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Tom Kovalicky Interview

Tom KovalickyTom Kovalicky became district ranger of the Stanley Ranger District in 1970. He later went on to become the Supervisor of the Nez Perce Forest. He is now retired and living part-time in Stanley. Bruce Reichert conducted this interview in the summer of 2012.

Why did the Forest Service send you to Stanley from Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1970?
At the time they were prepping this area for the proposed Sawtooth National Recreation Area. My job, as the Forest Service explained it to me, was, you go to Stanley, and you make sure that the National Park Service doesn't get the hearts and minds of the local people and turn this into a national park. That was the Forest Service's big fear.

How did you convince the Stanley locals that the Forest Service was a better deal than the Park Service?
If the Park Service takes over, there will be no more hunting. And that was the tilt. That is the thing that made people say, we want to talk more about this. And, of course, you could play that game in a host of different ways, and you could take it from the hunting angle to the trapping angle to the fishing angle to the grazing angle. Just about any angle you wanted, but the hooker was there would be no more guns, there would be no more hunting, and that seemed to draw a lot of intrigue.

"This valley was getting more and more notoriety for a place to put up a trophy home, or to start a trailer court subdivision... when Idahoans, primarily Idaho people — it wasn't the Forest Service — said, we have an idea."So back then the Forest Service was fighting the Park Service over land to manage?
That's right. They were looking for ownership of the traditional forest lands, and I'm not so sure they were interested in getting into the recreation business, but I think they were more interested in not letting their former multiple use lands go into the hands of an agency that would eliminate what the Forest Service stood for since 1905 — because the two agencies have two different sets of objectives and missions. I'm pretty sure that's why the Forest Service wanted this. And oddly enough, the reason they sent me to Rock Springs, where there had never been a ranger station before, was to make sure that the people there voted or cheered for the Forest Service to be the new proprietor of the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, which eventually happened. But the Park Service wanted that area. They wanted that real bad. And the Forest Service wanted it, and of course they ended up with it legislatively. And that fell on the heels of me coming here.

So you were a secret weapon of the Forest Service?
Yeah. Go forth. Go do your job. And the Park Service always has their agents at work on issues like this, as well. In fact, the Park Service assigned a person to this area to do nothing but work the crowd, so that the Park Service could eventually become the owners through legislative dictate. And his name was Paul Fritz. And Paul was their legislative contact here on the ground, and he became later the monument superintendant for Craters of the Moon.

A lot of people might be surprised that there were Forest Service agents and Park Service agents.
They may be surprised, but it probably wasn't a sinister type thing. It was more of a, let's use an employee that is willing to go out and meet and greet with people and actually get into the sales position, rather than walk in and say this is what we're going to do, but rather say, are you interested in this product, and if you are, do you want to help model it? Where would you like to see it end up?

This notion of a national recreation area, how unique was it?
This wasn't the first NRA by any means, but you have to remember that the objectives for creating an NRA — National Recreation Area — revolved around having one place left in Idaho that wasn't going to be subdivided, and that was starting to happen in this valley — starting in the late 60s or the mid-60s, moving forward until the time this Act passed. This valley was getting more and more notoriety for a place to put up a trophy home, or to start a trailer court subdivision, or to have a cheap lot that looked at these beautiful mountains and had a river that had salmon in it that came 900 miles. That was a real estate bonanza; and that was starting to happen when Idahoans, primarily Idaho people — it wasn't the Forest Service — said, we have an idea. In my time we had several villages out here at Obsidian that were tacky-looking summer homes with overhead lines and airstrips. And with that came the public saying, well, here are the values we want to protect, and those are really spelled out in the legislation.

Do you personally have any regrets about this becoming a national recreation area versus a national park?
No. No. The minute I turned the corner in lower Stanley looking at these mountains I realized how crucial this would be for the reputation of not only the politicians involved, but the agency being given a new charge, where they could show their expertise in something other than chopping trees down and grazing cattle and sheep. I saw that potential here, so no, I never had any regrets.

Sawtooth Valley [Credit: Lisa Kidd]I underwent a lot of criticism; it might be a surprise, but there was a lot of internal resistance inside the agency to get away from the pure multiple-use angle of managing property or the landscapes. The Forest Service never envisioned itself ever wanting to be a leader in recreation management. They never pounded the drum to be leaders in the wilderness management arena or the wild and scenic river arena or anything that had to do with wild lands. That wasn't their cup of tea — and it still may not be their cup of tea when you look at what is going on in America today. They just haven't matured as an agency towards a full blown landscape mentality.

