Lincoln Bramwell was used to the life of a seasonal employee. After working for the U.S. Forest Service for nine seasons, he established a pattern that didn’t include the office life. Summers were spent in the field while he went to school during the rest of the year. His love for history and nature seemed far apart, but he found a way to put them together.
What path took you to Forest Service Historian?
I was, well, I am a nerd; growing up my Mom was a history buff so there were always books around my house. In college I took all the general ed. classes but the history classes came alive--I read everything on the reading list, it inspired me.
While I liked studying history, I loved my summers working for the Forest Service. I loved swinging a Pulaski. It was a totally different experience from school; you’re outside doing physical labor. I didn’t have a natural resource background, so it was fascinating to learn from the people I worked with, and how they could read a landscape and its history just by looking at it.
But I couldn’t figure out how to get the two together. Then I met a Forest Service historian by chance at a wilderness ranger rendezvous in Dillon, Mont. One of the speakers was Mary Williams from the Bitterroot National Forest and she talked about the Forest Service and environmental history. Afterwards I pigeon-holed her and grilled her about her work and she told me about this field that studies humans’ relationships with the natural world. I was in graduate school at the time so I tracked down a professor in the history department and inquired about environmental history. He handed me a copy of Steve Pyne’s, “Fire in America,” a cultural history of wildfire and fire management. Coming off of a hotshot crew, the book was like an ice cream cake—it combined my two favorite things—history and firefighting. That was a revelation to me, I had no idea you could study what you love to do.
What makes you unique?
I’m just as comfortable with a chainsaw as I am with a computer, actually probably more comfortable with the chainsaw. I’m probably one of the few people wearing a tie that can say that. I expect my computer to explode at any moment.
What is one thing about you that few people know?
I’m like a five year old. A chocolate chip cookie will solve any problem for me.
What did you want to be as a kid and when did it change?
As a kid I wanted to be a garbage man. They swing on the back of trucks, find cool stuff occasionally. I thought that was the coolest job ever. I think that changed once my parents made me take out the trash.
Do you have any favorite stories from Forest Service history, either yours or specific to the Forest Service?
One of my favorite stories from Forest Service history is the story of the midnight reserves. It was when Teddy Roosevelt was president and he had reserved so many national forests and wildlife refuges and national parks that Congress attached the Fulton amendment on the 1907 general appropriations bill, taking away his authority from reserving any more land in six western states. Roosevelt knew he was stuck; he had to pass the bill with the amendment but he also knew he had several days before he was required to sign the bill into law. He ordered Gifford Pinchot to draw up boundaries for another 16 million acres of national forests in those six specific states. Roosevelt took great satisfaction in pulling this off before the amendment went into effect. That’s got to be my favorite story.
And for me, it was July 4, 1997. I was on a fire with my hotshot crew on the Wenatchee National Forest. The fire was out, and we were relaxing at the end of our shift on a really pretty ridge and just soaking in our surroundings. And it inspired our superintendent to start singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” It was just kind of one of those spontaneous things; no one snickered about it, we all just joined in. We had an exchange firefighter from Indonesia on our crew and we explained to him about the holiday and what we were doing and then he returned the favor and sang his country’s anthem a cappella. It was a really, really cool moment; the cultural exchange, the holiday, recognizing the natural resources we were protecting, the connection with this other person, is something I’ll never forget.
If you could change one thing in your past, what would it be?
One thing in my past, hmm. I’m really one of those lucky people that gets to do what I really like to do. This didn’t just happen to me; I was actively working towards this goal. All the “mistakes” I made along the way just made me appreciate the things I get to do even more.
If you could have dinner with three famous people in history, who would they be?
It would have to be like a dinner party. I’d have to have a food person, and they’d have to be making it; I always think of my stomach. I think I’d have Paula Dean, just making the food and laughing hysterically, her laugh is great. So I’d include her because you’ve got to have somebody make the food. I’d want to hang out with somebody from music and just crawl inside their heads, and ask how’d you write that or what inspired this? I grew up listening to R.E.M. so maybe Michael Stipe would be interesting to have dinner with him. Finally I would have to pick Abraham Lincoln. If anyone asked me why, I’d really just say: 'duh...’ I don’t know why more people don’t think about the chef, what else are you going to do at one of these dinners, eat soup?
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.