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Daren Belsby-Good Luck on Your End Of Jumping

by Conor Hogan (North Cascades '21) |

Here is a claim that some will find contentious: The founding of the Forest Service belongs in the pantheon of America's proudest moments, right alongside MLK's march on Montgomery and the moon landing as an example of our nation living up to its lofty ideals. The establishment of our national forests was a seminal triumph of conservation over corruption, of working-class values over corporate greed. Most readers of this magazine know the key characters: the boisterous, barrel-chested president Teddy Roosevelt; his passionate, peculiar chief forester Gifford Pinchot; and the robber barons who wanted to strip-mine and clear-cut the west. We've read about Pinchot's epiphanic hikes through Yosemite, about the shameless grafting of Montana copper kings like William A. Clark, and about the 1910 fires that gave Roosevelt the justification he needed to place 230 million acres under public stewardship.

Perhaps we've even imagined the more indelible moments: Pinchot flattening Roosevelt after an early meeting turned into a boxing match; Ed Pulaski holed up in a tunnel with his men, threatening to shoot anyone who tried to flee as trees exploded outside; Roosevelt's barnstorming speeches that shifted public opinion to the side of the nascent Forest Service. As Timothy Egan writes in The Big Burn, the notion of federally-managed forests "was sweeping and simple as a philosophy, and maybe even obvious in retrospect. But this was a radical idea" that "did not go over well in places where a fortune could still be made from the remains of Manifest Destiny." No other country rivals America's public land, especially considering the pressure to privatize we have resisted. Our forests, magnificent and unique, are due to the bravery of a few early visionaries and the unflagging efforts of those who have come since.

Another contentious claim: The creation of the smokejumper program is the most remarkable, important development within the Forest Service since its founding. Important for the money saved and destruction prevented, yes, but also for more intangible reasons: namely, for the quality of people the smokejumper program has attracted to the agency, who otherwise wouldn't have thought twice about joining the Forest Service. Here, too, we have our larger-than-life cast: fire guard Francis Lufkin (NCSB-40), hired to climb trees during the initial tests in 1939, who first leapt from a plane on a dare; stuntman Frank Derry (MSO-40), who made critical improvements to both canopy and jumpsuit; and early naysayers like regional forester Evan Kelly, who decried the whole experiment, declaring, "all parachute jumpers are more or less crazy-just a little bit unbalanced, otherwise they wouldn't be engaged in such a hazardous undertaking."

Many of us had this history seared into our memory on runs during rookie training, sputtering, "Rufus Robinson and Earl Cooley!" as a shirtless trainer demands to know who made the first fire jump. We've gasped, "Nez Perce!" when they inevitably wanted to know where. We've done countless sets of 39, 57, or 64 pushups, depending on whether we rookied at NCSB, Redding, or RAC. We've read Young Men and Fire, we've picked through this magazine, we've watched grainy videos of men oscillating beneath FS-2s. Smokejumpers, rightly so, are fascinated by our legacy.

Until his retirement last November, the jumper who had the greatest claim to that legacy was Daren Belsby (NCSB-86). Belsby rookied in 1986 and worked out of the Winthrop base for the following 37 years, including 14 years as Base Manager. During those four decades, he jumped 189 fires.

He married fellow smokejumper Sarah Berns (GAC-02) and rookied on the FS-12. He briefly worked with Francis Lufkin in NCSB's saw shack. By the time he retired, Belsby had been working as a smokejumper for nearly half the program's history.

Daren Belsby is tall and handsome, with broad shoulders and an enviable head of hair. He wears thick-framed glasses and has a nasally edge to his voice that gives the impression of a chemist, rather than the most-tenured Forest Service jumper. He is also a rather difficult man to interview. Whereas most jumpers can't wait to tell you their war stories, when asked about memorable moments from his career, Belsby deflects. He venerates other, long-retired jumpers; talking about himself makes Belsby visibly uncomfortable. This reverence for smokejumper lore came to define Belsby for those of us lucky enough to work beneath him. At morning briefings, he regularly brought articles about legendary jumpers like Willi Unsoeld (one of the first men to summit Everest's West Ridge) or Allen Dale "Mouse" Owen (the shortest marine ever) and read tales of their exploits. By his own account, Belsby was a bridge between two eras: the mega-fires of today, with their drones and Firehawks and billion-dollar price tags, and the two-manner, out-by-ten-o'clock good deals of yesteryear.

