A Lone Ranger : U.S. FOREST SERVICE RANGER GUY PENCE IS A PERSISTENT AND PASSIONATE DEFENDER OF PUBLIC LANDS. IS THAT WHY SOMEONE BOMBED HIS OFFICE AND HIS HOME?
Bouncing along a twisting, potholed dirt road, Guy Pence appears oblivious to the mountain trail’s crumbling edges and hairpin turns. The tires of his government-issue Jeep are inches from a sheer drop, but Pence is busy scanning the forest around him.
The fire came over the hill right there, he explains. Burned 18,000 acres in August, 1994. Before it hit, his people had a timber sale to reduce overgrowth. Residents complained about noise and logging trucks, though, so they couldn’t cut how they’d wanted. Would’ve been a smaller fire if they’d cut their way. Even so, they managed to reduce the impact. Look over there. Now that’s nice. Real nice.
As he talks, Pence sweeps his left hand out the driver’s window. He’s hailing what is, on this early fall afternoon, still his domain. He does not yet know that his eight years as U.S. Forest Service Ranger for the Carson District of the Toiyabe National Forest will abruptly end in one month--on Oct. 30, to be precise. During this survey of his district’s northernmost tip--a rugged reach of the Sierra Nevadas some 20 miles northwest of Reno--he is thinking about the Toiyabe’s future, not his own.
To an untrained eye, the land looks devastated. Burnt, toppled trees lay everywhere. To Pence, though, the blackened columns of white fir and Ponderosa pine only mean that the salvage harvester hasn’t yet arrived. He’s looking instead at the burgeoning willows and the forest’s rebuilt watershed structure.
They seeded to stabilize the soil, Pence explains. They replaced culverts and set stones to buffer runoff areas. Over there, see the bales of straw, the boulders, the check dams, the armored stream banks. Over there, the willows are in full swing. Which means the wildlife that feed on them are too. Deer, for example, and chipmunks. So who cares about chipmunks? Well, hell, who knows? Maybe the cure for cancer is locked in the gene pool out here. Who knows?
Finally, Pence falls silent for a moment, lost in thought. At 45, his thinning, close-cropped hair is tinged with gray; fine wrinkles form webs at the corners of his eyes and mouth. Squinting into the sun, he turns his Jeep toward Verdi Peak Lookout. As he drives, he studies a dying stand of beetle-infested fir and waves appreciatively at the abundant mountain mahogany, which will provide oil and protein to deer in the coming winter. When he next speaks, Pence has shed his customary certainty. “I think most people,” he suggests slowly, “you say, ‘Forest Service ranger,’ they would have a good thought.” The words are offered as a statement, but sound more like a question.
Pence has good reason to wonder. It’s not just the 34 incidents of harassment and violence that Forest Service employees in the West have weathered so far this year. Nor is it the vitriolic national debate over land management that pits the Forest Service against ranchers, miners and a Republican-dominated Congress. The roots of his concern are more personal, more particular. Twice this year, Pence has been the target of bombings.
The first, on March 30, exploded just outside his office window at the U.S. Forest Ranger’s station in Carson City, Nev. The second, on Aug. 4, exploded under his van, parked beside his home. Both showered debris and shattered glass, one upending Pence’s desk and computer, the other burying his living room couch. Timing alone explains why no one was hurt. Pence wasn’t at his desk; his wife and three daughters weren’t on the couch.
It could have been anyone, Pence believes, for no one has claimed responsibility. Maybe it’s a disgruntled former employee. Maybe it’s a camper who got ticketed.
Perhaps, but it’s hard not to link the bombings to Pence’s passionate defense of public lands. During the past four years in the Carson District, he’s canceled three grazing permits and suspended several others. Before that, he helped draft tougher standards in the Toiyabe’s Tonopah District, which sits smack within the borders of Nye County, heartland of the county supremacy movement.
His colleagues insist that Pence isn’t doing anything differently from other rangers. It’s true, they’ve all been saying no more often--to ranchers who want to graze, miners who want to cut roads, loggers who want to harvest. Pence, though, has been doing it with his chin out.
He doesn’t just talk about conserving the forests and protecting the rangelands; he declares, he demonstrates, he insists. He underlines phrases, makes them all uppercase. He acts out remembered exchanges with adversaries, he rehearses past conflicts. Simply denying a permit or blocking a road will not suffice. Pence wishes to educate. Pence wishes to convince.
“The United States forests belong to the public, to all of us, to future generations,” he informs anyone who will listen. “These are our lands. Someone treats them poorly, they’re stealing from you and me. It’s a goddamn crime, it shouldn’t happen. These lands are an inheritance we can pass along. Most citizens don’t have a lot. One thing we can pass on is 200 million acres of national forest. What a tremendous gift . . .”
