Bob Smart grew up in the U.S. Forest Service and devoted his working life to it. He spent 22 years as the Placerville Ranger on the Eldorado National Forest, declining offers of advancement, to work with his people in the field. He retired in 1999.
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The Forest Forum
On April 23, the Amador-El Dorado Forest Forum recognized Smart at a dinner at Colina de Oro restaurant in Diamond Springs. The Forest Forum, established in 1946, is an informal organization of active and retired forestry professionals and others interested in forestry. The Forest Forum provides scholarships to college students who are preparing to enter the field. The organization also supports the California Forestry Challenge, which introduces high school students to forestry practices and issues.
A forestry family
In a personal interview, Smart told his story. He was born in Keene, N.H. His father, who had been working for Weyerhauser, took a job with the Forest Service to work on the New England forests devastated by a hurricane in 1938. High winds from the “Long Island Express” gusting at 163 mph had mowed down the forests.
Smart grew up on ranger stations in Montana and Idaho. It was a wonderful life for a young boy who loved adventure and the outdoors. The U.S. Forest Service Ninemile Ranger Station in Montana was a showplace. About 30 miles from Region 1 headquarters in Missoula, it was the home of the Ninemile Remount Depot where pack mules and riding horses were developed for the important role of transporting freight in the rugged forests, hauling supplies to fire lines, servicing lookouts, transporting construction materials into back country ranger stations and spike camps.
Smoke jumping was relatively new in the Forest Service. It was a time of transition from heavy use of horses and mules to using aircraft in many ways. The smoke jumper base was just behind the Smart house, and the smokejumpers often visited. The wildland firefighters who parachuted into remote areas to combat wildfires became the young boy’s heroes.
On the morning of Aug. 5, 1949, smoke jumpers were at the Smart home to paint the house. They had hung their coats on their ladders. The men were called to fire duty and flew to Mann Gulch in the Helena National Forest, where they parachuted down. As they were hiking, the wind shifted, and the fire suddenly “blew up.” Twelve smokejumpers lost their lives, the first major casualties of the smoke jumper program. Smart remembers helping his mother wrap the coats of the deceased smokejumpers to return them to their families. She made it clear she never wanted him to be a smokejumper.
College and military service
After high school, Smart enrolled at the University of Idaho, where he earned a Bachelor of Science and Master of Forestry degrees and his Army ROTC officer’s commission on the same day. He had taken flight school courses in college, and the Army sent orders for him to go to Fort Benning, Ga., for Advanced Infantry Officer training and then on to flight school at Ft. Rucker, Ala. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara decided the Army had enough helicopter pilots and dropped his class from flight school. Smart decided he would go to Airborne School at Ft. Benning. Knowing his mother’s concerns, he only referred to his schooling as Airborne training. It was only later that he told her he had been jumping out of planes and was now a qualified paratrooper.
During his Army service, Smart met and married his wife, CB, who had traveled the world as an “Army brat.”
Forest Service career
Smart worked for the Forest Service in Montana during his college breaks beginning in 1960, and became a permanent employee on the Kootenai National Forest in 1963. He went into the Army in 1964.
After discharge in 1966, he asked the Forest Service to transfer him out of Region 1, which oversaw the forests in Montana, Idaho and eastern Washington. His father had just been transferred from Washington, D.C., to Colville, Wash., as forest supervisor in Region 1. Smart requested a transfer to California. He was assigned to the Eldorado National Forest.
“It was minus 27 degrees when we left Montana,” said Smart. “It was 70 degrees when we arrived in Placerville. We thought we had landed in pig heaven.”
Originally he was to join the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit as a recreation person when funding for his position disappeared. Instead, he was assigned to the Cosumnes Ranger District as a timber person.
Bob and CB Smart were in Placerville for three years, 1967-1970. Their son, Alan, was born in Placerville in 1968. “Doug Leisz was forest supervisor when I arrived,” said Smart. “I made a lot of lasting relationships. We rented upstairs quarters from Carl and Patty Borelli, and became close friends.”
When he was offered a position in resource management on the Cleveland National Forest, he accepted. The Cleveland is located in San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties. “The Cleveland Forest is mostly chapparal and a few large-cone Douglas fir,” said Smart. “There are 7 million people in the area, and no place close except the Cleveland Forest to go for recreation.” The Smarts stayed five years.
Their next station took them from one extreme to another, from heavily populated Southern California to a remote mining community called Sawyers Bar, population 70, in the Salmon River Ranger District of the Klamath National Forest. Smart was the district ranger. Alan went to a one-room schoolhouse. “Almost everybody in town worked for me, and they were anti-authority,” said Smart. “CB was not happy there.”
When the opportunity came in 1977 to return to the Eldorado where Smart was to be Placerville District Ranger, he and CB jumped at the chance. “When I came back, the forest supervisor was Joe Harn Sr.,” he said.
Smart stayed as Placerville District Ranger for 22 years until he retired. He was offered advancement opportunities along the way, but he was happy where he was. He compared himself to military captains, who prefer to remain with their men in the field and be “hands on” rather than advance up the ranks. His wife had packed and moved many times in her life, but no place rivaled Placerville, and she was content to stay.
During his career, Smart was a national incident commander, head of his own fire team, and a major accident investigator. From the Forest Service side, he helped the development of what is now Sierra at Tahoe. He was involved in laying out the Pony Express Trail from the Tahoe Basin to Brockliss Bridge by Pacific House. When the bridge became dangerously unusable in the 1980s, he authorized it being blown up by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“I ended up with really good skills and never got tired of the job,” he said.
Continuing commitment to forestry
Smart continues his connection with the U.S. Forest Service as a member of the Forest Forum and a Golden Member of the Society of American Foresters. He remains concerned about increasing fire danger in the forests. “How many times does the American River canyon need to burn?” he asked. A number of fires in the South Fork American River Watershed of over 1,000 acres burned before, during and after his watch: Ice House Fire in 1959; Wrights Fire in 1971; Cleveland in 1992; and Fred’s in 2004.
“We have to manage our large forests, and we can’t do it solely with prescribed burns,” he said. “The weather window is too narrow.”
His second worry is that the majority of young Americans have no exposure to living forests. “They need to spend time in the forests,” he said.
The year after Smart’s retirement from the Forest Service, Carl Borelli was elected District 3 Supervisor for El Dorado County. He asked Smart to accept a position on the Parks and Recreation Commission. Smart accepted and joined the commission in 2000. He has been reappointed to the commission by succeeding supervisors and continues to serve.
While Smart continues his connection to forestry, and his commitment to county recreation, he has taken another leadership position. Smart is now chairman of the Diamond Springs-El Dorado Community Advisory Committee. A longtime resident of Diamond Springs, he envisions historical Diamond Springs as a village center with moderate to low-cost housing for young people and their families to live and work nearby.
Smart was honored by his peers not only for his contributions as a professional forester, but also for his continuing community service on behalf of the people of El Dorado County.