Service contract with private individuals to accomplish
trail work, garbage disposal and visitor contacts in the wilderness.
Tassinari felt that contracting with the private sector would save money
and insure that the work on the ground would get done. The only problem
for Kari: the contract arrangement would eliminate her job as a seasonal
worker. After careful consideration, she and Joe decided to submit a bid
for the wilderness ranger contract. They formed a new business, Gunderson
Flood Wilderness Partnership.
Eighteen businesses bid on the contract, and Joe and Kari were not the Forest
Service's first choice. But their bid was lower, by far, than others who
submitted proposals. (They could charge less, Joe explained, because they
lived in the Swan Valley, vehicle expenses were lower and they had easier
access to the wilderness.)
The Forest Service awarded them that first contract, the only one of its
kind in the United States, and for the past 12 years continued to award
the contract to Gunderson Flood Wilderness Partnership. The contract was
terminated in April of this year, due to agency budget cuts. However, Joe
and Kari are still working as rangers in the Missions. Their efforts will
be compensated, thanks to a cost-share agreement between the Forest Service
and the Friends of the Missions/Wilderness Watch advocacy groups.
These ambitious educators keep themselves busy during their "off"
season by teaching college students about wilderness at the University of
Montana and through the wildlands studies department at the University of
San Francisco. They have also worked with the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness
Training Center near Missoula to develop national curriculum which establishes
standards for wilderness restoration work. The curriculum is also used to
train agency managers how to restore trails and campsites in areas that
have been damaged by erosion or overuse.
"Lack of hands-on experience is a problem among newcomers," Joe
said, referring to young people who work in recreation. Joe and Kari help
people learn how to use traditional tools and minimum impact techniques
appropriately in wilderness. The Mission Mountains Wilderness serves as
their living laboratory. Their students include local residents and volunteers.
Education has led to several success stories.
"The restoration area at Cedar Lake in July is just filled with wildflowers,"
Kari explained. "I can remember when that was just a dust bowl. It
took at least 10 years of restoration work to bring that back." There
are currently 18 restoration sites in the wilderness.
In 1992, Kari also began work on a wilderness and land ethics curriculum
for students in kindergarten through 8th grade. She is currently helping
to develop similar curriculum for high school students. "One way or
another, I'm a teacher or a student all my life," she said.
And if these local outdoor education leaders have their way, all wilderness
users will either be teachers or students someday. Their philosophy insures
that wilderness education will continue, long after their work in the Missions
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