Whether Pence should continue talking like this, at least so vociferously, has been the subject of much comment recently. He has been inundated with letters, cards and computer messages since the August bombing. Some simply pray and commiserate. Others advise. There are those who urge him to dig in and those who’d rather he retreat. Then there are those in the Forest Service who wish he’d at least quiet down.
The last he hasn’t done, not by any stretch. When I call in mid-September to propose shadowing him for a few days, he agrees, on two conditions. The first is the profile can’t put his family in danger. The second is he gets to talk and be heard about the national forest system. Some in his agency get nervous about any conversation with the news media, he explains. But how can he not comment? How can he not?
“I view it as part of my job. Not commenting makes it sound like we’re not here, like we’re not responsible. I feel strongly about the story of public lands. People don’t understand. These are their lands. These lands are yours and mine. . .”
For most of the time we spend together, Pence delivers variations on this theme, mixed regularly with equally intense concern over how his words might affect his unknown assailant. “Hell, no, I can’t do that,” he instantly barks when I ask if the bombings have influenced how he does his job. Then, in the next moment, he shakes his head. “See now, will that exacerbate things? Me saying, ‘Hell, no?’ Will someone read that and think ‘Well, better go bomb him again then?’ ”
In the end, Pence’s concerns are misplaced. It is not the anonymous bomber who will usher him from the Toiyabe. It is the U.S. Forest Service.
Just before 10 p.m. on Aug. 4, Pence’s middle daughter, Morgan, 13, heard someone walking on their gravel driveway. She and her mother, Linda, were in the family room, getting ready to watch the movie they’d rented, “Little Women.” In a back bedroom, the Pence’s eldest daughter, Colter, 15, was talking on the phone. In the kitchen, the cucumbersthey planned to pickle were boiling in a pot.
“Mom,” Morgan said. “Someone’s outside.”
Linda, a fifth-grade public-school teacher, opened the front door and started out. Then she stopped. It was dark, for the outside light hadn’t been turned on. Their red Dodge van, parked adjacent to the family room window, blocked her view. Guy wasn’t home; Guy was 300 miles away, on a horseback journey in the Tonopah wilderness, introducing a new ranger to his territory. Their youngest daughter, Sitka, 11, was with him.
Linda decided not to go out. She closed and bolted the door. Then she and Morgan walked into the kitchen. It was time to lift one rack of cucumbers from the pot and put in another. Linda reached for more cucumbers. Morgan turned to the stove.
When the bomb went off, Linda wheeled in alarm toward Morgan, thinking the cucumber pot had exploded. Then she understood. It had been only five months, after all, since the first bomb. Sheetrock and glass covered the family room sofa where they’d been sitting minutes before.
Colter came running down the hallway. “Stay in the kitchen,” Linda told her daughters. “Stay down on the floor.”
The Forest Service helicopter found Guy and his party where they were camped on Table Mountain, their radios turned off for the night. Guy and Sitka had trailered their own horses down from Carson City; Sitka had her appaloosa, which she rides in competition. Guy never felt he spent enough time with his daughters. This had looked to be a good chance.
“There’s an emergency message,” the helicopter pilot said. “Better call in.”
Not until Guy climbed out of the helicopter in Carson City and saw his family did he believe they were OK. He hugged them and kissed them. Two days later, he held a press conference. He looked shaken but he didn’t mute his words. “I am very angry and sad,” he said. “I am angry that someone would apparently go after my family to try to get to me. I am sad that someone would express hostility against the work I do in such a personal, cowardly way. My family and I are going to go on with our lives. I am back at work.”
To this day, Forest Service and FBI investigators have no firm notion of who set the bombs, but they’ve never been at a loss for possible suspects. All they’ve had to do is thumb through the files in Guy Pence’s office. Nearly anyone he’s run up against could be a candidate. The Toiyabe’s 400,000-acre Carson District sprawls along the eastern front of the Sierra Nevadas, straddling the Nevada-California border in a strip about 15 miles wide and 96 miles long. Running from northwest of Reno south to Topaz Lake, passing between Lake Tahoe and Carson City, it spans urban and wilderness territory, eight counties, two states. To the investigators, it soon became clear that everyone wants something from Pence. Special-use permits to install telephone lines, gas lines, power lines, microwave dishes. Grazing permits to run cattle on federal lands. Mining permits to cut roads. Recreational permits, timber contracts, fire suppression.
Other times, it’s what people don’t want. Homeowner groups and environmentalists on occasion object to timber sales arranged to reduce fire danger in overgrown or bug-infested forests. Some don’t like the logging trucks, some argue over details, some just don’t see the point. What’s the matter with dead trees anyway?
In response, Pence negotiates, cajoles, explains. “Spitting and whittlin’ time,” he calls it. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.
