My Traveling Companion, Bill Brown

Bill Brown and Keno, 1990During the 20 years that I lived in La Grande, Oregon, during my tour as Chief Research Wildlife Biologist for the U. S. Forest Service, I had a special friend in Will H. "Bill" Brown. He was, for the first several years I knew him, the Regional Director of the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW)

Bill grew up hard and fast as a child of the Great Depression. His father worked for the Oregon Department of Forestry. As a consequence, when barely a teenager, Bill was manning lookout towers and packing in supplies on horses and mules to fire towers and work crews.

He graduated from Oregon State University in the late 1930s with a degree in the Wildlife Biology -- one of the first such degrees earned in the country -- and was employed by ODFW as a beaver trapper.

While at OSU he was in the ROTC and played on the polo team. He went on active duty in 1938 as 2nd Lieutenant in the Field Artillery and was, based on his horsemanship expertise, assigned to the Olympic Equestrian Team to participate in the "Three Day Event." He was schooling a horse -- a tall and handsome black gelding named Reno Keno -- to compete in that event when the outbreak of World War II cancelled the 1940 Olympic Games. Bill returned to his regular unit, but after the war that horse did compete in the Olympics. Years later, Bill named a tall black gelding -- his favorite mountain horse -- Keno, and told people it was the best and most handsome horse he'd known since Reno Keno back in his Army days.

Bill Brown participated, in active combat, in the recapture of the Aleutian Islands from the Japanese. Then, after a brief respite for training in Louisiana, he made the landing at Anzio, Italy, and was in the allied drive up the boot of Italy to the Austrian border. He was one of the few American officers in World War II to serve in close combat in both Pacific and European campaigns. After the Germans surrendered, he was steaming through the Straits of Gibraltar bound for Okinawa to participate in the pending invasion of Japan, when the war ended.

Bill Brown, Upper Minam River, 1992 He returned to work with ODFW and ascended quickly through the ranks to become Director of the Northeast Region. Given his equestrian skills and his love of horses, he developed and maintained a working horse herd for his Region, and he saw to it that all his biologists were adept horsemen and packers. As a professional courtesy, he provided similar training for personnel of the U.S. Forest Service and the wildlife department personnel of adjacent states.

While Bill loved and admired the Forest Service, he openly and relentlessly pushed the agency to be more concerned with fish and wildlife. He was skilled at working "below the radar" to provide information and make recommendations on strategy to individuals and elected officials interested in fish and wildlife and legislation to enlarge existing Wilderness Areas and establish new ones on Forest Service lands that were essentially without road systems. Those actions were not in keeping with the policies of the ODFW overseers and its top level bureaucracy. So he remained silent on such matters - but only publicly. He, risking his job in the process, worked through surrogates to achieve his objectives. Many in the know said that the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness should have been named the "Bill Brown Wilderness." Bill would, in reply, just nod and smile and say that he "would get his reward in heaven."

Many were puzzled, certainly including me, when Bill Brown and I became, over the years, close compadres. We were commonly referred to, behind our backs, as the odd couple. Together, we hunted and fished, owned horses, and traveled the wilderness in Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Idaho. We floated the still-wild rivers of the Northwest. He taught me much -- and went out of his way to do so. Maybe I taught him a few things too -- but, if so, I wouldn't claim it and he wouldn't admit it.

Some would, no doubt, use "Bill Brown" as a precise and concise definition of "curmudgeon." That would please him, as he cultivated his "hard ass" image -- he seemed, on the outside, to be a crusty, obnoxious, stern, opinionated curmudgeon. But I knew better. Bill cared, and deeply, about wildlife, about the folks he worked with, and -- most of all -- the "high lonesome" and the Wilderness. And, given what he had to work with, he "done good for a long time -- and a whole lot of it."

In Texas, where I grew up and started my career as a wildlife biologist, the highest accolade accorded by old-timers was to say of a man, "He will do to ride the river with." If I had to pick one man, out of all the fine men I have known and worked with over a half-century in the business of conservation, to "ride the river with" -- that man would be Bill Brown.