On his first day at work in January 1985, it was bitter cold outside at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and James R. Kerkman, the new forestry technician, had no idea he was about to embark on a 35-year career of public service.People like Kerkman are the reason National Public Service Recognition Week is held every year in early May. The weekly observance is organized by the Public Employees Roundtable, and its member organizations to honor men and women who serve the nation as federal, state, county, and local government employees.“Prior to working at Fort McCoy, I never thought about all the support staff needed to support the Soldiers and keep the Army prepared for any contingency,” said Kerkman, who became the Fort McCoy forester not long after serving as a forestry technician. “It has been an extraordinary experience being part of the Fort McCoy mission and maybe leaving a little mark on its history.”Starting outOn his bitter-cold first day of public service at Fort McCoy, Kerkman said he was like many new employees, trying to learn the lay of the land of a new position in a new location.“I had to check in at the personnel office that morning that was behind building 100 — our (garrison) headquarters building,” Kerkman said. “I couldn’t figure out where to go so I walked into the front door at headquarters and asked around. No one seemed to mind my intrusion, and I found my way.”Kerkman’s first two years as a forestry technician were as a seasonal employee; he was laid off during winter.“After 1987, I was never laid off again,” Kerkman said. “My office was in building 1101, and in the winter, it felt cold because it was heated by coal like most of the buildings at that time. I remember the coal smoke would leave a yellow fog over the cantonment area on still winter mornings.”Kerkman said prior to coming to Fort McCoy, he spent three summers building his forestry skills.“I worked seasonal positions with the U.S. Forest Service for my first three summers after graduating college,” Kerkman said. “I spent two years in the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico and one summer in the Nicolet National Forest near Rhinelander (Wis). My goal was to get back with the Forest Service after working for a few years to get the career status with the federal government, but here I stayed, retiring 35 years later.”Taking charge of forestryKerkman became the Fort McCoy forester in 1989 with the Directorate of Public Works (DPW) Environmental Division Natural Resources Branch (NRB). He said he knew the importance of the program in managing the tens of thousands of acres of forest on post, but as time went on, he also saw how it really affected military training and more.“Forestry does timber sales and other actions that change the forest structure,” Kerkman said.“In my early years, we never got much feedback from the military training staff on what we were doing and how we could manage the forest to benefit training. Things started changing in the 1990s when our Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security (DPTMS) became more involved with how the forest and other natural resources were managed.”The 1990s is also when the Fort McCoy Integrated Training Area Management (ITAM) program was developed, Kerkman said.“This program helped the military training staff and the natural resources staff understand each other,” Kerkman said.“ITAM started out under the natural resources program in DPW and then was moved into DPTMS. In 1998, the natural resources program was transferred from DPW to DPTMS; while we were initially apprehensive about the change, it turned out to be a good move, giving the natural resources staff the chance to work closely with the training staff and find out how to best manage the land to benefit training. In 2007, the Army created a standard garrison organization, and we were brought back into DPW.”Honing forestry support for trainingKerkman said that early on in his career, there wasn’t much thought about what the troops needed for training in terms of forestry. He said there wasn’t as much of a planned effort as there is today to incorporate training support into forestry plans.“We managed the forest for what was needed to keep the forest healthy, such as harvesting mature and over-mature trees and thinning areas that were overgrown,” Kerkman said. “While this benefitted training by keeping the number of dead and dying trees to a minimum, it didn’t consider what could be done to improve the forest for bivouac or maneuver areas. Working under DPTMS was a great way to learn what the trainers needed for all the types of training going on at Fort McCoy.“We started cutting trees downrange from artillery firing points to allow more low-angle firing, leaving groups of trees in harvest areas for cover and concealment, cutting more access lanes for vehicle travel, and working with planners to clear trees where future ranges or other training assets are planned,” Kerkman said. “The way we did timber-stand improvement (TSI) also changed over the years.”TSI is done to improve the quality and value of trees in the forest.“This is usually done by killing trees that are competing with a desired tree, such as a poor-quality oaks growing over pine trees,” he said. “The oaks are killed by herbicides or cutting the bark with a chainsaw where the tree dies and gradually falls apart, giving the pine trees more sunlight for growth. The dead, standing trees presented a safety hazard to Soldiers training in those areas, so now any TSI done makes sure the trees are dropped to the ground right away.”How forestry has changed at McCoyComputers were the biggest change in the forestry program at Fort McCoy in the last 35 years, Kerkman said.“The year I started, the forester, Nancy Michaelson was trying to get the installation to let the forestry program buy a computer with a geographic information system (GIS),” he said. “She tried selling the idea to DPW, DPTMS, and other directorates. The Army was looking into personal computers, but it was a little early in the process. The GIS idea was not well received at the time, and Nancy was told there were plenty of maps available, so there was no need to have a computer program about maps.”Kerkman said that eventually the computers came, and the Forestry Office got the first computer in the Natural Resources Branch.“Each person using it had to sign in on a form so we could show use and justify having it,” Kerkman said. “Now we have computers on the desk, computers to use in the field, and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to download information from the field into the office computers and share the information with other program managers.”Kerkman said his early forestry efforts on Fort McCoy also focused on planting red pine trees in open areas.“In my first few years, we completed some of the final large plantations,” Kerkman said. “Most of the open areas were already planted, and those remaining were considered important grassland bird habitat and were needed by the military for training. Instead of converting low-quality oak forest to red pine plantations, they were converted to oak barrens/savannah, which is an important habitat that was declining in this area and made great places for the military to train.”The annual prescribed burn program also underwent a big change during his career.