When not, Pence doesn’t hesitate to act anyway. “Guy Pence can be diplomatic when he wants to, but he’s willing to speak the truth and shame the devil,” says Glenn C. Miller, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Resource Sciences at the University of Nevada in Reno. “He’s willing to take a stronger leadership role than others, he’s willing to make decisions. The elk herds in the Monitor Range and the meadows in the Carson Iceberg area are all healthy in large part due to his leadership.”
For that, Pence makes enemies. Many of them call him “arrogant,” more than a few say he’s “in bed with the environmentalists.” A logger who was cited for improperly hauling timber says, “I don’t care for the man, I don’t agree with the man.”
Even weekend campers have been known to take exception to Pence. “A guy doesn’t pay his camp fee,” Pence explains. “You go to him, point that out. ‘WELL, I WAS GOING TO,’ he tells you. You say, ‘Well, you’ve been here two days; WHEN were you going to?’ He says, ‘Well, I’m on my way RIGHT NOW.’ Or he points to his wife, says, ‘I thought SHE did it.’ ”
Everyone in Pence’s stories bark and shout and bellow. Not by any means, though, does his job involve only confrontation. In the summer, Pence leads all sorts--politicians, ranchers, environmentalists, business leaders--on pack trips high into the Sierras. In the spring, he takes them on rafting trips down the east fork of the Carson River. Twice each year, he participates in High Sierra Resource Camps for high school students.
With both the adults and teen-agers, he teaches about the national forests, talks about what rangers do. He shows his students how to recognize trees. If you’re on a playground, he asks them, how do you recognize friends? You have ways. If you know people, the playground is a friendly place. Same thing in the forest. If you can recognize trees, it’s a friendly place. Here’s how you do it. . . .
So Pence earns admirers, too, who are as ardent about him as those he enrages. Some he doesn’t even know. Of the hundreds of cards, letters and computer messages he received after the second bombing, many came from strangers.
Lawyers offered pro bono legal help; families offered their homes for a temporary retreat. Most expressed sorrow, outrage, shock, support, good wishes. Some sent personal prayers. A Nevada state judge who once joined Pence on a wilderness horseback trip wrote: “I would ride with you, dine with you, work alongside you, do anything else to help. . . . You are the finest example of a public servant. . . . I will be at your side at a moment’s notice.” A woman from Sacramento wrote: “You are a legitimate hero, and you have a brave family. We’re proud you work for us.”
Pence answered everyone, mostly with simple thanks, sometimes with homilies like “near as I can figure, there is no way except straight ahead.” Only to a fellow ranger who offered to trade positions did he show any brio. “I believe for now I will stay put,” Pence advised. “Besides, it a ll might just be starting to get interesting and I wouldn’t want you to have all the fun!”
On the first day of my visit with him, Pence shares these comments--the critical and the favorable--as he sits in his office amid piles of sagging cardboard boxes. The blown-out window has been replaced and two alarm systems installed, but many of his files and books, stored during the repairs, have yet to be unpacked. “I suspect some regard me as relentless,” he allows. “Hell, some people just don’t like you.”
He reaches for a piece of paper, draws a long line. At one end, he writes “disgruntled employee.” A little further down the line, he writes “someone who got a ticket.” Further still, he writes “county supremacists.” At the opposite end, he writes “political uprising.”
“Who knows?” he says. “It could be anyone.”
He glances at his watch, then jumps up, grabs his keys. “We better get going,” he says.
His daughter Morgan plays guard for her eighth-grade girls’ basketball team. Their game starts in 10 minutes.
What Pence has avoided talking about is the possibility of a link between the bombings and the particular county supremacy movement brewing in Nye County, 250 miles south of his Carson City office. Others, though, have. In the hours after the second bombing, local newspapers, Nevada’s Sen. Harry Reid and Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest Supervisor Jim Nelson all argued that Nye County’s militant rhetoric, at the least, has forged a climate that encourages violence. Others also noted that Pence served in Nye County as ranger for the Toiyabe’s million-acre Tonopah District from 1984 to 1986.
Nye is where county commissioners in December, 1993, passed resolutions declaring all federal lands under local control, and all roads on federal land the county’s. Nye is where County Commissioner Dick Carver, on July 4, 1994, bulldozed past two rangers to open a washed-out road within the Toiyabe National Forest. Nye is where civic leaders a month later threatened to charge federal agents who acted “outside of their authority” within county borders.
The federal government’s decision last March to file a lawsuit against Nye over these events has raised the stakes. Since then, Carver has been touring the country, offering cheering crowds lines such as “All it would have taken was for [the federal officer] to draw a weapon and 50 people with side arms would have drilled him.”
