Worth Reading: Jack Ward Thomas Trilogy

Worth Reading: Jack Ward Thomas Trilogy


In the wildlife conservation community, there are a handful of tremendous scientists, managers and administrators that helped build the foundation of our profession. These icons have taken our country's wildlife resources from a time of depletion to abundance, have managed the growing challenges that come with that abundance while other species slowly dwindle, and are continuing to adapt as we face a nation that is farther and farther removed from our natural world. These men and women paved the way for all of us, and yet it is a much smaller group who have the ability to eloquently communicate their experiences and weave their knowledge into good storytelling that stand tall in carrying forward our legacy ? names like Pinchot, Leopold, Carson and others come immediately to mind. With the publishing of Jack Ward Thomas' three books that bring together the lessons he learned across his life and career, he has rightly earned his place as one of the great ones and his writings should be required reading for all who work for and care about our natural world.

Published in August 2015 by the Boone and Crockett Club, Thomas' books document his more than five-decade career. By compiling journal entries and writings, the stories begin with his early days afield with his grandfather and other relatives, follow his first job as a young game biologist in Texas, to his 30-year tenure with the U.S. Forest Service, through his days as the Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Management at the University of Montana. The books, made up of small sections typically encapsulating a single wilderness pack trip or work experience, provide numerous reflections on the challenges and opportunities faced throughout the career of a natural resource manager. The reader feels as if they could be sitting across the campfire from Thomas while he spins his yarn about a certain experience he faced, typically including the humor and self-deprecation (sometimes mingled with a little braggadocio) that he is known for and wrapping up with the lesson he learned along the way. Each story presents a knowledge base for those just joining the profession, and those of us who already have a few years under our belts but might just need a little reminding on how and why we do what we do.

Forks in the Trail: A Conservationist's Trek to the Pinnacles of Natural Resource Leadership follows Thomas' early days with the Texas Game Commission in the 1950's when scientific wildlife management was just starting to flourish. Several stories describe the hubris of a young college graduate game biologist, including one about the time he explained to a local rancher that black bears had been "extirpated" in that part of Texas for years ? only to have the rancher drop off a dead bear that he killed because it had been eating his goats. The book follows Thomas through his early days with the U.S. Forest Service working in West Virginia and western Massachusetts to his many years in eastern Oregon creating new research on elk and mule deer in the Starkey project. It then moves into the years he was in the spotlight ? and under the microscope, or perhaps in the rifle scope ? for his work on spotted owls and ecosystem management, and ultimately being selected as Chief before his retirement from the Forest Service in 1996 to move to Montana. Thomas' stories often refer to the "fork in the trail" ? the recognition that a particular decision in time can alter one's own personal course, or the course of the profession and the nation as a whole. His writings reflect the challenges, personal and professional, during his path and provide insights on how his lessons, and the lessons learned by his fellow wildlife managers during these tumultuous times, can serve those traversing their own trail in natural resource management.

"Over the course of a half century in the business of conservation, I slowly morphed from a young whippersnapper into an old-school wildlife biologist," Thomas writes. "Now I cringe when new issues in conservation arise and I see the contributions and valiant efforts of my generation of natural resource managers denigrated?. We did the very best we could under the circumstances of the time. Really, what more can anyone do?"

Thomas' other books, Hunting Around the World and Wilderness Journals are more personal writings reflecting his experiences in the "high lonesome" and the ability for these wild places to ground him. Many of the stories simply tell a tale, but the mental wanderings chronicled in his evening journaling often incorporates serious evaluations of our values and our will to conserve what is natural and untrammeled. His philosophies are portrayed eloquently, though often in his endearing "Texican" jargon, but each story conveys core tenets on the fundamental connection with nature that can only occur when one spends time in the outdoors. Thomas represents what some see as a contrasting view of a hunter who is fiercely protective of our wilderness and open spaces. However, for so many of us, his words simply put on paper the peace and values we feel in these moments and precious places.

"I enjoy anticipating and planning the hunt. I enjoy being with valued friends and family in the field. I love fine firearms. I appreciate the horses and the pack mules and the development and utilization of the skills required in their use. I love the camping, cooking and camaraderie involved. I enjoy the pursuit and the thrills, even the agonizing fatigue and deep disappointments ? and especially ? the treasured trophies of memories. I rejoice in the kill ethically and well done and inevitably suffer short-lived pangs of conscience in the process. I love preparing and eating the meat. I believe that those I hunted with and came to respect over many decades in many places ? in North America and other countries ? felt more or less the same.

I don't recall any of my hunting companions spending much time sitting cross-legged on the ground around the campfire humming and examining their belly buttons while contemplating the deeper meanings of the hunting experience. Most of them, like me, hunted simply because it was part of their culture and because they relished the experience from start to finish."

Reading these books was a special, personal experience for me ? Jack is a good family friend that I've known since I was a very small child. I have packed into his beloved Eagle Cap Wilderness and smiled in remembrance as I read stories of Bill and Bernice Brown, and I was always touched by the grace and gentleness of Jack's first wife, Meg. Most of the dogs and horses he names are ones that I specifically remember. In one book, he documents a wilderness pack trip with my sister and in another he captures the story of my father's first elk. But beyond the personal connection, the stories also provided wisdom and advice that all of us who work in natural resources must read and absorb.

"What went on confirmed my belief that conservationists all too often snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by thinking small, focusing on preserving power and influence in organizations and individuals, and refusing to believe in the power of magic. ?Magic' can happen when the right people come together at the right time with the right mindset."

His values clearly match my own and remind me why continuing to believe in the power of magic is so essential in our field. Jack mentions his fight with pancreatic cancer and a recognition that he is nearing his final fork in the trail. I would hope that these books long outlive him and carry his wisdom, his philosophy, his vision, and of course his patented Jack Thomas humor, forward to generations in the future in the way that we all, even Jack, circle back to Leopold's Sand County Almanac. (jas)

The Jack Ward Thomas Trilogy is published by the Boone & Crockett Club and available on their website. Individual paperback editions are $24.95 plus shipping and handling, and a three volume limited edition set of paperback books, packaged in a custom slipcase that is signed by Jack Ward Thomas is available for $89.95 plus shipping and handling. With the holidays coming up, these books would make an excellent gift for anyone, young or old, with a passion for wildlife and wild places.

November 16, 2015