Retirement Can't Keep Boggs From Forest


Retirement feels awfully peculiar to John Boggs and it probably won't last long. Call it a well-deserved respite for now.

Boggs, 53, sits at the kitchen table of his Oak View home, drinking coffee and reflecting on 29 years spent patrolling the Los Padres National Forest as a ranger working out of the Ojai station.

He helped hippies free vans stuck on the road leading out of the Sespe wilderness in the 1970s, supervised wards of the court clearing trails with machetes in the '80s and avoided office computers like poison oak in the '90s.

Through it all, Boggs' love of the outdoors shone as brightly as the summer sun over Matilija Canyon.

So, the early retirement cash buyout he took in January be damned, he's got to get back out there. He volunteers to lead a group of senior citizens into the wilderness one week, donates four days fixing a water problem in Wheeler Gorge the next.

"I do what I can," Boggs said. "I've got a lot of energy and a lot of time. I thought I'd be working again by now. I'm thinking about what to do as a second career."

He does his restless pondering at the kitchen table and in the cozy living room of the home he has shared with his wife, Martha, for 24 years. They grew up locally--John attended Nordhoff High in Ojai, Martha attended Ventura High--married soon after and reared four children. One daughter, Jane, lives next door with her husband and two children.

Boggs has deep roots, but they are widespread as well, touching every nook and cranny of the loaf-shaped 40- by 15-mile stretch of national forest in Ventura County.

He is as at home in the wilderness as in his living room, and he values solitude as much as a house filled with children and grandchildren. But Boggs doesn't mind the public enjoying the national forest--in fact, his career was spent providing, not prohibiting, access.

"It's good for people to visit the forest, to hike and camp and ride horseback," he said. "The Forest Service has good intentions. It's just that some of the policies don't go the way they were intended."

Boggs, soft-spoken and unassuming, is only mildly critical of his lifelong employer. He supports the 1964 Wilderness act that prohibits motorized vehicles and equipment--including chain saws--in land designated as wilderness. Building trails with hand tools is far less efficient, but Boggs understands the rationale of not spoiling a wilderness experience with loud motors.

"It's not so bad doing it by primitive means, but if cost is a factor, it isn't efficient," he said. "Usually hikers are glad to see you out there doing the work."

There are ways the Forest Service could improve, Boggs insists.

Start with those dang computers that seemed to find their way into every station while Boggs was out on patrol.

He says that rangers whose primary job is to prevent fires spend the winter hibernating, hunting and pecking on a keyboard. Not so many years ago, those rangers built and cleared trails during winter months when there is little threat of fires.

"That hurts recreation and trails a lot," he said. "It used to be that half a dozen people worked on trails when there were no fires.

"Hey, I could spend all day on a computer, too. But that wouldn't take care of the trails and camps. If you are in a field-going position, you need to spend time in the field."

A smaller bone of contention is the Forest Service's Adventure Pass Pilot Program, which requires members of the public to purchase daily passes for $5 per vehicle. A yearly pass can be purchased for $30.

Besides the philosophical question of paying for access to a forest that is already maintained by tax dollars, Boggs believes the yearly pass is a problem in an especially rainy year like this one.

"It doesn't develop a good rapport with the public," he said. "Most of the roads and trails have been closed for months because of El Nino. There should be a credit or an extension for people who bought those passes and can't use them."

Boggs built or cleared most of the 226 miles of trails in the portion of the national forest governed by the Ojai Station. He believes little of it is in danger of overuse.

"When I grew up in Ojai I rode my Honda trail bikes back there and also did my share of hiking," he said. "It sparked an interest in the wilderness I wanted to pursue. I'd like to see more people get that sort of feeling."

A lot more people did before the Sespe Creek area was designated "roadless" by the Forest Service in 1978. Motorized vehicles were prohibited thereafter from an area that for years was a favorite hangout of all sorts of folks who wanted to retreat from city life.

Boggs was responsible for the campground and creek area he says was "the last outlaw place in Ventura County" through most of the '70s. Although he describes his duties as primarily "law-enforcement work," he remembers the time fondly.

"It had a reputation as a party spot and I wrote a lot of citations, but I ended up enjoying that duty more than just about any other," he said. "At times it got so crazy I'd seek out a relief area just to eat lunch."

To the 300-500 weekend campers in the Sespe, Boggs was less an adversary than a communications link to the outside world. He was a welcome sight to anyone whose vehicle got stuck trying to climb inclines nicknamed "Heartbreak Hill," and "Washboard Hill."

"I'd help them push their cars out while there was a long line of cars behind them," Boggs said. "I felt it was my job to help with problems."

Fines are infrequent now. In response to the 1978 law, gates were erected to prohibit vehicles.

"It's a better clientele," Boggs said. "With people riding horseback or hiking five miles into the back country, you rarely have problems with alcohol or gangs."

Later came policing the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and building trails with crews composed of juvenile offenders sweating off sentences. All of it is reflected upon fondly by Boggs.

He only wishes now that it could continue. An application for employment to construct trails for the Conejo Valley Recreation and Park District was inexplicable denied because, Boggs said, he doesn't have an associate of arts degree.

"They didn't consider me a qualified candidate," he scoffed. "I wrote a letter to them and haven't heard back."

He and Martha talk of moving to Pagosa Springs, Colo., near the San Juan National Forest, but leaving their children and grandchildren would be difficult.

Regardless of the direction the trim, fit Boggs takes, surely it will lead to a place where the forest is lush and the only sounds are singing birds and the gurgle of a clear stream.

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