Pence was long gone from the Tonopah District by the time Nye County erupted, but the seeds of the present conflict were planted during his tenure. Pence helped create the district’s 1986 Forest Plan, the basis for many of the recent decisions to reduce grazing. Also while in Tonopah, Pence had occasion to deny a grazing permit to Carver and to prevent Carver’s good friend Bob Wilson from rebuilding a washed-out mining road.
“He’s just got an attitude problem about himself, he just didn’t get along,” Carver has been quoted as saying about Pence’s time in Nye County. When reporters found him in Seattle the evening after the bombing, Carver expressed shock and hinted that a Forest Service employee might have engineered the event to win sympathy. Then, with a laugh, he added: “You know, I was up here last night.”
Asked about all this in his office, Pence shrugs it off. It is not his nature, however, to keep biting his tongue. Asked about it again as he drives south on Highway 395 toward his daughter’s basketball game, Pence responds. At first his tone is tactful.
“I don’t look at my years down there as being any different from other times. I really don’t. Folks living down there have hopes, expectations, realities, just like everyone. That period doesn’t stand out in my mind as involving unusual controversy or conflict.”
Yes, he allows, he was involved in drafting a tougher plan for the region. Following mandates of Congress, that plan’s new standards had to be incorporated into all existing contracts and permits. Most of the implementation happened after he left, though. The controversial stuff came later.
Dick Carver’s grazing permit?
“Not much to remember, really. He came in with a proposal, not even written. Asked if he could graze. It’s not an outstanding event in my mind. We said no because the land wasn’t capable of sustaining that use. It’s discretionary. No big deal. That happens all the time. Some just shrug, go on. Some don’t, I guess.”
Dick Carver’s miner friend, Bob Wilson?
“His mining road crossed a creek a number of times. It washed out, did real damage to the creek. Only way to put the road back was to throw soil into the creek. We said no, canceled his special-use permit. He wasn’t working the mine anyway. The next ranger got more into it, really. When Wilson built a road illegally, Dave Grider went out and cited him.”
Carver has likened that event, which occurred about five years after Pence left, to “a minor Ruby Ridge or Waco.” Pence rolls his eyes at the comparison. By now his tone has started heating up. “It’s what I DO for a living,” he barks. “Approve ‘em, deny ‘em. I view permits as a contract with the public. I just administer them.”
That’s right, he agrees, that’s right, the standards for those permits HAVE grown more rigorous. “We learned more is what happened. Used to allow them to graze 95% of the vegetation. Then we learned if you graze 95%, you lose stream banks, willows, birds, watersheds. We saw really it should be 45 to 50%. So we tell ‘em at that 45% level, you gotta move cows. Some say sure; others refuse, or say they’re going to move and don’t. Then I come and suspend or cancel a permit. Some people tell me, ‘We don’t like it, no one said no to us before.’ Well, times change. Times change.”
He pounds his steering wheel. “Change is HARD. Damn it, change is HARD. We just passed two lights here on 395. They didn’t used to be there. I don’t like stopping at these lights, especially when I’m pulling a horse trailer. It’s hard as hell to get going again. I HATE those lights. If they hadn’t built that subdivision over there, we wouldn’t NEED those lights. But they DID build it. So we DO need lights.”
It’s not, Pence wishes to make clear, that he doesn’t understand he’s threatening an entrenched way of life. Yes, families pass permits on for years. Yes, it’s always been the custom to renew them. Yes, it’s very disturbing. He understands, he understands. They don’t think so, but he does. Hell, he grew up in rural Idaho. In his high school days, he worked for ranchers. Mowed hay with an old single-lung John Deere tractor. Branded calves. Learned how to hold their tails down so they don’t crap on you. He hears all that talk about Eastern bureaucrats telling ranchers what to do, he thinks, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.”
Pence doesn’t slow down until he reaches the junior high where Morgan is playing.
“Fact is,” he says as he pulls into the parking lot, “I don’t really know that I have any bone with Nye County. I truly don’t know of any.” He thinks on that, then offers a sidelong glance. “Other than the fact that the rhetoric there maybe stirred someone up.”
In the first hours after the Pences’ home was bombed, Dick Carver told reporters he would urge his fellow Nye County commissioners to offer a $100,000 reward for finding the assailant. He would “hold bake sales on the street” if necessary to raise that money. “Let me assure you that nobody within our circle would have done anything that stupid,” he declared. “I just hope the sheriff’s office nabs someone real quick and hangs them from the nearest tree.”
The next day, the Nye County Commission did indeed offer a $100,000 reward. “I’m just tired of the news media portraying Nye County as being connected with individuals in their half-brained violent acts,” explained the commission’s chairman, Cameron McRae. As it emerged, however, the money for the reward would come not from bake sales but from a federal grant Nye County receives each year for having the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump within its borders.