Daren Belsby was born in Spokane, WA, and moved to the Methow Valley at age three when his father was hired to run cattle at the Big Buck Ranch. He attended Liberty Bell High in Winthrop, where he took Advanced Humanities, the most demanding course the school offered. At graduation, Belsby received the coveted Claude Watkins Award for Best Student Athlete. His former teacher Bill Hottell recalls: "Daren was the star receiver on the football team, and a natural leader at the school. His charming demeanor and good humor made him a friend of everybody he knew."

Belsby went on to study Classical History at Washington State. He excelled at intramural sports and won both the basketball and fencing tournaments. Bill Moody (NCSB-57), who hired Belsby after his junior year of college, remembers him as "a very good athlete, outstanding student, and student leader. He had a very competitive spirit. Daren proved to be an excellent rookie jumper." Belsby appreciated his trainers approach to the inherent risks of the job: "They didn't try and convince us it was safe. Instead, they laid out the dangers and all the skills we could master that would reduce the potential of getting hurt." After two summers on a handcrew, Belsby was attracted by this pragmatism: "On the crew, we'd dig line along a cold black edge," said Belsby. "Jumping, I did what I thought actually needed to be done. This is out, I'm not gonna dig here. This is hot, I'll scratch some line. That part really appealed to me."

Belsby's natural pragmatism in part explains his regard for smokejumper history. As he points out, jumping out of airplanes and parachuting into remote areas to suppress wildfires, despite being called a "crazy and hare-brained scheme," made sense. It proved, over and over, to be the fastest, most cost-effective way of getting firefighters on scene. "Do what makes sense" became the unofficial smokejumper credo, and Belsby used this principle as a lodestar during his career. When giving his recommendation for the new Base Manager, Moody touted Belsby's "ability to think and respond logically."

Other jumpers who worked for Belsby remember his impassive rationality, as he earned a reputation for pushing the capability of man and parachute. "Where spotters at other bases might want to throw streamers at the dry lakebed two miles away, Daren always dropped us as close to the fire as possible," remembers Inaki Baraibar (NCSB-98). "But he would never toss you on something he wouldn't jump himself, that's for sure." Charlie McCarthy (NCSB-02) agrees, saying: "We definitely saw the limits of what the FS-14 could do, some of the spots we jumped with [Belsby]. But that was the whole point. Get on a fire as fast as possible and get to work." Flying above the spine ridges and granite walls of northern Washington, Belsby developed a talent for assessing a spot's true features, regardless of how dramatic the surrounding terrain might be. After running the requisite risk-versus-reward calculations, he'd turn and brief his jumpers. Once he had reviewed the spot's nuances, Belsby would shout his infamous parting line: "Good luck on your end!" before giving them the slap.

Despite catalyzing the occasional come-to-Jesus moment in the door, what people remember most about Belsby is his good nature, and his dedication to the smokejumper program. "He's the sort of man who would do anything for his people," says Guy McClean (NCSB-07). "I could be on a fire and call him because my furnace at home went out, and Daren would drive to my house and fix it." Dave Graves (NCSB-86), who rookied with Belsby, remembers him as "constantly laughing" and being "friends with everybody. He was happy-go-lucky, but also really inquisitive about history, and always kept a journal from his jumps." Dave Colbert (NCSB-88), who backpacked through Europe with Belsby one off-season, recalls how excited Belsby was to see the remains of the Berlin Wall and walk-through sites he'd learned about in history class. In true jumper fashion, Colbert still recalls the acronym Belsby taught him for remembering the three orders of Grecian columns (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian): DIC.

I got to work with Daren Belsby for just two years. As a rookie in 2021, I stayed quiet around him, save exchanging pleasantries when I emptied the trash can in his office. But at the end of the year, we both ended up working on the Cub Creek Fire just north of Winthrop. Belsby was Division, I was a Heavy Equipment trainee. One morning, early in the assignment, Belsby radioed me over Command and told me to meet him at DP 50. Heart pounding, I drove along the Chewuch River, wondering if I had done something wrong. Belsby instructed me to get in his truck, and the two of us began driving up 8 Mile Road. Bob Cavanaugh's son had called and asked for pictures of the 8 Mile Ridge memorial, and the two of us were going to take them.

On June 23rd, 1958, a Forest Service Twin Beech crashed during cargo operations for the 8 Mile Ridge Fire, and the four people aboard died. Bob Cavanaugh was the 36-year-old pilot. Also aboard were Jerry Helmer (NCSB-53), Keith "Gus" Hendrickson (NCSB-47), and a local forester named Bob Carlmann (NCSB-57). There is a small plaque at the crash site, still scattered with bits of melted glass and twisted metal. As we drove the two hours to the memorial's trailhead, Belsby told me how another jumper was supposed to be on the plane that day but switched with Hendrickson at the last minute. In the wake of the crash, the jump list became the immutable tabulation we know today.

