District Ranger celebrates career managing forest resources in a responsible manner while looking to the future

Photo: Jim Thompson
District Ranger Jim Thompson. USDA Forest Service photo.

MICHIGAN — Cadillac/Manistee District Ranger Jim Thompson recently retired after a 33-year career with the USDA Forest Service.

“Jim’s steadfast leadership and capable decision-making have enabled the Cadillac/Manistee Ranger District to address challenges ranging from increased recreational use to non-native invasive species,” said Huron-Manistee National Forests Supervisor Leslie Auriemmo. “His contributions to the district and the community of Manistee will be felt for generations to come.”

Thompson began his career in Montana as a seasonal Forest Service employee before moving to the private sector in the mid-1980s. When the opportunity arose to become a cat skinner (bulldozer operator) on a remote island in Alaska, he took it “for the adventure.”

The move put Thompson in close proximity to the vast Tongass National Forest, which offered him a permanent position in 1987.  The hours were long, and conditions could be challenging. “When you’re working in Alaska,” Thompson said, “logistics is a nightmare.”

Intense winds and precipitation could leave timber crews stranded in remote areas for days. Crews had to ensure that they packed everything necessary to complete the job – and survive – before they departed for camp.
Despite the hardships, Thompson called working for the Tongass “a great experience.” He fondly recalls taking ranger boats on work trips and fishing in camp after a hard day’s work.

As time passed, Thompson felt it was important for his young daughter to be closer to family in the continental United States. In 1998, the Thompsons packed their belongings and relocated to the Superior National Forest in Minnesota.

It was there that Thompson began to entertain the idea of becoming a District Ranger. Encouraged by his Forest Supervisor, Thompson applied and was selected for a temporary detail as the Cadillac/Manistee District Ranger in the Huron-Manistee National Forests.

Upon arriving in northern Michigan in 2001, Thompson remembers thinking “Wow, this is kind of a nice place… We have all four seasons, and none of them are extreme.”

Compare that to Minnesota’s bitter cold or Alaska’s 130 inches of annual rainfall and one quickly sees the appeal.
The detail opportunity turned into a permanent position, but not a stagnant one. The next two decades were a time of immense change for the Huron-Manistee National Forests.

Thompson observed that the biggest transformation since his arrival has been the growth in demand for recreational opportunities. “It’s just exploded,” he said.

When Thompson arrived in Michigan, kayaks and mountain bikes were almost non-existent.  Today, kayaks abound on the Manistee and Pine Wild and Scenic Rivers, while the Big M Trail has become known throughout the Midwest as a mountain biking destination.

One of the biggest challenges wrought by increased recreation has been the need to balance competing demands for use. Thompson recalls that the quickest lesson that he learned as District Ranger is that “You don’t necessarily make everyone happy.”

Yet there are rare areas of consensus. Most people agree, for example, that measures must be taken to address non-native invasive species that threaten forest health.

“[Non-native invasive species] are going to come, and they will cause big problems in the future,” Thompson warned. “Take the emerald ash borer, which wiped out most of our ash in just a few years… The most important thing we can do is maintain healthy, diverse ecosystems.”

In fact, managing forest resources in a responsible manner is one of Thompson’s proudest achievements.  As examples, he points to recent habitat restoration projects for the endangered piping plover and the threatened eastern massasauga rattlesnake.

Those projects were successful, Thompson attests, because they focused on promoting resilient ecosystems. “We need to stop looking at specific species,” he emphasized. “We need to look at whole habitats.”

Thompson believes that it is also important to look beyond the Forest Service.  “It’s critical to get folks’ input and see what their thoughts and ideas are,” he said. “They may come up with something creative that you and your specialists didn’t think of.”

Reflecting upon his 33 years of government service, Thompson leaves his Forest Service colleagues with this advice: “Make sure you engage the public on decisions and [remember] our resource is very dynamic. What is right today might not be the right thing tomorrow.”