So how do they get there?
They're going to get there through public pressure. They're going to get there by being threatened politically, or by outside groups that say, fine, let's have corporate America run these properties, and then the public will become even more alarmed, and the Forest Service will have to step into a new role or disappear. It's that simple.

One of the criticisms one hears about the Forest Service is that it doesn't seem to give the Sawtooth NRA its due; hence, there's never enough resources.
I don't think the Forest Service has shown in the last 25 years a willingness to profile their expertise with national recreation areas. Instead, the managers that have been assigned here look at the Sawtooth National Recreation Area as another ranger district. Everything here on this Area is handled as a single issue, rather than a collaborative analysis relating to the standard of the requirements of the Act — where everything is supposed to be looked at in a total framework. In other words, when you come out here and take a look at the grazing issues or the wildlife issues, they should be handled in harmony with all the other reasons that we have a national recreation area. And that might be scenic beauty, it might be water quality, it might be anadromous fish habitat, which is one of the primary reasons the SNRA exists.

"They're not running this as an SNRA. They are running it as a ranger district, and I find that objectionable considering that you have legislation that permits you to be different."The cry is, we're not getting the funds to run a recreation area, and that probably has some merit. There's probably some truth in that, but what the Forest Service is reluctant to do is to remodel their own organizational approach to a Sawtooth National Recreation Area — and that is by taking a look at their organizational effectiveness at the regional level and the national level where they are totally out of sync with today's political and resource expectations from the public.

What I'm saying is, why don't the Washington office people and the regional office people write new management models for their behavior which would, in turn, send more money to the ground. The Forest Service was created on the basis of keeping our folks around the campfires with the public. Gifford Pinchot said, please make decisions locally sitting around the campfire with the people who live on the land. The Forest Service has abandoned that mission. Now it is all being handled rather routinely by cut and dried dictums or expressions that are more political than they are resource- oriented.

So was the Forest Service ready for a concept like a national recreation area?
No, I don't think they were. I think that they knew that they had to get into the fight, they had to have a dog in the fight, because those proposed national recreational areas were going to occupy the lands that they wanted to hang onto the most.

Again, the Forest Service has got to say, this is not a routine ranger district. We're going to give it some priority. We want the expertise, we want the notoriety. We're going to pick people who are trained in the recreation arena to be the new managers, the new caretakers. When we started the SNRA, I happened to be one of the very first managers, and I had to move to Ketchum to put out a whole new organization; and the one thing we did was we built a model for on-the-ground behavior, based on the best parts of the Forest Service and the best parts of the Park Service. We borrowed a lot of organizational structure, including titles. We no longer called ourselves forest rangers. We called ourselves superintendent, assistant superintendent with responsibility for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. They've abandoned that. They've chosen to abandon that because I think it made a lot of people in the Forest Service nervous to not have the expectations of the routine behavioral patterns from the past in terms of running this SNRA.

Tom KovalickyWhat would it take for this national recreation area to perform the way you think it should?
The people who put together the language for this act, the SNRA Act, and the politicians who had to fight other attractive reasons for this land, they all sat down and they worked, they hammered out something that is truly remarkable. If you look at the Sawtooth National Recreation Area Act you're going to see a wonderfully written, composed piece of legislation. The trick is to get people to go back and read it and implement it. They're not running this as an SNRA. They are running it as a ranger district, and I find that objectionable considering that you have legislation that permits you to be different.

What do you see down the road for the Sawtooth NRA?
Down the road, I think you are going to see people coming here who want to develop it for destination reasons, mostly recreation, because there is no resource-base here of any magnitude, but there are recreation corporations that I think will find this area, and they'll start to look at the opportunities here, which are many. I think you'll see the pricing of land and houses go up in value. It could become so valuable that maybe it will create a new problem of accessibility. Can you afford to come here, live here, play here? That could happen.

But as long as you have a Forest Service agency in charge of these lands, they can exert a tremendous influence on keeping that level — and so could the county. To me, the county is one of the important players in this whole scenario, and we need to bring them in; if they don't feel like they're in the fold, we need to bring them into the fold. And the cities, of course, are a little bit different story because they've been guaranteed a certain amount of immunity in terms of development, but we could invite them and work with them.

As I look back, I can easily see the successes we had, and I'll say the first ten years of this SNRA the accomplishments and the organizational product fall-out was amazing, absolutely amazing. And then I've seen that slowly slip into the back stream, where it's not even a priority anymore — to worry about being a leader, getting out in front, working with the public and making this a showcase. Everything is here. The stage is set. It's just a matter of moving the props.