That piece of news was just too much for Guy Pence. He found Nye County’s reward “ironic,” he told reporters six days after the bombing. “They are proclaiming there are no federal lands in the county, yet the reward is coming from federal dollars. They say, ‘We want to offer the $100,000 to clean up our reputation.’ I mean, you either have a good reputation or you don’t. If you have to spend $100,000 to clean it up, maybe something’s wrong with it.”
Less than a week later, the commission withdrew its reward. Pence was very “arrogant,” explained Commissioner Bill Copeland. “All he did was knock us. We can’t take all that mouth from him all the time.”
Pence can’t help grinning a little as he sits in his office recounting this sequence of events. He leafs through newspaper clips, recites quotes. Dick Carver’s idea for how to address lawlessness particularly amuses him. “Carver hopes the sheriff ‘nabs someone real quick and hangs them from the nearest tree,’ ” Pence reads. “He abhors violence, but he wants to hang them from a tree. The nearest tree!”
Although Pence’s most observable concern is over his family’s safety, I’ve started to wonder whom Pence is more likely to aggravate--the anonymous bomber or his supervisors and political overseers in Washington? It is, after all, a treacherous time for the Forest Service or anyone inclined to take a strong stand for land management.
In recent months, Congress, led by strong-minded lawmakers from the West, have introduced several sweeping measures aimed at turning back the past decade’s environmental laws. One bill would cut deeply into federal conservation programs and expand opportunities for logging, mining and grazing on public lands. Another would strip control of the Forest Service from Agriculture Department Undersecretary Jim Lyons, who has incensed western lawmakers by resisting efforts to cut more trees in national forests.
The politicians promoting such measures--supported by lobbying groups representing timber, mining, energy and ranching interests--have been playing rough. During a private meeting with Jack Ward Thomas, head of the U.S. Forest Service, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska reportedly threatened to eliminate Thomas’ salary if he didn’t go along with a plan to increase by one-third the allowable timber harvest on Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. Asked after the bombing of Guy Pence’s home to investigate growing violence aimed at government land managers, House Resources Committee chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) declined. This was the third such request rejected by Young, a former trapper known for, on various occasions, brandishing a knife, a steel-jaw trap and an oosik (the penis bone of a walrus) before those seeking to fortify environmental laws. Given this climate, top Forest Service managers in Washington at times must blanch at the latest public utterance from Carson City.
Before I can raise this matter with Pence, he more or less does so himself. “I’m sure my supervisors think, ‘Can’t he shut up and be a ranger?’ ” Pence declares. “Well, I think I am being a ranger.”
The story of how Guy Pence’s appendix burst has by now assumed legendary proportions among his colleagues. It happened in 1986, while Pence was on his way to an elk hunt high in the Tonopah wilderness. What with back pain and nausea, Pence thought he had the flu, which didn’t stop him from traveling another day, then rising at 2 a.m. to go hunting. The pain brought him back to camp an hour later. After resting, he saddled up and rode out nine miles. By the time he got to the hospital, he was so sick, it wasn’t clear he’d survive. Better talk to each other, the doctor advised Guy and Linda before emergency surgery. Which they did. “Been fun?” Guy asked.
His colleagues tell this story to illustrate what a tough SOB Pence is. Pressed for his version, Pence willingly buffs the image--"My only regret is, I didn’t get any elk"--but then ends with something more revealing: “For a while after that, I followed Linda from room to room. I didn’t want to be alone.”
As he recalls those long weeks of recuperation, Pence is sitting in the stands at Morgan’s basketball game. He’s hunched over, his elbows on his knees, his eyes on Morgan. “She doesn’t always start but she usually plays a couple quarters,” he says.
Pence is no casual observer. He coaches girls’ basketball and soccer teams in Carson-area recreational leagues. His fervor is such that a Forest Service spokesman, after the second bombing, jokingly wondered whether a defeated team or rival coach might be behind the attacks.
“Wrong side! Wrong side!”
Pence is shouting advice not just to Morgan but to all her teammates, most of whom he’s coached.
“Misty, get it.”
“No, Jena, put it back up.”
“Use the backboard, it’s not there just for hanging banners.”
Pence used to do a lot of hunting and fishing in his off-time. Now, except for breaking Nevada mustangs, he mainly devotes his evenings and weekends to youth activities. He sees kids with no direction or purpose, it kills him. Kids will do something, he believes, even if it’s just wandering down a road. They need purpose, they need direction. You make time for them, even if you don’t have it.
“Oh, traveling, that was traveling.”
“OK, Misty, all right now.”
“No, no, you got your back turned.”
To himself, Pence mutters: “The whole game’s going on and they’re missing it.”
Morgan’s team nonetheless wins. There’s no time to savor the victory, though. Pence’s eldest daughter, Colter, plays on her high school girls’ JV soccer team. Their game starts in 15 minutes, across town.
