Hoosier National Hero: Claude Ferguson

When I interviewed former Hoosier National Forest Supervisor Claude Ferguson back in the mid-1980s, I left with one of the most memorable quotes I ever gathered. The subject was the 1985 U.S. Forest Service plan to clearcut 81 percent of the state’s only national forest. Under that forest-management vision, plots up to 30 acres in size would be routinely stripped bare of all vegetation into the 22nd century.

I sat with Claude on the porch of his Bedford home as an environmental reporter for the Bloomington Herald-Telephone covering the 1985 plan and as a grad student writing my final masters project about it for the IU School of Journalism. Clearcutting, he told me, essentially required little more expertise than drawing lines on a map.

“It makes it easy to go for coffee,” he said. “But it’s not forestry.”

As I’ve turned my creative attentions back to the Hoosier since finishing my Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana, I’ve been thinking about Claude a lot. A few months ago I came across a paper in the November/December 2009 Public Administration Review titled  When a Career Public Servant Sues the Agency He Loves: Claude Ferguson, the Forest Service, and Off Road Vehicles in the Hoosier National Forest.

When Claude and I spoke, I knew he had stalled Forest Service plans to construct off-road vehicle (ORV) trails on the Hoosier in the 1970s. I am sure I knew he had sued his employer. I probably thought he had been fired over it.

The nine-page paper, authored by Syracuse University Distinguished Professor Rosemary O’Leary, tells the story from Claude’s first high school internship on Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest in 1940 through the aftermath of his 1976 firing.

Claude’s war on ORVs in the Hoosier began four years after he arrived in Bedford in 1966 as the supervisor for both the Hoosier and the Wayne National Forest in Ohio, and one before he voluntarily stepped down after marrying a fellow Forest Service employee. In 1970 he filmed damage from an unsanctioned ORV race on the Hoosier called the Buffalo 100, named after Bloomington resident John Buffalo, who had purchased 20 acres of woodland adjacent to the Hoosier.

“Without asking permission or notifying the Forest Service, Buffalo and his friends marked a 100-mile trail through the Hoosier National Forest and held a motorcycle race on the federal land,” O’Leary wrote. When he told the event’s organizers the next year that they could not race in the Hoosier, they told him they “knew how to strike matches.”

Even though Claude had stepped down as supervisor, his cause was buoyed by unanimous support from Forest Service staff and 20-1 public opposition to ORVs on the Hoosier. The state of Indiana in December 1972 put state properties off limits to ORVs for their incompatibility with resource protection goals.

But his replacement, Donald Girton, announced in the summer of 72 that trails would be built somewhere in the Hoosier, possibly “as early as September 1972,” O’Leary says.

Over the next four years, Claude engaged in “guerrilla action” against his superiors in Bedford and the Forest Service Regional Office in Milwaukee, which backed Girton. He spoke through national environmental groups such as Citizens for a Better Environment. He surreptitiously, at least initially, authored an affidavit against the ORV trails for an appeal filed by the Isaac Walton League (IWL).

In August 1974, Girton moved ahead with trail construction, and two months later Claude joined a successful ILW lawsuit in federal court seeking an injunction against the trails.

When told in March 1975 that he was being permanently transferred to the Regional Office in Milwaukee – his wife would stay in Indiana – Claude was 18 months away from retirement. His request for early retirement was denied.

The public – private and professional – rallied behind Claude. The Bedford Times-Mail editorialized, “It’s a sad state of affairs when an employee of government is prohibited from speaking out on something that is obviously wrong, and then fired if he does so.” The Louisville Courier said he belonged to the “rare breed of government employee who recognizes that his ultimate responsibility is to his conscience and to the public.”

In December 1976, Claude requested and received a hearing from the U.S. Civil Service Commission in Bedford. Before even getting a chance to make his case, he would write, “My retirement benefits and other fringe benefits were restored retroactive to the date of my firing.”

In October 1977, the Forest Service announced it would reconsider the ORV plan, a move that settled the IWL case before trial.

“I’ve been vindicated,” Claude said at a news conference.

Claude died a hero in 2006. ORVs are still banned in the Hoosier National Forest. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources operate two State Recreation Areas for ORVs – Redbud near Linton and Interlake near Lynnville.


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