Gunnison National Forest at 100
A Look Back at the Beginning

Published in the Crested Butte Magazine, Summer 2005 

            It was as Old West as a scene could get. The mounted men knew the new lawman was coming to Crested Butte, and met him on Elk Avenue, blocking the street with rifles and pistols unsheathed. The lawman stopped his horse, then slowly unslung his rifle.

            “All right, men,” he said, “if this is the way you want it, start shooting.”

            But unlike the million movies wherein we rewrite the history of the West to tweak some atavistic streak in our not entirely civilized souls, this was actual history; and the scene ended there -- or began there, maybe, with an Old West bluff called: the mounted men sheathed their guns and the negotiating started, as the Upper Gunnison valley began to move into a still-unfolding New West.

            The year was 1905. The lawman was a Coloradoan named William Kreutzer – a new kind of lawman: he was a federal Forest Ranger. The mounted men were ranchers in the Upper Gunnison valley who for a couple decades had been grazing their cattle unchallenged in the mountains through the summer and fall while they were growing hay for winter feed on their own homesteaded land. And the situation was the very recent declaration by President Theodore Roosevelt that almost a million acres of land in the Upper Gunnison were no longer open for homesteading or any other kind of free and easy use like the people had become used to; that land would be, thenceforth, a national “Forest Reserve.”

            And Ranger William Kreutzer – wearing Forest Ranger badge Number 1 – had come into the valley as the government’s man down on the ground, to handle the permitting of activities like grazing and woodcutting the people had theretofore taken for granted.

            Today, at the centennial of that event, we tend to take for granted the existence of Gunnison National Forest – as much a part of our cultural environment as its trees, streams and meadows are part of our natural environment. But a centennial is a good time to try to step back from the dailiness of it all, to try to look at history’s broader strokes. The Gunnison National Forest – now more than half of the land in the Upper Gunnison valley, its boundary only a few minutes away from practically any home in the valley – is one small piece of a still-emerging experiment to see if the human species can finally learn to live well while running a sustainable society.

            Through most of the 19th century, the federal policy for the vast trans-Mississippi public domain – the Old Northwest Territory, the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican Cession, our whole “Manifest Destiny” – was to “privatize” it as fast as possible, get it in the hands of Jefferson’s yeoman farmers to create a thousand little self-sufficient democratic villages where power would be safely decentralized in the hands of the people. That had worked okay in some places; but for the most part it had resulted in what western historian Patricia Limerick called a “legacy of conquest”: vast landholdings assembled through the corruption of the General Land Office, millions of acres of once-forested land brutally logged and then abandoned, prairies scalped of grass by the uncontrolled grazing of too many cattle and then abandoned, mines highgraded and then abandoned to forever dribble their poisons into the rivers.

            Americans not blinded by the tubthumpers of Manifest Destiny – men like Vermont scientist George Perkins Marsh, explorer andsurvey John Wesley Powell, Interior Secretary Karl Schurz, immigrant forester Bernard Fernow – saw a continent not being developed for stable democracy but trashed for quick profit, and began to work around the edges of the unfolding disaster to save what remained of the public domain. In 1872 – the same year that Congress finally perfected the mining law that gave an industry what amounted to unlimited access to the public domain with no responsibilities to the public – Congress also set aside the first “national park,” Yellowstone. In 1890, Congress went even further, creating both Yosemite National Park and a “forest reserve” near it too.

            But the first really big move toward conservation of the remaining public domain came in the closing days of the 1891 Congressional session, when a rider was surreptitiously added to a bill, giving the President the opportunity to withdraw “forest reserves” from the public domain for – well, no one was exactly sure what these lands would be reserved for. But Presidents Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley (less enthusiastically) and finally Theodore Roosevelt (very enthusiastically) jumped right in and, between them, created some 151 million acres of western forest reserves by 1907, when Congress, at the urging of western delegations, took that privilege away from presidents. Roosevelt alone set aside more than two-thirds of that total, including the Gunnison and Cochetopa Reserves (later combined into the Gunnison National Forest).