Morgan comes with her dad, not bothering to change out of her uniform. She looks glum; the coach didn’t play her enough minutes. Pence understands. Even though they’re running late, Pence stops at a Dairy Queen when Morgan asks.
“You got $4?” he deadpans to Morgan at the drive-thru window.
She shakes her head, knowing his game.
“Shoot, guess I gotta pay,” he says. He looks in his wallet, groans. “Colter stole $20 from me this morning. I got to figure out a way to get that back.”
Pence licks his cone as he drives. Again, the question returns: How to gauge his words’ impact on an invisible assailant whose motives remain unknown? Pence’s eyes fill with tears. “If something happened to her,” he says softly, nodding at Morgan, “I’d never forgive myself.”
Given that prospect, isn’t it reckless not to pull in his horns?
“There’s principles involved. There’s a message the children will learn if you do that. There’s bullies on the playground. There’s always bullies on the playground.”
At a stop sign, Pence turns to me. “Biggest thing I hear people say is: ‘Don’t talk with you.’ ”
So why is he? I ask. It’s a question I’ve increasingly pondered as it becomes clear all that Pence is negotiating. Is Pence being naive? Self-indulgent? He appears far too aware and disciplined. It’s more likely that Pence’s stance is his way of countering those in the West who increasingly have been getting attention by yowling, posturing and bulldozing.
“To be heard, to be listened to,” he says. “I want people to understand the public lands story. I’m tired of it being misrepresented. When I’m asked a question, I answer the goddamn question, and honestly. When people tell me that causes a problem, I say, “You’ve got your job to do, I’ve got my job.’ ”
Pence glares at his watch. The soccer game has already started. He can’t find the parking lot, he’s not sure which field Colter is playing on.
“I won’t tell you I’m not afraid. I would be a liar. I am afraid. Can’t let fear run your life, though. We have internal cautions at the Forest Service. I’m cautious. But I have a job to do. I’m going to do it.”
Is this what he expected when he joined the Forest Service?
“No,” Pence says. “No, it’s not what I expected.”
There never was much question that Pence would become a forest ranger. For that matter, there never was much question about any of the five Pence boys. Growing up in Mackay, Ida., next to the Challis National Forest, four of them ended up as forest rangers, the fifth with the Soil Conservation Service.
“Our father,” Pence explains, “always had us in the woods.”
Every Saturday, the five brothers would gather the camping gear. Remember this, remember that, their father would urge, calling from the grocery store he and his wife ran for 50 years, six days a week. Soon as he closed up, they were gone, the boys all piled in the back of their dad’s 1949 Ford pickup, slingshots aimed at roadside tin cans. All Sunday, they hiked, caught grasshoppers for bait, fished for brook trout, sometimes hunted deer. The Pence boys learned how to survive in the woods, how to appreciate where they were.
Guy, the youngest by a good six years, also learned how to keep up with much older brothers. At the age of 9, he rode, hunted and played barn-ball with 16- and 18-year-olds. Then their father had a stroke, and within two years, all his brothers had left for college, leaving Guy at 12 largely on his own, helping his mom with the store. This they now regret. “Guy had sort of hard knocks growing up,” recalls his brother Lew, who works for the Soil Conservation Service (now called National Resource Conservation Service) in Idaho. “He perhaps didn’t have a childhood like the rest of us,” “Guy grew up being an individualist. He had to cope with a lot of things, and that made him pretty strong. He just stood alone.”
Pence’s dad had no higher education--he was born in 1899 in the station where they changed horses for the stagecoach his father drove between Challis and Mackay--so there was no question his boys were going to college. The only question was how. They found the answer in a neighbor. The Forest Service district ranger in Mackay happened to live just up the street. John Wick always wore a uniform, always helped with forestry 4-H projects, always provided a sense of order.
What to do seemed plain. Like his brothers before him, Pence got a summer job with the Forest Service after graduating from high school, earning money for the University of Idaho. Four years later, filled with botany, biology, geology and forest management, newly married to his classmate Linda, Pence landed a job on the Boise National Forest. After Boise came a tour of duty on the Challis, then, in 1981, Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest temperate rain forest.
Alaska’s abundance was a revelation to Pence: You could walk across rivers on the backs of steelheads; you could camp near brown bears grown huge on the plentiful fish supply. This vision of how things used to be in the Lower 48 set Pence thinking.
It was, generally, a time for thinking in the Forest Service. Where once rangers considered only local, short-term issues, some now were starting to talk about the “extended ecosystem.” Where once vegetation-rich lands adjacent to streams were treated as “sacrifice areas” for cattle, some were focusing on the “value and vulnerability” of western riparian rangeland.
