Billy Lumpkin, a civil engineering technician for the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas, knows a few things about all the buildings on his forests and grasslands, after all he’s been involved in their construction, operation and maintenance for 48 years. But he also has a zeal for helping others and sharing the forest with the public. He is a recent winner of the forest’s Rodney Peters Humanitarian Award for work with his local church and Habitat for Humanity in his Lufkin, Texas community, and a former winner of the agency’s National Engineering Technician of the Year award. He also happens to be one of the most personable guys you’d ever want to know.
How did you start working for the Forest Service?
I started in 1963 through a temporary assignment when unemployment was very high. President Kennedy had initiated the Accelerated Public Works Program to provide jobs and improve facilities for the public’s use. I started with a 180-day temporary appointment and have managed to stretch that into 48 years now for the four national forests in east Texas and the Caddo-Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands in northeast Texas. That includes a two-year hitch in the Army with an 18-month tour in Viet Nam and a little over three years on the Ocala National Forest in Florida.
What type and how many projects have you worked on?
That’s hard to say, but probably more than 100. One of the things I like about the Forest Service is that we have the opportunity to work on such a wide variety of projects. In engineering, we may be working a building design one day and a full-blown electrical system the next. I’ve worked on road designs, district ranger offices, warehouses, and workshops for field crews. I’m working on a concession building now for a highly developed recreation area so they can sell ice, groceries and rent boats and swim floaties for the kids. I even built a Job Corps Center on the Sam Houston National Forest that had everything a city would have including a barbershop and a gymnasium.
I’ve seen things come full circle. Now I’m decommissioning recreation facilities I originally built. The fun thing is I get to take my grandkids out and actually show them something we worked on and I get to tell them stories about what we accomplished.
Your colleagues say you hold all the corporate knowledge on facilities. How do you remember so much?
That’s a mystery to me because I can’t even remember what I had for lunch, but I think the good Lord just fixed me up that way. I’m curious by nature. Sometimes it gets me into trouble but I try to stay that way, learning as much as I can about the things that influence my work. I try and figure out how something works or more importantly how to fix something if it doesn’t work. Somebody told me the reason I know everything is because I’ve had the time to mess up everything at least once. Just like Ben Franklin says, experience teaches. That’s where the good lessons are. You rarely forget those. You have to stay involved and work closely with those you’re working with - that’s the key. Be hands-on and stay involved.
You’re known to do the work of a man half your age. What’s your secret?
Never be more than half your age! I still wonder what I’m going to be when I grow up. It’s your attitude, I think. You can’t just sit tight. When I was growing up, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t have to work. I enjoy people and I enjoy learning.
Are there any special aspects of the National Forests and Grasslands of Texas that you enjoy sharing with others?
With 94 percent of Texas being privately owned, there is very little public land and our forests and grasslands are a large part of that public land. The Sam Houston National Forest is only 45 miles from Houston, the fourth largest U.S. city. And the national grasslands is just 50 miles north of the Dallas-Forth Worth area, the sixth largest U.S. metropolitan area. People spend weeks and weeks in town but when they get out to our national forests, they’re out in the woods and country where they can enjoy many recreation opportunities. Our lakes are featured on the national fishing shows all the time, especially for large-mouth bass. There are three major reservoirs located within the forest boundaries. The Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Sabine National Forest and the Sam Rayburn Reservoir, on the Angelina National Forest are both used for flood control and include hydroelectric power plants. The Lake Conroe Reservoir on the Sam Houston National Forest provides the water supply for the city of Houston. These lakes and other smaller ones are extremely popular for fishing, boating, camping, hunting and swimming.
A lot of people don’t know us but I wish I could give them all maps and invite them to visit. One time, a guy said to me ‘I don’t understand the smell here.’ He mentioned he lived near an industrial area in the city and the air smelled different on the forest. I told him ‘well, that’s fresh air’.
If you could live in any other time, when would that be and why?
I would have been younger when the space shuttle was developed and I would have been an astronaut. You know we had the Space Shuttle Columbia crash here (Feb. 1, 2003) and we worked the recovery operations. One of the astronauts working with the disaster response team gave me a patch from one of his NASA missions and I told him I’d give the patch back for a ride on the shuttle. He told me he couldn’t fix that. But if I could, I would really like to travel in space.
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location and a bit about to Faces of the Forest.