“We didn’t do much prescribed burning in my first few years,” Kerkman said. “There were a couple demonstration burns to get things started. The Nature Conservancy came to Fort McCoy and helped train us and the Directorate of Emergency Services Fire Department on how to safely complete burns. They then invited Tim Wilder (biologist and NRB chief) and myself to attend fire-behavior training to get things going. In the mid-1990s, we started burning more land, especially around ranges and the impact area.“Now we have a well-developed program and the annual burns help lower the fire danger around ranges, and other burns are done to accomplish ecosystem management goals,” he said. “Fort McCoy’s ecosystem developed with fire, so fire will always be a part of the process. We just need to use fire when it is safe and can be kept under control.”Great memories“It always seems that the early days in a career are fond memories,” Kerkman said. “My first years here as the technician were split among the forestry and wildlife programs — about 60 and 40 percent respectively. I was rarely in the office. I was spending time in the field working on timber sales, forest inventory, and fish-and-wildlife habitat and surveys. During the deer hunt, we used to work 12-plus-hour days checking hunters into the areas at 4 a.m. and then registering deer until 6 p.m. The first time I deer hunted was in 1986 after seeing how many deer were on Fort McCoy and the damage done to the forest by over-browsing. I shot the first deer I saw on that opening morning and then went back to work at the check station.”Kerkman said he also remembers helping improve trout habitat on Fort McCoy streams.“To improve trout habitat, we used to bring rocks down to the stream using wheel barrows, and we sometimes used boards in the wetland areas to avoid sinking in the muck. We then placed the rocks in the water by hand. It was some great work completed on hot summer days. More recently, the work is done with heavy equipment, which is most likely safer.”He also recalls checking wood duck nest boxes.“Checking wood duck nest boxes was one of the most interesting things we did in the early days,” he said. “The nest box might be 15 feet up in a tree, and we would use a ladder to climb to the next box, stuff a sponge in the opening, then open the top to see what was living in there.”Kerkman said a can of wasp spray was brought along in case they came across wasps that may have taken up residence in the boxes.“And if there was a wood duck female sitting on eggs, the bird was captured and a leg band was put on it,” Kerkman said. “One bird was captured for 10 years. The eggs were then counted and candled (using the sun to determine how long before they hatch), and the hen placed back into the box. Owls, flying squirrels, raccoons, and snakes were other animals sometimes found in the boxes.”Kerkman said their work vehicles 25 to 35 years ago were quite different than what they have available now.“Our work vehicles were not as reliable as they are now,” he said. “And when they broke down, we were on our own to get back to the office without radios or cellphones to contact anyone. I drove an old Jeep CJ-5 that would break down on occasion and maybe get stuck once in a while. One time, it broke down on North Post. Previously, I had seen some Soldiers at a nearby bivouac area, so I walked there to see if I could get some help. They considered me part of the training scenario and treated me as a prisoner of war, taking my driver’s license and asking me questions. Finally, satisfied I was not an enemy spy or even part of their training, the captain gave me a ride back to my office.”What people may not know about forestryKerkman said forestry is about trees … and a whole lot more.“There is a lot of math and statistics involved with estimating the volume and value of a forest before it is set up for a timber sale, for example,” Kerkman said. “A survey, also called a timber cruise, of an area identified for a timber sale must be statistically sound so the buyer can be assured the cruise is accurate. The timber buyer will bid based on the volume estimate; if the estimate is much higher than the actual volume, the buyer may lose a lot of money on the sale. If the estimate is lower than the actual volume, the Army does not get the fair value for the timber.“Standing timber is considered real property and must be sold through the Army Corps of Engineers,” he said. “Small amounts of timber and firewood can be sold by the installation. All timber sale and firewood income is deposited into a Department of Defense account and is sent back to the installation’s fund only for forestry projects.”All the projects completed by the Forestry Office, such as timber sales, tree planting, and TSI, have to be reviewed by the other natural resources programs, DPTMS, DPW, and others to make sure that effects to other programs and resources, such as endangered species, wildlife, water quality, training, and others, are minor and acceptable.“The review is a process required by the National Environmental Policy Act for any federal action undertaken,” Kerkman said.Great team membersKerkman said any success he has had is also attributed to all the people he’s worked with over his career. These are people who have been recognized with major awards at the command, Army, and Department of Defense levels for excellence in natural resources management, including forestry.“Julian Hutchinson was my first supervisor here,” Kerman said. “He helped in my transition from the Forest Service to the Army and gave me guidance in my early career. He lives in nearby Sparta part of the year, and we still remain in contact.“Charles Mentzel, who is now the new Fort McCoy forester, of course, has to be mentioned,” he said. “He has put up with me all these years and has done an excellent job supporting the forestry program. Charles and I have been working together since 1987, when he started out here in the Junior Fellowship program after graduating high school. He worked during summers and breaks while attending the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Today’s forestry program was as much influenced by Charles as by myself.”Kerkman also noted his work with Candy Thornton.“She was the secretary, administrative assistant, and Permit Sales Office clerk for many years, starting in 1987 and retiring in 2008,” he said. “Candy kept all of us in line and made sure all the forms and paperwork was done correctly.”Kerkman said he also has been thankful to work with Wilder, former NRB Chief Mark McCarty, Wildlife Biologist Dave Beckmann, Fisheries Biologist John Noble, DPW Environmental Division Chief Brent Friedl, Environmental Protection Specialist Aaron Yaeger, Julie Steinhoff of Permit Sales, and many more throughout his career.“Having the chance to work with many of the same people for approximately 30 years or more has been a unique experience,” he said. “While we didn’t always agree on everything, we knew each other like family and could overcome internal and external obstacles because we all have a passion for nature and did our best to manage the natural resources in a sound, sustainable manner while benefitting the Fort McCoy mission.”Kerkman completed his career April 30 with 35 years and four months of public service.National Public Service Recognition Week in 2020 was celebrated May 3-9. Visit https://psrw.ourpublicservice.org to learn more about the observance.