“Around this time, a person came up to me at a conference and said, ‘Well if you’re doing all these things you should probably look at being a ranger somewhere,’” Baker recalls. “That really caught me off guard.”
But within a year he was hired to lead a small office with the Nebraska National Forest and Grassland. While in Nebraska, Baker developed a newfound expertise in cattle issues and historic preservation regulations since the forest hosted agency’s oldest nursery. More important, he nurtured important skills working with the people in the community.
When the Forest Service was forced to demolish a swimming pool that had been a community staple for generations, he explained to people why it had to be done. And he learned the importance of maintaining professionalism in a small community.
“You have a lot of responsibilities that you’d expect, and a lot of responsibilities that you wouldn’t expect,” he says. “When you’re in a place that’s that small and that rural, no matter where you go you’re the district ranger. You make decisions that affect an employees’ life, or a permittee’s life, or a contractor’s life. You always have to be on.
“So I really made the effort to work with the community and be present.”
By 2011, Baker returned to Oregon, where he was appointed District Ranger for the McKenzie River Ranger District, an area of the central Cascades known for its exceptional natural beauty, located in the Willamette National Forest.
Back in Oregon, he faced the kinds of challenges you don’t learn about in school. For example, there was the 10,000-acre forest fire that greeted him during his first month. Soon after, there was the pregnant woman who entered his district office experiencing labor pains. And there always the the occasional issues associated with the forest’s clothing-optional hot springs.
And throughout his tenure has been the fallout from a proposed forest thinning project, developed to reduce the threat of wildfire, which has inspired passionate opposition from some residents. While the plan was actually created before he arrived, Baker and his staff have been subjected to criticism that has been, at times, personal and hurtful.
His response, however, has been to remain accessible to the public, explaining the goals of the project with openness and respect. But he also made clear to members of the public that he expects the same from them.
He established a tone of respect that helped earn him “man of the year” honors from the McKenzie River Valley’s River Reflections newspaper earlier this year. “Terry is unique — he values people with words and actions,” one reader wrote.
Baker says he very consciously tries to present an honest face for the U.S. Forest Service. During one public meeting, he recalls, Baker stood at the front of a community center, dressed in his Forest Service uniform, to explain the thinning project to a restless crowd. He explained the rationale behind the project, and assured them that there would be ongoing, and public, monitoring.
Then he asked members of his own staff, scattered around the room in civilian clothes, to stand up.
“I told the crowd, ‘I want you to look at these people,’” Baker recalled. “I said, ‘There’s a reason they’re not in uniform — because I want you to recognize that they are your neighbors, your kids’ basketball and baseball coaches, the people you see at church... They represent this community just like you do, and they’re not going to do anything to intentionally hurt this community. So please speak to them civilly. And if you don’t, we’ll leave.’
“Some of the people who said the most during the open forum left — they just walked out of the building,” Baker says. “But the rest of the community stayed and asked questions. They had them answered. And we moved forward.”