8 questions for U.S. Forest Service veteran Deb Davis

The Pacific Crest Trail passes through 25 national forests, six national parks, seven BLM field offices and five state park units. Across all these jurisdictions, the Pacific Crest Trail Association works with government partners who have spent their careers managing our public lands. Our agency partners work hard to maintain our most beloved places. Many of these public servants have worked on the PCT for decades. They write grants, negotiate complex land planning processes, hire and manage seasonal staff, and find ways to maintain services with shrinking federal budgets. Their work is essential to the maintenance of the PCT.

Deb Davis

Deb Davis is an invaluable PCTA partner in the Cle Elum Ranger District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Her answers to the following questions first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of the PCT Communicator.  They offer a snapshot of the Forest Service’s work and Deb’s dedication to the trail.

What do you do for the U.S. Forest Service?

I’m a lead forestry technician, specializing in trails. Most of us technicians are actually generalists, so I have other recreation duties and skills. I’m the crosscut saw program manager for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest as well as the lead (and only) blaster.

How long have you worked for the federal government? Why did you pursue a career with the Forest Service?

My first season was in 1980. I worked 19 more seasons before becoming a permanent seasonal employee in 2002. I wouldn’t say I pursued a career — it pursued me. The thought of working in an office turned me toward the outdoors. I come from a family of farmers and loggers from southwest Washington and grew up running around in the woods. After a summer with the Youth Conservation Corps in 1975 on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, I was hooked. Most of my years have been spent working in trails and wilderness, but I’ve also worked in timber, silviculture, fire and winter recreation.

What has changed most over your time with the agency?

There have been LOTS of changes since 1980. The emphasis was very much on timber production in those days, and all that started to shift around 1990. Now much of the agency’s resources and energy go to fire suppression and big ecological restoration projects. Most people know budgets have been cut and the Forest Service workforce is smaller than it used to be. This has affected what we do and how we do it. The agency is more centralized these days and has a more diverse workforce. Probably the biggest change is the pace of technology and the digital revolution that permeates every aspect of 21st Century life.

Setting up camp in 2001. Deb Davis has spent decades as a devoted steward of the PCT.

What sort of unique skills does your position require? What makes your job challenging, and what makes it rewarding?

Everybody brings something different to the work. The technical skills are part of the job, but you have to not mind getting dirty and tired. You learn to persist through adversity such as rainy weather, hot weather, clouds of mosquitoes, steep trails, heavy packs, etc. It’s helpful to know how to use an ax and crosscut saw, but it’s also important to be observant, flexible and creative. Most trail problems have more than one solution, and it’s fun to figure them out. I went to art school for six years, and I apply critical thinking, visualization and problem solving to my work every day. Craftsmanship is very important to me, and I approach trail work as a craft to keep honing. And I try to teach this as I work with partners and the next generation of trail workers.

Most of my challenges with the job are bureaucratic. I’m not a linear thinker, and I’d rather be out getting dirty. But many administrative tasks support the folks who are getting work done on the trails so there’s an acceptable trade-off. And there are rewards — each year there are a few joyous days outside when I can’t believe I get paid to do what I do. Those make up for the tedium and headaches that come with having any job. I’ve been fortunate to spend most of my working life outdoors with like-minded people. Trail work is kind of tribal. You recognize members of your tribe and enjoy being with them. It also is rewarding to keep mastering a craft. You can function at a high level of skill but continue to learn. And of course being in the backcountry is a reward, but more about that below.

How would you describe the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and the Cle Elum Ranger District?

The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is the largest national forest in Oregon and Washington. It reaches from the Canadian border to the Yakama Indian Reservation, from the crest of the Cascades to the part of the rain shadow that no longer supports trees. There’s a great variety of elevations, terrain and ecosystems. The forest contains all or parts of eight different congressionally designated wilderness areas, and the PCT travels through all but one. The Cle Elum District is typical of the forest in the variety of terrain and habitats. Because Interstate 90 bisects the district and Cle Elum is 80 miles from Seattle, we receive an overwhelming number of visitors. This is a complex place to work and live.

