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Retiring Conroy reflects on Forest Service tenure

When Scott Conroy took over as supervisor of the Rogue River National Forest in September of 2002, he was already a seasoned U.S. Forest Service employee.

He had worked for the agency for more than a quarter of a century: on the front lines as a wildlands firefighter, a forester, two tours in Washington, D.C., and as a forest supervisor.

But Conroy, 58, who retires at the end of this month after nine years heading the local forest, was about to have his mettle tested as never before.

The largest fire in the nation in the form of the half-million-acre Biscuit fire was roaring across southwestern Oregon, much of it on national forest land. The fire was the largest in Oregon since 1865.

"Of course, part of the fire-suppression effort had been established by the time I got here," he recalled. "I came into the middle of it. We had four fire teams on the forest and an area command. That was a challenge to keep all that moving.

"But it wasn't as big a challenge as what we needed to do on the landscape after the fire was out," he added. "Decisions about how to restore the landscape, about how much salvage logging to do and where to do it, that was a huge challenge with a lot of public controversy and litigation."

However, it morphed into a larger debate about policy than the specific activity on the landscape, he said.

Helping to fuel the heated debate was President George W. Bush's controversial Healthy Forests Initiative, which he had announced in August of that year during a visit to the Rogue Valley.

The Rogue River and Siskiyou forest staffs had already been combined in 1999 with the Rogue River supervisor overseeing the management of more than 1.7 million acres of national forestland from the high Cascades to the coast. Two years after Conroy arrived, the two forests were combined administratively to become the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

"The goal was to reduce the cost of overhead and hopefully keep more boots on the ground," he said of combining the two.

"I'm sure people don't realize that, while they are both national forests managed by the Forest Service, they (the staffs) have a much different culture," he said. "Bringing those two cultures was a huge challenge."

Simultaneously, forest budgets were being axed, he said.

"We had about a 100 more employees than we could carry with the budgets we were getting," he said. "So we were both reorganizing and reducing the size of our organization at the same time."

When he started, there were about 425 employees in the combined staffs, he said. That number has shrunk to about 250 permanent employees with up to 120 temporary employees hired in the summer, he said.

In comparison, there were nearly 1,000 full-time employees on the two forests two decades ago.

As a final challenge during his tenure, the forest headquarters was moved into the federal building on Biddle Road in Medford which had formally housed only the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District staff.

"That was also a bit of combining different cultures," he said, although he was quick to observe the two agency staffs remain separate.

"But it has been a great opportunity to discover on their own ways to work together across the agencies and how to help each other across the landscape," he said. "It provides an opportunity to build understanding."

Since many in the public view the BLM and Forest Service as federal land managers whose boundaries are blurred, it makes sense to work together as much as possible, he said.

"What people sometimes forget is that national forests are working forests," said Conroy, who has a bachelor's degree in forest management from the University of Idaho and a master's in natural resources management with an emphasis on watershed restoration from the University of Nevada-Reno.

"The fact they are working forests distinguishes them from something like a national park," he added. "National forests were established for a sustainable supply of timber and a sustainable supply of water.

"Our job is to try to figure out how to provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people over the long term," he said, quoting Gifford Pinchot, the nation's first Forest Service chief.

"It's a great mission but it is a challenge," Conroy concluded.

He and his wife, Lorna, who was named the Children's Advocacy Center employee of the year last week, live in Medford.

Jennifer Eberlien, the current deputy forest supervisor, will serve as acting forest supervisor until Conroy's replacement is named.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Retiring Conroy reflects on Forest Service tenure