Dave Campbell, the longest-serving district ranger in the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region, died suddenly Monday.
The 66-year-old Conner resident worked 17 years as the line officer for the Bitterroot National Forest’s West Fork Ranger District and 24 years total in the Bitterroot.
“This certainly came as an enormous shock to all of us who knew Dave,” said longtime friend Marshall Bloom. “The wild lands and natural resources in the Bitterroot have lost a very good friend. As a district ranger, Dave was a staunch and unyielding advocate for resource protection in wilderness.”
The two men met when Campbell served on the Sula Ranger District in the Bitterroot. After he retired from the Forest Service, Campbell took a seat on the board of the Bitterroot Trout Unlimited Chapter with Bloom and was deeply involved in the Bitterroot West Fork Recreation Plan.
In talking with Ravalli Republic reporter Perry Backus about his retirement in 2013, Campbell pulled out a 1994 photo of a group of fellow district rangers. Several had become forest supervisors, deputy regional foresters or regional foresters.
“I had forest supervisors who told me early on that I should be considering moving out and moving up,” Campbell said. “My comment to the supervisors was always the same: I see what you do in your job and I know what I do in mine. I think I like my job better.”
Stevensville book publisher Dale Burk got to know Campbell while writing about Bitterroot clear-cutting practices that had rocked the timber industry in the 1980s.
“He mastered the entire range of coping as a forester,” said Burk, a former Missoulian reporter and editor. “He was managing the forest in the wake of national attention and controversy. Whether it was highly criticized timber practices, wildlife values or the relationship to wilderness there, he was a hands-on type of guy.”
Campbell was well-known to get his feet wet — literally — meeting with people while fishing his favorite parts of the local rivers. Campbell took that attitude overseas to several parts of Africa, where he participated in the Forest Service’s international forestry programs. Retired Missoula District Ranger Dave Stack said Campbell used his long tenure in office to build understanding with the people he served.
“He was able to use those relationships to work through the challenges that come up when not everyone is agreeing,” Stack said. “If you can have those relationships, where you can discuss issues back and forth, then groups can accept you’re making a decision in the best light you can even if they might not agree with it.”
Former regional and national Forest Service fire director Jerry Williams said Campbell’s personal courage managing wilderness fires was exemplary. The Wilderness Act of 1964 calls for wildfire in protected areas to burn naturally — something very risky in explosive fire seasons the Bitterroot has frequently seen.
“We kid around that you can be pretty brave when there’s two feet of snow on the ground about decisions to let a fire go, and let natural processes operate,” Williams said. “But in the middle of summer, when there’s lots of fires burning and extreme demand for resources, Dave was a strong advocate for the wilderness fire program when it was really in its infancy. He was in a position as a district ranger to make that happen.”
Williams cited recent studies showing that two-thirds of the wildfires between 2000 and 2017, which cost $20 million or more to suppress, occurred in Ponderosa pine forests. Before Americans started to actively fight all forest fires in the 20th century, those Ponderosa stands had the most benign fire behavior.
“The irony is that for all the heat the wilderness fire program took over these many years, those (wilderness landscapes) may be today the most resilient fire-dependent ecosystems we’ve got,” Williams said. “We know that due to the work and bravery of guys like Dave Campbell.”
Ravalli Republic reporters Perry Backus and Michelle McConnaha contributed to this story.