In between having me move the boulders that littered the road, Belsby reminisced about his own rookie year and the hazing young jumpers used to endure. As we cleared the trail leading to the crash site, Belsby recounted injuries he'd witnessed and stressed the importance of a good PLF. While exa charred chunk of fuselage, Belsby asked how my first year had gone and why I'd decided to jump in the first place. My replies were brief. I wanted Belsby to keep talking. I wanted to absorb as much as I could.

That afternoon is one of my favorite memories from my first year. Belsby told me about the infamous, decommissioned rookie sidewalk at NCSB, about tree climbing back east, and about a rookie bro of his who snapped and attacked a trainer. He told me about a stabbing that occurred on said rookie sidewalk, about old spike bases, and about the mandatory tree-up that used to be required for the graduation jump. Listening to Belsby's stories, along with graduating training and jumping my first fire, made me feel more a part of the smokejumping tradition than anything else.

The smokejumper program, the Forest Service, and the United States are all at a crossroads, and all face a similar problem: an uncertainty about their role in the future. The Forest Service jump program faces the rapid decrease of roadless areas in the lower 48, the challenges of transitioning to a new parachute system, and the development of a Super Puma rappel platform that could soon rival fixed-wing aircraft in speed, range, and payload. The Forest Service is suffering from a steady exodus from the grossly underpaid rank-and-file, legal attacks from well-meaning but misguided environmental groups, and a combination of explosive conditions that year after year lead to unprecedented fire behavior. The United States is grappling with the collapse of its role as sole global superpower, an increasingly cynical citizenry, and the multifarious dangers presented by climate change. Amidst these difficulties, all three organizations are struggling to cohere around a central narrative. Who are we? What is our purpose in this emerging world? What, exactly, are we trying to do?

In the June 2021 issue of Harpers, author Greg Jackson published a piece, titled "Prayers For a Just War," in which he situates climate change as our generation's "Thermopylae, Agincort, [and] Trafalgar" as the defining fight of our age. Interspersed through the article are arresting images of wildfires in California, Oregon, and Australia. Jackson writes about the pervasive division and disaffection endemic to modern culture:

Our primary way of interacting with the world is through a screen, and our principal avenue to changing anything appears to be typing into or clicking on that screen. We are alienated from the earth, from our hands, and from one another. We appear to be part of an efficient system that has brought ever more and cheaper goods to market, but our skills have become specialized to the point of practical uselessness…There is a maddening abstraction to our reality, a virtuality to all life.

As readers of this magazine know, there is nothing abstract or virtual about trying to line a going wildfire. You either catch it, or you don't, using whatever skills you've developed, from basic mechanics to navigation to communication. Few work environments rival the camaraderie of a fire crew or smokejumper base. The dynamic of working hard out in the woods towards a mutual goal satisfies some primeval urge. It creates a bond that doesn't form in a cubicle.

So here is one final claim: If we want the United States to thrive in the 21st century, the Forest Service and its smokejumper program must reassume their former preeminence. As Belsby recalls: "The Forest Service was, just a few decades ago, the most attractive governmental organization to work for. Now, it ranks somewhere near the bottom." According to a recent survey by the Partnership for Public Service, the Forest Service ranks 420th out of 432 federal agencies in terms of employee satisfaction. This abysmal score is partly due to a felt sense that we have no overarching vision, no sense of purpose beyond securing the bare minimum of funding for the following year. It feels like we are just keeping our head above water when we should be steering the ship.

President Biden recently released his America the Beautiful Plan, which aims to "restore, connect, and conserve" 30 percent of America's land by 2030. Author George Monbiot notes in the August 16, 2022, issue of The Guardian: "Perhaps the most important of all environmental issues is land use. Every hectare we use for extractive industries is a hectare of land that can't support wild forests, savannahs, wetlands, natural grasslands, and other crucial ecosystems." Our biome is a complex, interwoven structure. As ecological communities collapse, catastrophic outcomes domino and accelerate. Dust bowls, desertification, drought: the stakes are existential. The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of land, or about 9 percent of the contiguous United States. The Forest Service's budget in 2021 was 7.4 billion dollars, or about 0.4 percent of the Department of Defense's budget. Is the health of our drone-strike program really worth over two hundred times the health of our forests?

