In early March of 2020, Stewardship Director Alex Ertaud sat down with Adam Barnett, the Inyo National Forest’s Assistant Public Services Staff Officer. This conversation dives deep into the ins and outs of the two organization’s working relationship. It is always a pleasure to chat with Adam and I hope you enjoy!
Alex Ertaud, Stewardship Director: I am here with Adam Barnett, of the Forest Service. Thank you for sitting down with me Adam. Just to start things off, when was the first time you came to the Eastern Sierra? And I guess in this case, the Inyo National Forest.
Adam Barnett, Assistant Public Services Staff Officer, Inyo National Forest: I’ll have to think about that one for a minute. It probably would have been 2006, 06 or 07, something, when I first came down to work for the Forest Service in California.
AE: And you were working for the Inyo [National Forest]?
AB: I was working for the research branch of the Forest Service, in Davis. I did that for three years out of graduate school. I’m sure during that time at some point, I came over to the Eastside to explore.
AE: Awesome. Before we go any further, what’s your official title with the Inyo National Forest?
AB: Assistant Public Services Staff Officer.
AB: Whatever that means [laughing].
AE: Ok, so you said early 2000s, at some point?
AB: Yeah, probably 2005 or 06.
AE: And good impressions, I hope? I assume?
AB: Oh yeah, this place is awesome. What an amazing place. It’s great to be back here.
AE: You mentioned being back here. You recently came to the INF in 2019.
AB: Yeah, last May.
AE: And where were you before that?
AB: In Arizona, the Coconino National Forest, in the Sedona area, doing recreation management.
AE: Nice. And where are you from originally?
AB: Rhode Island.
AE: Ahh, when did you come out West?
AB: After college. I graduated, and I went to work for the [National] Park Service, at Crater Lake National Park, as a firefighter.
AE: And you said you went to graduate school?
AE: And what was that in?
AB: I went to grad school for natural resource management, and social science. So the people side of public lands management.
AE: Where was that? Was that at Davis?
AB: That was at the University of Idaho.
AE: Ok, so you made your way back into the Forest Service, after grad school. Right?
AB: Yeah, so I worked for the [National] Park Service before grad school, and the Forest Service afterwards again.
AE: What drew you to the government side of public lands? Both through the National Park Service, and now the Forest Service. What drew you to that?
AB: Well, I think like a lot of people, I got started by enjoying spending time outside. I grew up in rural New England, cross country skied a lot, and hiked, and biked with my family and friends. It was just always something that was part of what I did. So when I learned that you could do that sort of thing possibly for work, that sounded pretty cool. I came out West, and took a fire job, and realized that the mountains and everything were a lot higher up here. There was a lot more to do outdoors, and it was a lot more exciting, so I stayed.
AE: So as you work through…how many different positions have you had with the Forest Service at this point?
AB: I think this is my fifth?
AE: We went through your job title earlier, and it’s a bit of a mouthful. But what do you see…I mean you’re kind of our (Friends of the Inyo) liaison, as a non-profit, with the Inyo National Forest. Is that correct?
AB: It is.
AE: So we were very excited for that. How do you see non-profits being involved in the Forest Service in the year 2020, and where we are now?
AB: I think that partner organizations, including non-profits, are an essential part of [the] Forest Service’s ability to get anything done anymore. Besides…well even firefighting; even the most basic things require partners at this point. But certainly recreation management, and wilderness stewardship, resource protection work, all require partners, including non-profits, to support field staffing, and find money, pretty much everything.
AE: So do you enjoy that part of your job? I think you’re probably more office-bound than you would like these days, but is that a part of your job you find rewarding?
AB: Yeah, I think…
AE: Obviously, I guess that’s kind of biased, because I am asking you the question. It’s like I’m asking you if interacting with me is rewarding.
AB: [Laughing] Right, well I wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t something I wanted to do. It was pretty obvious that that was a need at the Inyo [National Forest], trying to find somebody to help fill [that job]. I’ve had a lot of experience doing that kind of work with external partners over the years, and I do like that part, honestly, because it’s more interesting when you’re working with people with different perspectives, different abilities, different ways of looking at things than the way that folks commonly do when they’re inside a large bureaucracy. So I really enjoy having a mix of nonprofits to work with, other non-federal agencies, private sector organizations, all that stuff together makes a much more interesting and also creative and usually fruitful mix of people and ideas.
