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Swan Valley upset with rangers' dismissals

(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)

Rangers resume work | All About Kari & Joe
by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
April 18, 1996

Kari Gunderson & Joe Flood
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.

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," he said.

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 future.

"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 wilderness.

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 budget cuts.

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 cost-share agreement.
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 agreement.

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.

"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 answers.

"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 lake.

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 contract.

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 has ended.

Rangers resume work | All About Kari & Joe

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