            These moves were mostly celebrated back in the east, where a mystique about the “wild West” was strong, but there was considerably less enthusiasm in the West itself. The editor of the Gunnison News-Champion said it for most westerners a century ago in June, 1905, when he announced Roosevelt’s reservation of almost a million acres of the Upper Gunnison Basin. Under a banner head, “Immense Forest Reserve, Half of county set aside,” he fulminated against the “Theorists in League with Railroad Attorneys and Sheepmen” who had inspired this deed. QUOTE 

            That was the prevailing attitude in the Upper Gunnison when William Kreutzer – not yet 30 – rode into the valley in the summer of 1905. Most of what we know of Kreutzer comes from a biography, Saga of a Forest Ranger, published in 1958 by a later Forest Service employee, Len Shoemaker, although there are still people in the Upper Gunnison whose ancestors had close encounters of one kind or another with him.

            Eight years before he – and the National Foest idea – got here, Congress had finally passed in 1897 a Forest Management Act (also known as the “Organic Act”) which established that the Forest Reserves were to be managed for use, not just preservation, and funded a cadre of “Forest Rangers” to do the management. Kreutzer was the 20-year-old son of a German immigrant farmer and cigar maker who had some familiarity with German forestry practices, and he saw the need for something like that in the increasing logged-over and fire-prone landscape around Denver. He heard about the new law, and suggested to his son – then working for a nearby rancher – that this might be an interesting career opportunity. So Kreutzer showed up in Denver at the office of General Land Office administrator W.T.S. May the very day that May got official notice of his appointment to oversee management of all of Colorado’s forest reserves.

            Kreutzer’s idealistic nature manifested itself immediately when May asked him what politicians endorsed him – that being the way things were usually done in the General Land Office. Kreutzer jumped up and started to leave, saying he didn’t want any political appointment. Intrigued, May told him to sit back down, questioned him about his interests, and eventually offered him a job as America’s first official Forest Ranger. No forester himself, all May knew to tell Kreutzer about the job was to “go back to the Plum Creek Reserve (now part of the Arapahoe-Roosevelt National Forest), ride as far and as fast as the Almighty will let you, and put out those forest fires.”

            Putting out forest fires was about the extent of any American’s knowledge of forestry practice then, and “ranger” pretty well described the job for one man assigned to cover hundreds of thousands of acres. Forest Service employees today complain about the amount of time they have to spend indoors doing paperwork, but Kreutzer’s job was at the opposite extreme. He pretty literally lived on his horse in the great outdoors; early rangers built little “guard stations” here and there in their reserves, and had an office in some central town, but they spent most non-winter nights sleeping in a bedroll under the stars, on their slow way from one part of the reserve to another. It was physically a hard life: Kreutzer was badly thrown a couple of times by his horses, out in the middle of nowhere, and he was several times caught in nasty storms – once getting his feet almost terminally frozen.

            Kreutzer showed considerable leadership in organizing volunteer crews to put out fires that no one else took very seriously. He also took very seriously the task of stopping trespassing on the Reserve, confronting everyone from the railroad tiehackers to prominent cattlemen – including one who was a State Senator. His zeal here led to some life-endangering encounters with lower-class types that he seemed to have a knack for winning over with his general upfront nature, but that nature didn’t work with the upper crust, and his zeal was probably the reason why in 1901 he was transferred far from the Front Range to the Battlement Mesa Reserve (now Grand Mesa National Forest).

            The whole West Slope at that time was in the throes of conflict between cattlemen who had been using the public domain for years and sheepmen trying to move in from Utah – with both the cattlemen and the sheepmen wanting to use the range for nothing. Kreutzer spent most of the next decade, first on Battlement Mesa then on the Gunnison Reserve, trying to straighten out that range war while at the same time persuading both sides that it was in the own long-term interest to start paying fees and abiding by grazing regulations.

            His difficulties on the West Slope were compounded by a politically appointed Forest Supervisor, A.  R. Craig, who was truly a fox in charge of the henhouse; he didn’t believe in the Reserve vision, and made it clear to Kreutzer that he didn’t want any serious enforcement against any of his friends. Kreutzer went ahead and did his job anyway, and earned Craig’s outright enmity. Craig set Kreutzer up in several situations that could have cost him not only his job but his life.

