Monday, October 19, 2015

How the nation’s first forest ranger came to Fort Collins

by Barbara Fleming 

His new job — one never done before — was “to protect public forests from fires or any other means of injury.” So for a time, William Kreutzer was the original lone ranger. The first forest ranger to be appointed in the United States, he faced a monumental task.

No one could have taken the job more seriously. From the moment he was sworn in on Aug. 8, 1898, in Denver he was completely devoted to his work, and he did the job despite both expected and unimagined obstacles — weather, warring and resistant ranchers, fire and more. For his new job, he earned $50 a month, out of which he had to provide his own clothes, food, supplies and horses.

At the dawn of the new century, America was waking up to the need for managing our rich natural resources before everything was spoiled or gone. Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks had started the conservation movement, which gradually grew thanks to the voices of John Muir and others. The vast forests of the West, a wealth of resources and awesome beauty, would only serve the people if we took care of them. Charged with the challenge of containing forest fires, the not-quite-21-year-old cowboy from Sedalia, Colorado set out armed with a pail, an axe, a shovel, a rake, a file and a map. His first assignment was Plum Creek Timber Reserve near Colorado Springs — 300,000 acres.

Initially under the aegis of the Land Reserves Office in the Department of the Interior, Kreutzer found himself faced with the cultural lawlessness of the Wild West, where laws were commonly disregarded, cattle and sheep ranchers felt they had untrammeled rights to grazing land, and lumber had for decades been harvested without regard to regeneration. What people wanted, they took. Kreutzer had the daunting task of enforcing unpopular regulations.

Forest management changed in 1905 when President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist, took forest reserves out of the Land Reserves (under whose auspices, according to some sources, laws had been casually enforced at best) and put them in the Department of Agriculture. Gradually, management evolved, as Kreutzer recalled years later, from “open season on forest rangers” to cooperation and wise use of resources.

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