Remembering a pioneer in wildlife management

By Dick Mason, The Observer October 28, 2011 07:12 pm

This photo of Bill Brown was taken the 1990s. Brown continued to be active until late in life, taking his last wilderness horseback trip in 2004. Submitted photos
This photo of Bill Brown was taken the 1990s. Brown continued to be active until late in life, taking his last wilderness horseback trip in 2004. Submitted photos

Craig Volosing of Spokane, a good friend of the late Bill Brown, knows the story well.

More than five decades ago Brown was immersed in political hot water.

Still, Brown carefully and cleverly refused to leap out even as the temperature approached the boiling point...


His steadfastness, Volosing said, is the reason that the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area exists today. The wildlife area is just a portion of the remarkable legacy that was Brown’s life — a life that was saluted last weekend.

Brown, a pioneer in wildlife management in Northeast Oregon, died July 12 in Spokane at age 96. A service commemorating Brown, supervisor of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Northeast Region from 1951 to 1976, was conducted Saturday in La Grande.

Volosing was among those who shed light on Brown’s uncommon life story.

He recalled how Brown, who lived in La Grande for five decades, led an effort in the early 1950s to create the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area. Through the state he purchased 240 acres of wetlands for the project. It was among the last remaining wetland habitat in the Grande Ronde Valley.

Brown next needed approval from state officials to create the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area. The political waters began to simmer when he tried to get the state’s OK.

Officials faced pressure from farm organization leaders who argued that important farm land would be lost if Ladd Marsh was created.

State officials told Brown to sell the 240 acres. Brown’s mischievous streak then shone as he detected a loophole in the department’s directive.

“They didn’t tell me when to sell it and how much to sell for,’’ Brown told Volosing with a twinkle in his eye years later.

Brown later put the Ladd Marsh land up for sale. But he set the price so high that there was no interest, Volosing said.

Bill Brown is shown with his dog Blitz after    catching several fish in the Minam area in the 1980s.
Bill Brown is shown with his dog Blitz after catching several fish in the Minam area in the 1980s.

The foundation of the Ladd Marsh Wildlife was now set. Today, following 26 land acquisitions and much work, the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area has grown to 6,200 acres and is a jewel on the Grande Ronde Valley wildlife scene.

Brown’s success in both creating and saving Ladd Marsh in its infancy was a political masterstroke, one of many he made during his career — masterstrokes that defied his folksy, homespun exterior.

“Contrary to first impressions, the man was a master politician and manipulator of events. He was very easy to underestimate, and he used that to his great advantage,’’ said Jack Ward Thomas, the former La Grande wildlife biologist who was chief of the U.S. Forest Service from 1993  to 1996.

Thomas, who is now retired and lives in Florence, Mont., presented the eulogy at the service for Brown. Thomas credits Brown with introducing him to horse packing in the 1970s. Together they made countless trips into Northeast Oregon wilderness areas.

“Over the next two decades we spent at least a year and a half together on wilderness trips — some with families, some with VIPs and some, most maybe, with just the two of us with more than a little hunting and fishing thrown in,’’ Thomas said.

Brown spent many of his pack trips in areas he fought hard and successfully to save as wilderness.

“Bill was an aficionado of wilderness and was convinced that there could never be enough wilderness set aside as more and more roads snaked further into the back country,’’ Brown said.

One strategy he used was to take influential people, including governors, senators and Forest Service leaders, on pack trips in the wilderness.

“He mastered working through others to establish more wilderness areas,’’ Thomas said. “He mentored young environmentalists as they engaged in the movement for more wilderness. Many of these young people went on to prominent positions in various environmental organizations.’’

Brown knew his efforts to establish wilderness areas were frowned upon by some including his superiors, who wanted more roads built into areas for hunters.

“He fully understood that he was constantly flirting with consequences of going too far in his quest — but he did it anyway.’’

Thomas said Brown was forced into early retirement because of his efforts.

“But he knew he was right and never complained of his fate.’’

Thomas said that if every place in the region Brown helped save as a wilderness or wildlife site was named for him, “Bill Brown would be the most famous man in Northeast Oregon.’’

Warren Aney, who succeeded Brown as supervisor of the ODFW’s Northeast Region, said that Brown was somebody who did not think of himself as forward thinking. He was just doing what he thought was right.

“He was vision oriented without knowing that he had a vision,’’ Aney said.

Brown was also a bright, well read man who had a complete absence of intellectual vanity.

“He was a closet intellectual,’’ Thomas said.

The former U.S. Forest Service chief explained that Brown was careful to share his knowledge of Shakespeare and much more only with those closest to him. He did not want to ruin the tough, colorful outdoorsman image he cherished.

Volosing offers a similar assessment of Brown.

“He was a voracious reader. Television did not do much for him,’’ Volosing said.

Volosing noted that Brown prided himself in knowing the popular and scientific names of countless plants and animals. Volosing recalled that late in his life Brown would get upset with himself if he could remember only the popular name of a plant or animal.

Volosing also said Brown was not one to boast about his knowledge. But he delighted in sharing what he knew if someone showed interest in being his understudy.

“If you were his pupil, he would do everything possible to share his encyclopedic knowledge of a subject. He was so giving that way,’’ Volosing said.

Following Brown’s advice on how to do almost anything was usually a bright idea.

“There was Bill’s way or the wrong way,’’ Volosing said. “Usually he was absolutely right.’’

This was doubly true when it came to handling horses and dogs.

“He could read horses and dogs better than anyone I knew. He knew what to do and when,’’ Volosing said.

Brown’s horses and dogs were exquisitely trained. Brown’s dogs, for example, would never jump on him. Instead, they would run up to him and then sit and turn, facing the same direction he was faced.

Brown’s horsemanship skills were honed while attending Oregon State University seven decades ago where he was a member of the polo team. After graduating from OSU in 1940 with its first fish and game management class, Brown was drafted into the U.S. Army. He traveled across the United States with an Army horse team, putting on exhibitions in jumping and dressage.

Following World II he returned to work for the Oregon State Commission, a precursor to today’s ODFW. Brown established the region’s first regional office in La Grande in 1949.

After retiring 27 years later he continued to live in La Grande until 2002 when he moved to Spokane to be near family and friends.

He continued to be active until late in life, taking his last wilderness horseback trip in 2004. Thomas is among those Brown made a number of trips with in his later years.

Thomas, when discussing how much he enjoyed those and all  his trips with Brown, fell back upon his Texas roots. Thomas, who grew up in Texas, cited an expression Texas Rangers use in reference to the Rio Grande River. He said the greatest compliment one Texas Ranger could give another was to say, “He will do to ride the river with.’’

Thomas, concluding his eulogy, said, “I felt more comfortable when ‘riding the river’ with Bill Brown than any man I have ever known.’’