AE: Yeah, you mention the creative part. Do you find that your job is particularly creative in that way? I think sometimes when you’re in large organizations, or businesses, or anything, sometimes creativity gets lost a little, because it is difficult—just inherently—to do, to be creative and flexible, while also managing a giant pool of stuff. So is that something you’re drawn to in your job?
AB: Yeah, I think creativity in the Forest Service has a lot to do with problem solving in an environment of scarcity. So it’s not quite the same thing as being able to express yourself as an individual, it’s more about how to make stuff happen when you basically have to figure it out.
AE: Do you have a favorite place in the Eastern Sierra?
AE: That you want to divulge publicly to the audience.
AB: I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I don’t, I don’t really. But recently I’ve been hiking more in the Inyo Mountains, and last fall in the White Mountains, just because I haven’t spent any time there before, and it’s amazing. So that’s pretty cool.
AE: Have you been up the Pat Keyes Trail?
AB: I haven’t done that one yet. I was just up the Sheep Springs trail there, which is in a similar area. It was pretty neat.
AE: Yeah, I like the Pat Keyes Trail, it’s very steep. And often not a lot of people around, in those Inyo and White Mountains, which is nice.
AB: It is.
AE: Especially when things can get really, really crowded. What do you see in kind of, going forward, for partner organizations that work with the Forest Service. What would you say is the big thing coming on the horizon?
AB: Well, I mean I don’t know what the big thing is. I think what I’ve seen over the years is a progression of the agency and partners working together, in that we’re moving past the phase of really there [being] one partner and the Forest Service working together to find money to do one project. We’re well into the more mature phase of developing long term, more complex relationships among multiple partners that work together to develop programs that are going to last. And that’s just like federal agencies have to learn how to work together, you know, partner organizations have to learn how to work together as well, and negotiate the overlaps, or differences in their missions and their priorities. So just a more sophisticated level of cooperation is what’s needed I think at this point, because we’re facing more complex, more expensive problems, that affect all of us and our communities. Like fire management, of course, but also growing demand for recreational opportunities, recreation infrastructure, while budgets shrink, and more people want more stuff.
AE: I think that recreation part is really interesting, and something that we [Friends of the Inyo] think about a lot. Is that a heightened consideration? I know fire [is] obviously very important, but the sheer numbers of recreation, is that something the Forest Service is particularly…I don’t want to say concerned, but I will.
AB: Well so, sustainable recreation management is something that has been a priority of the Forest Service for a long time. What it’s called has changed over the years, but I think it’s pretty clear that the agency is responsible for providing a lot of recreation access and opportunities for people, while at the same time protecting public lands from unmanaged use. So, here on the Inyo [National Forest], recreation is even more of a big deal than it is on some national forests around the country, because it’s so closely tied to the economy here, and there’s so much legacy recreational infrastructure in the Inyo National Forest that was built in the 70’s, and none of it meets current preferences that the public generally has now, or meets accessibility standards in many cases. There’s a lot of stuff, that contributes to there being a very significant need for support for recreation infrastructure improvements here.
AE: So Friends of the Inyo has been around a while. “Since 1986”, I think our sticker says. During that life, the relationship with the Forest Service has seen different iterations. What is the importance of Friends of the Inyo from the INF’s point of view? Because obviously I hope we’re a good partner, but what benefit and value do we provide to the Forest Service? Again, probably an inherently biased question coming from me.