            Craig’s last assault against Kreutzer was to transfer him to the brand new Gunnison Reserve in 1905. When Craig told him to go take charge of the new reserve, Kreutzer thought he was finally getting a break from Craig; but he later learned that Craig had already gone to Gunnison, immediately following the reservation, and told the cattlemen there a lot of things that were plain wrong, thus rendering the ranger’s already difficult job almost impossible.

            Meanwhile, however, things were changing dramatically at the higher levels. In 1898, an American forester trained in Europe named Gifford Pinchot had been appointed Chief of the Forestry Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – almost a joke because the Department of Agriculture no forests. But Pinchot befriended Theodore Roosevelt, and added some articulation to Roosevelt’s inclinations toward conservation. When Roosevelt became President in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley, Pinchot became one of his most trusted advisors. And in 1905, the same year that he created the Gunnison Forest Reserve, Roosevelt enabled the transfer of all the forest reserves from the General Land Office to Pinchot’s Department of Agriculture Forestry Division.

            The existence in the General Land Office of too many administrators like A. R. Craig was precisely the reason for that transfer. And there were enough letters of complaint in Kreutzer’s file from people like Craig and the stuffed shirts back on the Plum Creek Reserve to let Pinchot know that Kreutzer was exactly the kind of man he wanted running the reserves. So shortly after arriving in Gunnison, Kreutzer was informed that his old nemesis Craig was fired, and he was appointed Supervisor of the Gunnison Reserve.

            Not that that meant very much in the Upper Gunnison valley. His first day in the Upper Gunnison valley, Kreutzer was met by an “unwelcoming committee” of cattlemen in Gunnison, and when he went to Crested Butte he had the aforementioned encounter with cattlemen there.

            Kreutzer had a common strategy for all such encounters: don’t lose your cool. There is no indication that he ever raised his voice; when confronted, and often enough surrounded, he would pull out Pinchot’s little Use Book, calmly look up the rules and regulations, calmly state them, calmly wait for the shouting and threats to die down, then calmly restate them. He knew the right and wrong moments to maybe make a little joke about something. And when the threats got too aggressive, he would calmly remind the gathered that if they carried out their threats, the next place they would be making their case would be before a federal grand jury.

            He was nevertheless physically assaulted on several occasions. His closest call probably came in 1916, when he issued some grazing permits for sheep on the high “waste range” not used by cattle, up the Slate and Oh-be-joyful drainages; one morning after that, he found himself facing down twenty-some enraged cattlemen, mostly armed and “more or less intoxicated,” he recalled, who were hellbent on going up the valley to drive the sheep herds over the nearest convenient cliff. Wisely unarmed himself, he took some blows and was backed up with a gun poked in his ribs, but somehow managed to persuade the cattlemen that the ultimate cost they would have to pay would make killing either him or the sheep a bad day’s work. The fact that he could have pressed assault charges in cases like that, but never did, gave him both ammunition against the most recalcitrant and respect with the most reasonable.

            Space precludes a full account of William Kreutzer’s years on the Gunnison Reserve (Gunnison National Forest, after more legislation in 1908), but it is a story right out of the John Wayne genre.

            His greatest ally was probably the truth of his case. Many of those who publicly castigated him would privately admit to him that something had to be done, that the range probably was being overstocked – but doggone it, Bill, twenty-five cents a head.... Eventually he won most of them over; Shoemaker’s book recounts some strong allies and friendships that eventually followed that showdown up the Slate.

            In 1920, with things finally more or less calm on the Gunnison, Kreutzer was offered the job of Forest Inspector for all the National Forests in District Two – essentially the Southern Rockies. For that job, he had to trade in his horse for a pickup, but spent almost two more decades more riding that larger range and watching the Forest Service begin to grow up. He retired in 1939, after more than 40 years as a ranger.

            Today, at the century mark for the Gunnison National Forest, there are still tensions to be resolved between local and national priorities, and among different types of users. But in negotiating resolution in these matters, there are probably no better models than William Kreutzer in the Upper Gunnison valley a century ago, depending on his almost naive faith in upfront honesty and calm reason.