Ralph Giffen: Former USDA Forest Service Director Shares Memories

Ralph Giffen, former Humboldt, Minn. resident, shares his experiences while working with the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

By Linda Andersen
“There are so many people who influenced me, but I think it was really the attitude of so many that education was so important that really struck me. As for particular people, I think it really was that environment and the society that was the influence,” so responded Ralph Giffen, one of thirteen students in the Humboldt–St. Vincent High School Class of 1967, when asked about positive influences from his early years. Giffen went on to study at several institutions of higher learning, experienced adventure as a firefighter with the forest service, and secured high level positions with the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service.
The son of Joe and Alice Giffen, Ralph described his early life, from living in a rustic cabin on his grandparents’ land to moving to a farm near Humboldt and experiencing the destruction brought by flooding.
“Our cabin had no running water, plumbing, or electricity. The wood cook stove also supplied heat in the winter. When I was two, we moved to Humboldt and eventually to a farm about four miles north of Humboldt, along the Joe River…Apropos to this time of year, both those farms were prone to flooding every year, so I grew up knowing about the floods in the valley. In fact, in 1950, at the age of about nine months, I and my family were evacuated from my grandparents’ farm by boat. I still have those memories of evacuating by boat. It seemed to happen every year. At our farm north of Humboldt, our driveway flooded most years, stranding us at home.”
Ralph grew up with two brothers and four sisters (Bob, Doreen, Diane, Doris, Renee, and Ron), none of whom live in the county now.
Giffen went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Moorhead State College (1971) and a master’s degree in biology from Bemidji State College (1973). In addition, he did post graduate studies in range sciences at Utah State University in Logan, Utah (1979), and attended Harvard University – Kennedy School of Government (2008) as part of an executive development program.
Giffen told of how he came to work with the Forest Service, mentioning that few jobs were available in his field when he graduated from Bemidji State in 1973, so he went to Idaho to work for his uncle Andy Giffen in construction. Several years later, he began work with the Forest Service in Idaho as a fire fighter.
“I started my career as a firefighter in 1976 with a helicopter crew in Southern Idaho in the Sawtooth National Forest. We would be some of the first on a wildfire as we would fly to the fires and be dropped off as an initial attack unit to work on putting out the fires. It was exciting and exhilarating work…I continued to do fire control work off and on for 15 years.”
In 1978, he began working in Idaho in range conservation, the area that became his life’s work. He described range conservation as the “science of management of the non-forested areas of the west. The primary focus points were the management of livestock grazing, wild horses and burros, and the management of wildlife, soils, and watershed.”
In 1981, he moved to the Inyo National Forest, Mount Whitney Range District in Eastern Sierra in California.
“The Sierra Escarpment and Mt. Whitney was the view out my front door and out the back were the Inyo Mountains. I spent many years in the high Sierra wilderness helping to restore degraded streams, protecting fish and watershed. I managed work crews who spent five to six months working in these remote locations. It was a wonderful time where I would spend 100–120 days per year in the wild.”
In 1988, he moved to Bishop, California to become the “person in charge of the Inyo National Forest Range Program.”
Then, in 1990, he was transferred to the Forest Service regional office in San Francisco, where he says he was the “Regional Range Specialist, advising the national forests in California about rules, regulations, policies, and science behind range management.”
Finally, in 1995, he was off to the nation’s capital to the national headquarters of the USDA Forest Service. “Over the years in our Washington office, I ended up working in nearly every position in range management staff. I became the person who was in charge of developing national policy for the Forest Service for range management, vegetation management, and wild horse and burro management. I spent many days working with the leadership of my agency, as well as agriculture department executives in refining our policies and programs. During my tenure in the Washington office, in 2000, I spent a year working with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee so that I might learn the workings of Congress, as well as, to assist them in knowing how the Forest Service worked.”
Asked what he enjoyed about his work, Giffen responded that he liked visiting different places, working with many “incredibly smart and fun loving people,” and “working hard at many things.” He, once again, referred to Kittson County and the good work ethic he learned there.
Ralph has been married to his wife, Nancy, since 1991. They are the parents of two children, Benjamin and Alex, who are both college students.
Now retired, he offered some thoughts and advice on this new stage of life. “Many people give you advice about retirement and, luckily, I attended a number of seminars to help prepare me for the time after work…One thing I had heard, and I think is good advice, is that you should take time after you retire to consider what it is you want to do. Don’t just jump into another job. Don’t rush into making life changing decisions. Think about the things that really have meaning and give you joy. So, I am not doing a lot yet. I am doing some family genealogy work as well as exploring family roots in Kittson County. I am starting to put together some memories. I hope to put into writing these memories for my family. I have been scanning hundreds of old family photos so that I can preserve and share them with family. I am hoping to do more reconnecting with family and friends as I get further into retirement.”
May retirement offer a new collection of memories for Ralph Giffen.

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