What does the Pacific Crest Trail mean for you? When did you first learn about the PCT?

I was in high school (1977) when I discovered Eric Ryback’s book about hiking the entire PCT. For a while I toyed with the idea of trying to do the trip, but it was necessary to find a job. I spent six seasons working on the Idaho Panhandle National Forests and came back to the Wenatchee National Forest in 1989. The PCT popped back up on my radar then. I started working at Cle Elum in 1991, and we spent a lot of time working on our nonwilderness portion of the PCT, parts of which had been logged over and needed a lot of attention. I’ve gotten to watch that area recover over the years. There is something really special — and quiet — about the remaining old growth forest on that part of the crest.

The PCT is a national treasure, and that’s how we should think of it. And not just the trail but the land it passes through. While I sometimes wring my hands over the enormous task of taking care of a remote trail that was designed to maximize scenery instead of longevity, it has been a privilege to spend decades as a steward and devotee of the trail. I’m always happy when I am called out as a blaster to do a job on a part of the trail that is new to me.

Part of your job is caring for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which is designated in perpetuity, as the 1964 Wilderness Act states: “as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” How would you describe the responsibility to manage land with a wilderness designation? Most of the modern world is not managed in a fashion that it seeks to avoid trammeling “the earth and its community of life.” How do you understand the long-term significance of your work?

This is a huge philosophical question, and for every person you ask, you are likely to get a different answer. I attended the dedication of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in 1976, not knowing that I would spend part of my life working in it. Wilderness, and the opportunity to earn my livelihood in it, has had a profound influence on me personally and professionally. Howard Zahniser (one of the authors of the 1964 Wilderness Act) defined untrammeled as Not being subject to human controls and manipulations that hinder the free play of natural forces.” Forest Service management of wilderness tends to take a minimalist approach, although there is friction between interpretations of what is control, manipulation or hindrance. And certainly there is a burning edge where human demands for recreation and resources meet the continued existence of wilderness as we know it.

Human trails in wilderness are affected by the free play of natural forces and that free play is affected by trails, so it’s always a balancing act to provide a travel way that confines travelers to a certain piece of ground while causing as little damage as possible to soils, water, vegetation and wildlife. It’s not always possible to leave no trace, but we can make decisions that minimize harm.

As to understanding the long-term significance of my work, I puzzled over the question for days. Here’s my most honest answer: I don’t think most of us get to know if what we do matters in the long run. Showing up to work in a field that interacts with the natural world is an act of faith. You hope you’re doing what’s right, but what you’re really doing is planting seeds that you won’t get to see grow or die.It’s a question of scale. Over time—on the planet, the continent, the entire PCT—my work has been insignificant. But here in this little chunk of the Cascades, I’ve cut some logs and brush, moved some dirt, blown up some rocks and built structures that make it easier for people and animals to move through the mountains. I’ve written some funding grants and helped maintain partnerships that keep people working on trails. My most significant contribution is probably as a crew leader, teacher and someone who speaks up for wilderness and backcountry skills. It’s possible that I’m a little too fierce for some folks, but trail work doesn’t exactly polish the rough edges off a person. Annie Dillard said that how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. And I reckon that’s about right.

What do you wish the public knew about your work, the Forest Service and/or public lands?

  • We’re still here, and (I hope) still relevant as land managers. And we still do trail work. There are many dedicated folks in the Forest Service who are good at their jobs and committed to caring for public land and providing public service.
  • Don’t take public lands for granted. It’s amazing that citizens and leaders in our country had the foresight to create national parks, forests and wilderness areas. We are fortunate to have them. But there have always been conflicts and controversies, and who knows what the future holds. It’s to everyone’s benefit to get involved in stewardship of places and ecosystems.
  • I wish everybody practiced Leave No Trace, starting with Plan Ahead and Prepare.