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A Hoosier National Hero: Claude Ferguson

When I interviewed former Hoosier National Forest Supervisor Claude Ferguson back in the mid-1980s, I left with one of the most memorable quotes I ever gathered in my thirty-five years as an environmental journalist. The subject was the 1985 U.S. Forest Service plan to clearcut 81 percent of the state’s only national forest. Under that forest-management vision, plots up to 30 acres in size would be routinely scraped bare of all trees into the 22nd century.

I sat with Claude on the porch of his Bedford, Ind., home as an environmental reporter for the Bloomington Herald-Telephone covering the 1985 plan and as a grad student writing my final masters project about it for the IU School of Journalism, Clearcutting the Hoosier National Forest: Professional Forestry or Panacea? Clearcutting, he told me, essentially required little more expertise than drawing lines on a map.

“It makes it easy to go for coffee,” he said. “But it’s not forestry.”

When Claude and I spoke for the first time that day, I knew he was a herculean figure in the Indiana environmental community, that he had played a key role in scuttling off-road vehicle (ORV) trails on the Hoosier in the 1970s. In the process, he sued his employer on principle and lost his job as a result. The 1985 clearcutting plan also called for two sets or ORV trails to be constructed in sections of the forest in Brown and Orange counties.

As I’ve turned my creative attentions back to the Hoosier in recent months, I’ve been thinking about Claude a lot. A while back I came across a paper in the November/December 2009 Public Administration Review titled When a Career Public Servant Sues the Agency He Loves: Claude Ferguson, the Forest Service, and Off Road Vehicles in the Hoosier National Forest.

The nine-page paper, authored by Syracuse University Distinguished Professor Rosemary O’Leary, relates the Claude Ferguson story from his first high school internship as a lookout on Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest in 1940 through the aftermath of his 1976 firing. That was after, as Claude put it, he had “met the test of my lifetime.”

***

Claude’s career-ending assault on ORVs in the Hoosier began in 1970, four years after he arrived in Bedford as the supervisor for both the Hoosier and the Wayne National Forest in Ohio. At that time, the Hoosier, which sprawls in four broken, heavily fragmented chunks known in agency lingo as Units from the shores of Monroe Lake to the banks of the Ohio River in Southern Indiana, was the nation’s smallest national forest.

In his role as supervisor in 1970, Claude got word of—and filmed damage from—an unsanctioned ORV race on the Hoosier called the “Buffalo 100,” named after Bloomington resident John Buffalo, who had purchased 20 acres of woodland adjacent to the Hoosier.

“Without asking permission or notifying the Forest Service, Buffalo and his friends marked a 100-mile trail through the Hoosier National Forest and held a motorcycle race on the federal land,” O’Leary wrote. The film, shot with the district ranger, showed “the tearing up of hiking trails, the destruction of fragile forest land not meant for trails, the trampling of young trees, the ripping down of branches, the destruction of habitat for both endangered and nonendangered species, littering and excessive noise.”

When Claude told the event’s organizers the next year that they could not race in the Hoosier, they told him they “knew how to strike matches,” she wrote. “Ferguson told them to talk to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, as it handled motorized vehicles. His job, Ferguson told them, was to protect the national forest.”

Even though Claude had stepped down as supervisor in 1971 after he married a fellow employee, his cause was buoyed by support from Forest Service staff and 20-1 public opposition to ORVs on the Hoosier, as reflected in written comments to a series of “listening sessions.” By December 1972, the State of Indiana put all its properties off limits to ORVs for their incompatibility with resource protection goals. (Today, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources operates two State Recreation Areas for ORVs in Southwest Indiana.)

Despite the growing opposition, Claude’s successor, Donald Girton, announced in the summer of 1972 that trails would be built in the Hoosier. Construction began in August, and by October, Claude was among the Hoosier staff on a field trip with Girton and District Ranger Frank Haubry to see the newly constructed trails.

Claude’s reaction: “I was appalled. … These trails were located in one of the most significant wildlife habitat areas in the State of Indiana and in one of the very few wild turkey and ruffed grouse ranges in the State. … It was evident that very little consideration had been given to the effects of noise and exhaust pollution on the forest, water and wildlife.”

***

Over the next four years, Claude engaged in “guerrilla action,” in O’Leary’s words, against his superiors in Bedford and the Forest Service Regional Office in Milwaukee, which backed Girton. He rallied the local, state and national environmental communities, speaking through national environmental groups such as Citizens for a Better Environment. He surreptitiously—at least initially—authored an affidavit against the ORV trails for an appeal filed by the Isaac Walton League (IWL).

At the October 1972 field trip, Claude told Girton that what he saw left him “professionally sick.” He then signed onto the ILW lawsuit in federal court seeking an injunction against Girton’s ORV trails.

“I immediately called my contacts at the IWL and told them that if they truly were going to sue the Forest Service, as we had discussed at an earlier date, to count me in as a supporter,” he said.

The Forest Service reacted with bureaucratic brutality, informing Claude in November that he was being temporarily transferred to Milwaukee. Claude refused, calling the move “harassment and punishment for exercising my constitutional right to free speech.”

When told in March 1975 that he was being permanently transferred to the Regional Office in Milwaukee—his wife would stay in Indiana—Claude was 18 months away from retirement. The Forest Service denied his request for early retirement.

The public rallied behind Claude. The Bedford Times-Mail editorialized, “It’s a sad state of affairs when an employee of government is prohibited from speaking out on something that is obviously wrong, and then fired if he does so.” The Louisville Courier-Journal said he belonged to the “rare breed of government employee who recognizes that his ultimate responsibility is to his conscience and to the public.”

In December 1976, Claude requested and received a hearing from the U.S. Civil Service Commission in Bedford. He was represented by David Mosier, a city judge in Columbus, Ind.

As the hearing began, Mosier requested a recess and took a stroll around the block with the Forest Service chief of personnel, during which he presented a glimpse of the evidence Claude would submit. Upon their return, the case was settled.

“My retirement benefits and other fringe benefits were restored retroactive to the date of my firing,” Claude said afterward.

In October 1977, the Forest Service announced it would reconsider the ORV plan, a move that settled the IWL lawsuit before trial.

“I’ve been vindicated,” Claude said at a news conference.

***

Claude Ferguson died in 2006. But his legacy has proven indelible.

With his help, professional and grass-roots groups like Izaak Walton League, Protect Our Woods, ForestWatch, the Hoosier Environmental Council, Sassafras Audubon and others prevailed in their efforts to stop not only the ORVs but clearcutting in the Hoosier, as well.

In 1992, the Forest Service replaced the 1985 clearcutting/ORV plan with the Conservationist Alternative, which was authored by CounterPunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair and the Hoosier Environmental Council. It was widely recognized as the most environmentally friendly national forest plan in the nation.

Only revised once since 1992, the Conservationist Alternative’s spirit guides Hoosier land management today. More than 60 percent of the 202,000-acre Hoosier is off-limits to logging. ORVs are still banned.

 

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Steven Higgs is an environmental journalist and photographer living in Bloomington, Ind. He owns and operates Natural Bloomington: Ecotours and More. His new book A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana is scheduled for release by Indiana University Press on April 20, 2016.

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