By the time Pence transferred to the Toiyabe’s Tonopah District in 1984, he was one of those talking like that. His education had come not just from reading scientific literature, but from what he’d seen: eroded stream banks, ruined wildlife habitats, trampled meadows, barren range land. He’d come to understand how what you did on one part of the land reverberated in distant regions.
“It’s just like how the old family doctor fixed broken arms without fancy CAT scans or MRIs,” Pence says. “He just yanked. Now we’re more sophisticated. Not only do we see encroachment and damage, we also realize that we’ve been part of the cause. We didn’t know. Now it hurts me to know what we’ve been doing.”
After drafting the 1986 Toiyabe forest plan, Pence and other rangers moved slowly. There were existing permits to modify, regulations to craft, pamphlets to produce. Then came a trial period, for everyone to get accustomed to the new standards. Workshops, education, spitting and whittlin’. Not until 1991 did the Forest Service really start to enforce the plan. By then, Pence had moved on from Nye, by then he’d been ranger in the Carson District four years. Not everyone there thought Pence meant it when he started to pull permits. Now they do.
In one case at the north end of the district, a fence needed to be built to constrain livestock. The permit holder refused. A couple of years passed, the rancher still saying no, not going to do it. “Well,” Pence finally told him, “since we can’t get proper use of this land, we’re going to cancel.”
In another case down south, Pence’s office suspected a permit holder of subleasing his grazing rights for profit, which the Forest Service doesn’t allow. They told him as much, three times--in writing, in a personal visit, in a phone conversation. Each time, he denied it. Then the service found proof. “OK, I’m doing it,” the fellow said. “But I didn’t think you meant it.” Pence stuck out his chin. “Well, we did mean it. So you’re canceled.”
Third case, a permit holder kept letting his cows graze way over the 45% limit. First Pence just temporarily reduced a percentage of the cows he could graze, but next year, the rancher still didn’t comply. “You know,” Pence told him, “I have a feeling you don’t take us seriously.” Not so, said the rancher, “I just didn’t think you’d go this far.” Pence’s chin shot out again. “Well, I would.” Another permit canceled.
“I’m not being arbitrary or capricious,” Pence says. “It’s not Guy Pence alone causing change. It’s the science. Time just goes on, you can’t stop it. If I could, I’d still be 16, fly-fishing every night in Mackay. I can’t though, I can’t.”
With that, he is out of his car, jogging across an open field. He’s found Colter’s soccer game.
Pence still regularly rides into the wilderness, but he’s just as likely to be found staring at his computer monitor or thumbing through his thick, dogeared copy of “Principle Laws Relating to Forest Service Activities.” One morning he brings me with him as he protects his budget before a visiting fire-management review team at the Toiyabe’s Reno headquarters. “Just like me, this reporter is trying to figure out what a district ranger does,” he informs a row of grim, stolid faces. That meeting consumes half a day and includes many entreaties: “I don’t want to lose lives. I . . . DON’T . . . WANT . . . TO . . . DO . . THAT.”
Later in the afternoon, laying off four seasonal workers requires filling out all manner of forms. Recovering a $250 overpayment from a recalcitrant salvage logger compels writing yet another futile letter. “You can say it’s just $250, but it’s not MY $250. It’s the PUBLIC’S. . .”
When his workdays end, Pence doesn’t so much relax as shift attention. Sitting now with his wife at Colter’s soccer game, Pence looks no less driven than when facing ranchers or bureaucrats. He shades his eyes against a sun low on the horizon. On the field, Colter is streaking toward a goal, the ball before her.
“Now, now,” Guy bellows.
“Shoot, shoot,” Linda hollers.
Both parents clutch cellular phones. Guy turns, asks about Sitka, who trained with her cross-country track team today. Sitka got dropped off at home, Linda explains, so she could do her homework.
“Come on, Colter, run it in,” Guy shouts. “Push it, push it.” He grins as his daughter lofts the ball far down the field. “Ah, Colter. She’s got a good foot on her, she does. . .”
Eyes still on the game, Guy and Linda talk about home insurance claims related to the bombing. New carpets to replace those full of embedded glass shards. Fresh paint, an antique clock, a concrete pad where the van was parked.
The signals between them are nonverbal, but both are worrying about Sitka being home alone. Before, this would not have been a concern in a town such as Carson City. Now it is. Linda picks up her phone, punches numbers. There is no answer. Both parents squint into the sun, study the game. Linda punches the numbers again. This time Sitka answers.
“Now a little footrace,” Guy shouts to Colter’s teammates. “Oh, cross it, now cross it. Oh, oh, close, half a foot, so close. . .”
It is well past 7 p.m. before the entire family manages to gather back at the Pence home. It’s a wood-frame ranch house, set on an acre at the foot of the Sierra foothills. Pence stops out back to pet two of his Nevada mustangs prancing in the corral. His third mustang and Sitka’s appaloosa are out to pasture.