AB: [Laughing] So I worked on the Sierra National Forest a couple of jobs back, so I actually worked a little bit with Friends of the Inyo on projects at that point too. You know, that was a time when Friends of the Inyo was doing a lot of Travel Management implementation work. Helping with road closures and restoration work. When I first came over here…well I’ve worked on a lot of National Forests, and I’ve seen different ways of managing off-highway vehicle use and the roads system and the trails system. And as soon as I got here, it was pretty obvious that there was a lot of good restoration work had been done, a lot of good management that had been done over the last decade or so. And I know that Friends of the Inyo was an important part of that. That Friends of the Inyo helps with the capacity needs. You know the Forest Service can find money, Friends of the Inyo can find money; especially on the Inyo, it’s difficult for Forest Service to hire seasonal employees to do field work, and Friends of the Inyo helps augment capacity with their crew that you can hire often easier, and more quickly and efficiently than the Forest Service can, which is a huge benefit. And then, so now, with Friends of the Inyo working with the Forest Service on trail stuff, and public education through [the] Trail Ambassador program, it’s also augmenting the Forest Service’s capacity by having people out in the field, who can talk to visitors, and provide them with information, and help them, and also do the maintenance on trails. So I can see from last summer, even, the trails that the Trail Ambassadors work on regularly, you can tell, that they’re being regularly maintained. Rather than just once a year, somebody gets out on it, and does the initial trail clearing. You can see the difference, over the course of a summer, when somebody’s actually keeping the drains clear, keeping the rocks off the trail, keeping the brush cut back, keeping the shortcuts blocked, you can see that over the course of a summer, because trails change, as people use them. So I credit Friends of the Inyo with a bunch of that, for our major trails, that get a lot of use. A little bit of help, in terms of field staff, like four Trail Ambassadors, can go a long way, if they’re out there all the time, all summer long, so it’s a huge help.
AE: Well I appreciate that. I’m glad the work stays. Sometimes, especially, as your mentioned, in a dynamic work environment that we work in, it’s nice when it can stay throughout a whole season, and the work shows a difference, and it doesn’t just get washed away by the next rain, or snow, or what have you.
AB: And then the volunteer projects also are huge. I mean having Friends of the Inyo be able to organize, plan, support projects, lead projects, basically do everything for major volunteer projects is an enormous help to the Inyo [National Forest] too. Because there’s very few people here, on the Forest Service-side that are available to do that, put that work in. So Friends of the Inyo’s stewardship projects are a big help that way too.
AE: I really enjoy those volunteer projects. And you came out to many of our volunteer days this summer.
AB: Yeah that was fun.
AE: It was a great Forest Service representation at the events. It was awesome. And so I really appreciate that y’all, you and the whole staff, have shown support for what we do, and that makes it more fun, and makes us feel good about the work that we’re doing.
AB: Right, and we should feel good, and we should be having fun.
AE: I agree.
AB: That’s why I go.
AE: It’s a good time. Our mission statement is, “Protecting and caring for the public lands of the Eastern Sierra.” So I always like to ask, what does that mean to you?
AB: Well I mean, that’s kind of my job. My mission statement too, I guess, at least with respect to recreation and wilderness management, just because those are the areas I specialize in. But of course it applies to the full range of natural resource management as well that a lot of other people on the Forest Service-side work on, like wildlife biology, or botany, or whatever. So yeah, I mean, that’s my job, I think too, just like Friends of the Inyo. At least that portion of what I do.
AE: But is there anything…because, you know, you seem like someone who is very passionate about your work, so is there anything beyond your profession…I guess is there any personal meaning to you in that [“Protecting and caring for the public lands of the Eastern Sierra”].
AB: Oh yeah. Well I mean, I’ve stayed with this line of work my whole career because it has personal meaning to me. But it’s the outdoor part. It’s working with people in the field, it’s doing stuff in the National Forest, outside, interacting with the public, and the place, and experiencing that firsthand. Being able to do stuff, hands-on work, and all that good stuff. I enjoy all that. I just ended up in an office eventually, because that’s kind of what happens.
AE: Right, that’s kind of how it works out. Is there any one experience, be it for work, or on your personal time, that sort of crystallizes why the work you do, here in the Eastern Sierra matters to you? Or matters however you want to think of it, in a more global sense?
AB: I mean, I think, every time that I do a project with volunteers and partners, drives home that value of that, of what the work. I think that, more than anything, captures the point of why people enjoy the Inyo [National Forest] and why people come here, to recreate or to live, and why they’re willing to spend their weekend giving back instead of doing something else. So pretty much any volunteer project where there’s a bunch of people who get together and enjoy spending time together, doing some usually pretty routine or not very exciting work by itself, but it’s pretty fun when you’re out, in a beautiful place, enjoying it with some other people.