Many of us who work for the Forest Service feel frustrated with our employer. Low wages, the exploitation of seasonal employees, and a Kafka-esque bureaucracy have led to cyclical resignations and a shrinking applicant pool. But right now, we have an opportunity. The new wildland firefighter job series could either be a stopgap measure that barely keeps us afloat, or the first in a series of reforms that revolutionize what land management means in the United States. What if we began to view the Forest Service, in the era of climate change, as the most important governmental agency? What if we took seriously the implication of our mission: caring for some of the largest remaining swaths of forest on the planet, at a moment when the fate of humanity is inextricably tied to the fate of trees? What if we took a cue from our forefathers like Pinchot and Lufkin? What if we, too, risked looking "crazy and hare-brained"?

The two main problems confronting America are the problem of meaning and the problem of the climate. We have a population suffering from depression, abusing opiates, and self-describing as profoundly lonely. We have an atmosphere choking to death on carbon dioxide. In "Prayers for a Just War," Jackson writes about the adventure and fellowship men often discover in combat. He laments the "psychological damage" working a pointless job produces, especially when there are history-defining problems that desperately require manpower to solve. He writes about the sense of "intensity, solidarity, and belonging" people feel on the battlefield, and asks whether it would be possible to "somehow reap [war's] positive benefits without enduring the crucible of so terrible, destructive, and dehumanizing an experience." He wonders whether we could make climate change the enemy and find a sense of common purpose in our efforts to vanquish it.

The Forest Service is uniquely positioned to offer just such a framework. What if we created a modern G.I. Bill, but instead of fighting overseas, young men and women were financially and socially incentivized to work on a fire crew, fuels crew, or trails crew? What if we massively expanded the acreage of our forests, and the subsequent volume of carbon-capturing biomass? Where would the smokejumper program be, if instead of 2.7 percent of American land was wilderness, it was 27 percent? What might our society look like, decades down the line, if entire generations had spent three or four summers working in the woods?

Bill Moody, when asked to describe Daren Belsby, calls him a "Keeper of the Flame": someone who "perpetuates the [smokejumper] legacy, a legacy initiated during the 1939 experimental project." Belsby, in his 40 years with the Forest Service, continued the work started by those early pioneers. He kept North Cascades Smokejumper Base open during agency-wide budget cuts and closures, amidst a growing culture of risk-aversion. He campaigned for the continued utility of smokejumpers, even as our response footprint shrank. He mentored dozens of young people who passed through NCSB over the years. The Forest Service is incalculably better off for his efforts. Daren Belsby belongs to a lineage that includes Gifford Pinchot and Francis Lufkin, Edward Abbey and John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Bob Marshall.

So do we. Those of us at the beginning of our careers would do well to remember our history, to honor the bravery and efforts of our forefathers. Much about the smokejumper program, the Forest Service, and the United States will be decided in the next few years. Smokejumpers might quietly slide into obsolescence. Or perhaps we will realize that rapid initial attack, combined with a dynamic fuels-treatment program, should be the model for modern fire management. Perhaps we will realize that across all firefighting agencies, the only reason many of the best hotshots and rappellers are still fighting fire at all is for a chance to rookie at a smokejumper base, and that if smokejumping goes extinct, the immediate loss of talent will be catastrophic.

The Forest Service might continue to rank last in employee satisfaction surveys, bleed money, and hemorrhage people. Or we will seize this moment, when wildfire is in the spotlight more than ever, and ask the public a very basic question: Do you want a future with trees, or without? If they'd like their children to breathe clean air, much less hike and fish and camp, then the distribution of our tax dollars should reflect that The United States might continue to fracture along partisan lines, as our people grow more anxious, isolated, and disaffected. Or we will rediscover the value of sweat and sacrifice, the pride and friendship that working hard, out in nature, can foster. Instead of being terrified by the climate challenge, we will remember what Gifford Pinchot and Francis Lufkin knew, what Daren Belsby still preaches: confronting challenges are what make life worth living. To quote Ed Murrow: "We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men-not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular."

We who work in land management are descendants of America's greatest and most unlikely tradition. Caring for the earth must precede all other concerns, because everything depends on her fragile, ailing health. Our doctrine runs contrary to the deranged, destructive currents of the age. Our inheritance is the mighty old growth of the Sierras, the briny air of the Olympics, the turquoise water of the Rockies. Since our founding, we have risked unpopularity because our mission demands that we challenge the greedy and powerful few for the good of the many. Daren Belsby knew the mantle he held as a Forest Service Base Manager, knew the weight of the responsibility. As he passes this responsibility along, he nervously, but with great hope, wishes the rest of us luck.