Dinner appears imponderable. The three girls have scattered. Colter is debating whether to go to her dance class, Sitka has homework questions, Morgan wonders about tomorrow’s car-pool. This is no simple matter, what with dance, cross country, basketball, swimming lessons, three different soccer teams.
“This is actually early for our family to be all together,” Linda laughs. “Never have a family where the kids outnumber the parents.”
Guy produces a pile of photos from one of the High Sierra Camps, which Linda helps run. Then he displays Linda’s award plaque for being Nevada Wildlife Federation Conservation Educator of the Year, 1995. The two of them are standing inches from where the bomb exploded, but appear oblivious. So do their daughters as they bound in and out of the living room.
“What we didn’t do,” Linda says of the first hours after the bombing, “is wring our hands in front of the children and shake and go, ‘Oh my, oh no, what are we going to do?’ What we did do is have a slumber party. Three days later, eight little girls. Life goes on.”
Guy nods in agreement even as his eyes once again tear up. His voice is shaky. “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost one of the kids. . . And yet, people do things like that.”
“Yes, they meant it,” Linda says. “It was a warm night, the windows were open. They could hear our TV, they could hear us talking. They knew we were on the other side of the window.”
“Ten seconds later,” Guy says. “If they hadn’t gotten up. . . .”
“The first week was chaos,” Linda says. “Then Colter had to be somewhere at 6 a.m. We had to get going.”
“I can’t imagine my parents falling into a swoon over this,” Guy says. “Maybe that’s what I’m falling back on.”
Are they sure of their course?
Guy and Linda look at each other, shrug.
“New turf,” Linda says.
“Never been here before,” Guy says.
Exactly one month to the day after my visit to the Pence home, the Forest Service made its announcement. Guy Pence would be transferring out of Nevada, out of the Toiyabe. He was being reassigned to the Boise National Forest in Idaho, effective the next Monday, Oct. 30. There, according to the formal notice, he’d be the aviation, fire and lands staff officer in the supervisor’s office. That involved introducing prescribed and natural fires into Boise ecosystems; it didn’t involve directly governing ranchers, miners and loggers.
The transfer was “safety-related,” said Pence’s immediate boss, Jim Nelson, supervisor of the Toiyabe-Humboldt National Forests. Yet it was also a good “career move” after 12 years on the Toiyabe, a chance for Pence to “widen his experiences” and move on from a situation that had “consumed him.” Pence--"one of the finest district rangers I’ve ever known"--was “on a track” toward becoming a national forest supervisor.
On the phone to me that day, Pence labored to speak carefully. The transfer offer had come two weeks before from Dale Bosworth, the regional director in Ogden, Utah, who had expressed passionate concern about his safety. Pence accepted the reassignment out of love for the Forest Service and respect for Bosworth. But he did not ask for it, did not want it. He was having a tough time with it. He understood there are some folks in higher management who are concerned about his safety and his family’s. But “they’re looking at this through the lenses that have been ground for their eyes. Their lenses don’t fit me. My lenses are ground from my experience, my situation.”
It was left to others to suggest that the Forest Service had folded under political pressure, or at the least had let an anonymous bomber drive an outspoken ranger from his home. Despite earnest denials by both Nelson and Bosworth--"I’m outspoken, too” Nelson quite rightly pointed out--it isn’t hard to see how Pence might be regarded by some as a loose cannon, as an unacceptably dangerous flash point in an already incendiary situation. That others see him as a hero of sorts would carry little weight, would perhaps even make matters worse. Strutting and glowering may work for those bent on grazing cows and cutting roads in national forests, but not, in the current climate, for those fixed on conservation.
A wave of angry, dismayed messages filled Pence’s desk in the hours after the announcement. What can we do? they inquired. How can we change this? Pence for once didn’t fan the flames. “I’ve already cried all I can,” he explained. “Let’s focus on the real issues. God gave us only so much air, water and land.”
His own focus now was on Boise. He would not be reporting there until the end of the school year, because he refused to leave his family. He’d work on assignments out of Carson City until next spring. Boise will be a new experience, he told his distraught daughters, a chance to see new things. “I’m going to my new job with enthusiasm,” he said. “I would be irresponsible if I didn’t have a positive outlook.”
Lest anyone assume such equanimity signaled his taming, though, Pence took one parting shot before stepping aside. When a television station called from San Francisco during that last week, requesting an interview, he first checked with Forest Service managers. Absolutely not, they told him. Pence gave the interview anyway.
“Goddamn right,” he told me on his final day as Carson’s district ranger. “Show me where there’s a law or policy that says I’m not to speak out. Show me where it’s written.”
Next week: Dick Carver and the county supremacy movement in Nye County.