AE: Awesome. Do you have any questions for me?
AB: Where do you think we should be going next, on the Forest and with Friends of the Inyo as partners?
AE: Well I think I definitely appreciate…you know, in the latest Forest Plan that just came out, it mentions partners, very cut and dry, explicitly. And I think your Forest Supervisor, Tammy Randall-Parker is very partner-forward, and it’s just an exciting time to work on that, and take more of a “big tent” approach, which I really appreciate. Because I think there are a lot of good organizations out there, like ourselves, like MLR (Mammoth Lakes Recreation), like the Town of Mammoth Lakes, like Mono County, Inyo County, a lot of great organizations and government entities, all working together—and private organizations as well—to do the best that we can. You know, I think of our day with the Eastern Sierra 4WD Club, and how that is a good crystallization of…you know, Friends of the Inyo, and the Eastern Sierra 4WD Club, on its surface—and practically in some respects—may not see eye to eye on everything, but we do see eye to eye on the need to take care of the resource and that people going off the road they are supposed to be on is not good. So we can find common ground, and the Forest Service can help bring us together, and we can work together to do the day that we traditionally do on National Public Lands Day to really hammer that home, and put that on for the community to see as well. I think together figuring out how we can tackle this sustainable recreation problem we kind of have. There are a lot of people that come out here, and I think the more we can help to take care of that [the better]. And in ways that we can be of service to the Forest Service. Like interpretive content is not really something y’all are set up for, and that’s something that we saw at Friends of the Inyo as a way we can fill a void that y’all naturally have. Doing stuff like that. Volunteer events is another one. Coordinating those is much more difficult from your side of things than from mine. And so I’m just excited that y’all are excited to do all of it with us. I think the more we can engage folks when they come and recreate on the Inyo [National Forest] and everywhere in the Eastern Sierra, the better. Because unfortunately, unlike when you go into Yosemite [National Park], and you have to pay someone to go in, and receive a booklet, they talk to you for a little bit, at least you have the literature in your hand, there are often times no hurdles to go over, and sometimes someone may go our and recreate on the Inyo National Forest, and not have come into contact with anybody. And I think that’s a big challenge for us, and that ultimately impacts the resource, which I think is important to protect.
AB: Although, part of the challenge we face is paying for the infrastructure, and facilities that we have. And the Inyo [National Forest] is very unique in having five visitor centers, with staff in them—with Forest Service staff, and some Park Service and Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association staff, BLM staff in some places—which is pretty unique, in the Forest Service anyways, to be able to even have those locations, spread out across the Forest, where the public can come and get information, get face-to-face contact for Wilderness permits, and things like that. But at the same time, it also makes operations a lot more expensive, because there are thirty-some seasonal employees that have to be paid—and found—to do that work, and five buildings that have to be maintained, and operated, and everything that goes along with that.
AE: Yeah. And it depends a lot on where. You know, I think a lot about the North Fork of Big Pine Creek, as a place that I personally like to recreate a lot. And that’s somewhere that I would venture to guess that—especially day users—have not come into contact with anybody. Because there’s no interagency center in Big Pine, and sure there’s one in Lone Pine, but maybe it’s been a while since they’ve been there. And I’ve seen some truly huge group sizes in the Wilderness areas there, like 25 people, and that’s a lot of people. But it is pretty unique, our interagency centers, for Forest Service [to have those]?
AB: Yeah, there aren’t that many Forest Service visitor centers around the country.
AE: I did not know that. So where do people pick up permits and stuff elsewhere?
AB: So there are Ranger Stations, will sometimes have a front desk staff person who does everything. But it’s not quite the same as a visitors’ center. It doesn’t usually have a lot of other information available, like guide books, and maps. And the person who is at the front desk is also doing everything else, all the other administrative support functions for the District Office. So they’ll help out, but it’s not the same thing as having a place that attracts the public, with interpretive displays, where people want to stop and go in there to learn.
AE: I think it’s awesome to have those. Any other questions?
AE: I always offer that, because I feel like it’s a bit one-sided, me just asking you a bunch of questions. And if not, we’ll leave it at that, and I thank you for your time, and sitting down with me.