Listening to the land - 91-year-old retired forest ranger on a quest to leave one more piece of land better than he found it
Listening to the land - 91-year-old retired forest ranger on a quest to leave one more piece of land better than he found it

McFARLAND CREEK - He is an old man now, walking in even older country.

Even before Bud Moore was born in Florence in 1917, the miners had their hands in this creek, these woods, grasping for the promise of gold.

Decades later, the loggers came, taking the grandest of the ponderosas, leaving the tell-tale scars. During those same years, Bud Moore worked across the Bitterroot Divide, down in the Lochsa country, where he became something of a legend as a Forest Service ranger.

When he talks about those years, his wisdom betrays his eighth-grade education. By any standard, he is an educated man, but much of what he knows he learned on the ground.

Here, for instance, are wood chips on the pressed floor of a logging road high in the country above Lozeau.

"Must be a pileated working here somewhere," he says.

His visitors look up to test his theory. The hole in the tree backs him up, but of course, he already knew it was there.

He knows what he's seen. Over time, by learning about the Nez Perce people who once peopled the country, he's also come to know some of what he has not seen, the reality of what the land itself has to say.

"They knew how to listen and hear what the land said," Moore said. "It's hard for us, but it's possible."

As a testament to his wisdom, a group of college students from the Wild Rockies Field Institute came to see him last week. They walked in the woods, sat around the dinner table, batted ideas back and forth with a master storyteller.

"When you can get information from the source, you come to the source," said the institute's Bethany Swanson. "For us, this was better than reading a handful of books. He has generations of knowledge."

He wears a hearing aid in his left ear. His knees are bothering him, but those knees are entitled, having walked thousands of miles of mountain trails.

At 91, he can no longer out-hike those 40 years his junior, but he still exudes a force, a will, a drive that cannot be denied.

That drive explains the 210 acres of pines, firs and cedars that he acquired in January 2008 in the mountains west of Lozeau.

Some retirees move to Florida. Some move to Vegas or Phoenix. The adventurous maybe take their mobile homes and park in Ed Abbey's deserts of the Southwest.

Almost no one moves 13 miles up a dirt road and sets himself to rehabilitating a tract of land sundered by miners and loggers.

"I guess it's just one more chance to leave one more piece of land better than I found it," Moore said recently. "Maybe part of it is that I?can't quit tinkering. We've made lots of mistakes in the woods over the years, and I still feel there's something I can do about that, at least on a small scale."

His mind is stiletto sharp. He remembers the 1920s, he remembers the 1980s and he remembers what the college students asked him just the other day.

He knows the clock is ticking and he is making the best use of time, passing along the knowledge massed by his curious, questing mind.

"I've been thinking about the footprint we all leave," he said. "I want to make sure all mine are in order."

The improved land, then, will be that footprint, an outline of a pattern for living within the land's means, a way to both take and give back.

Bud Moore came of age in the U.S. Forest Service at a time when a district ranger was the lord of his domain. That suited Moore, who'd grown up in Lolo Creek, running trap lines and talking to the last of the full-time trappers who often stopped at the family home on their way out of the mountains.

Over the years, Bud did just about anything a man could do in the woods - he trapped, logged, built cabins, herded sheep, chased fires.

He worked summers for the Forest Service as a boy, and he worked his way slowly up the ladder to district ranger and finally chief of fire management and air operations.

His book, "The Lochsa Story: Land Ethics in the Bitterroot Mountains," recounts those years with grace, wit and humility.

There is a truthfulness to Moore, both then and now, that is completely disarming. Maybe it's the fact that our own faults simply become more approachable with age, but Moore, for whatever sage status he's gathered over time, is still circumspect about what he knows.

"I've seen enough to know that we've made plenty of mistakes along the way, and I know that if I move too quickly with this land right here, I?could make some mistakes again," he said. "Sometimes just sitting there is the right thing to do. Even here, where there are things to be done, we could sit here for 10 years and do nothing and the land wouldn't be any the worse for it."

Bud Moore has children. Two were born to him, four others were the children of his deceased wife, the former state legislator Janet Moore.

He has not amassed a financial fortune to leave them. But he will bequeath them something that money can't necessarily buy - healthy swaths of land in the Swan Valley and north Bitterroots that will keep giving long after Bud is gone.

Bud Moore believes in wilderness, but he understands that not all forest lands are wilderness. Some land must be put to work to make this country work.

But that doesn't mean that hillsides must be clearcut for timber, or creeks gouged indelibly for gold.

Moore's new land has suffered, but much of what went wrong has been healed by time. Still, there is work to be done.

And now the question is what. Working with his son Bill, Bud has started an evaluation of the property, but they will need help.

"If I had bought this land 10 years ago, I could have done all the evaluating myself," Moore said.

That would have been at age 81.

"Now, I'm going to need some help to cruise this timber, but I do think I will get out there and find the boundaries," he said. "Even I can do that."

When he talks about this new piece of land, it's easy enough to see that the footprint he wants to create will encircle his children, even those who are now more urban than their country roots.

"What I need to leave is a plan that, if followed, will allow the land to give back to them and give back to the people of Mineral County," Moore said. "I just want to do something that's good and sustainable."

When he was looking to trade for the remote property, he asked his son Bill what he thought about the possibility. Bill is his father's "deputy," and he is straightforward with his advice.

"He said, 'Pop, I think you're getting in over your head,' " Bud recalled.

That made the old man laugh.

"I?thought, well, I've been over my head all my life," he said. "So that won't be anything new. Anybody who's ever tried to take care of land has been over his head."

All you have to do is look around his cabin, though, to know that over his head or not, he's got work to do.

At the door, underneath the sign that says "Welcome to the Castle Moore," are logging hard hats, snowshoes, a Herculean flashlight, hip boots.

Yes, they belong to an old man. But they aren't under glass, and neither is he.

Proof is that students like those from the Wild Rockies Field Institute still make their way to his faraway door.

"He is our elder, and you learn from your elders," Bethany Swanson said. "We're blessed by his presence."

Bud Moore is still learning to speak with the land, to hear what it says.

"I just want to do something that leaves this place better than we found it, something that lasts for a very long, long time,"?he said quietly.

Though the Nez Perce weren't around to translate last week, it's just possible the land whispered its thanks.

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or by e-mail at mmoore@missoulian.com. Photographer Michael Gallacher can be reached at 523-5270 or by e-mail at mgallacher@missoulian.com.

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