As superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, Bob Barbee is at the center of a political, emotional, and ecological firestorm because half of the world's "Mother Park" has burned this summer.
A 30-year National Park Service veteran who rose through the ranks from seasonal naturalist, Barbee, 52, now holds one of the most visible, potentially controversial and prestigious jobs in the U.S. government.Last June, in Grand Teton National Park just a few miles south of Yellowstone, Barbee was at the pinnacle of his career. As the jovial and charming host to Park Service director William Penn Mott, a score of dignitaries and nearly 400 of his peers and lesser managers, he presided over the first general superintendents conference in 12 years.
During the four-day meeting, gossip buzzed that if the next president looked toward the career ranks for his new director, Bob Barbee had a strong chance of becoming head of the National Park Service in the new administration.
But now, after three months of raging flames and political flak, of insults and cartoon caricatures, Barbee's future may be as cloudy as the pall of smoke over Yellowstone.
"I have the best job in the world," Barbee said in an interview with The Associated Press. It has been his standard line since he became overseer of the 2.2 million-acre park in 1983.
But in this unprecedented summer of drought and flames, it is almost a throw-away sentence, a touch of bravado wedged between a heated defense of park policies and a recitation of climatological conditions that took his seasoned scientists by surprise.
Barbee is alternately combative and defensive in discussing the fires, which have consumed more than half the park, but seems to hope Congress and the American people will believe the Park Service did everything it could to fight them.
At dead center of the fires controversy is the Park Service's policy of allowing naturally caused fires to burn in the park as long as they don't threaten life, property, or historic sites.
"By anybody's reckoning these fires are a catastrophe because of the impact and the anguish they caused," said Barbee, noting that no one died or was seriously injured in the park because of the blazes.
"One million acres burned, threats to communities, power lines burning down, millions and millions of dollars being spent. . . . No one would promote something like that, for heaven's sake.
"But the Catch 22 is that if we say, `Look, there's another side to this,' that statement is confused with a celebration of the fire and its impact.
"We have empathy for the people, we would never have promoted anything like this. Many of the fires are man-caused and have nothing to do with (park fire) policy. Of the seven fire complexes now in Yellowstone, five of them came from outside. There is great confusion about this," he said.
"Yellowstone Park is still all here. There will be a changed face to Yellowstone, but not a devastated face, not a destroyed face - that's just folly, that's myth. What there will be is just a different face. This event provides a great educational opportunity to see what a powerful force like fire can do, and how the land responds to it."
Some of the physical strain of 20-hour days and no time off in months shows in Barbee's set jaw and grim tone.
Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., has accused the Park Service of making "some real mistakes" in initially failing to put out a series of fires in the park earlier in the summer.
Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., who is running for re-election this fall, has suggested Mott be fired for following the "let it burn" policy.
Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel has called the firefighting policy a "disaster."
Sen. John Melcher, D-Mont., who also is seeking re-election this fall, has called for congressional oversight hearings about the origins of the fires and the way they were attacked.
Barbee has become the focus for much of the anger and frustration stemming from the fires. He says such a reaction has left him "dismayed but not necessarily surprised."
"You want to know what that's a function of?" he asked. "That's a function of their anguish and frustration, fear and anger. . . . I don't have any personal animosity toward those people."
But, he added, "I don't like it."
No one knows better than the superintendent that he's become the butt of B cruel jokes in the gateway communities that ring the park and depend on it for economic survival. Towns such as West Yellowstone, Cooke City, and Silver Gate, Mont., all were threatened with destruction by fires roaring out of the park.
"Did you hear that Bob Barbee had a fire in his kitchen?" goes one such joke. "No, how did he put it out?" "He started a backfire in the living room."
"What are the fires in Yellowstone Park called?" begins another. "Why, they're called Bar-bee-cues."
And then there are the newspaper cartoons depicting drooping bears with singed fur and a caption identifying them as "Barbee Dolls."
"How do I deal with it personally? You don't liken yourself to astronauts, but public officials - park super intendents, forest supervisors _ have gone through a certain process which we would hope is professionalism in the face of fire so that you don't go ballistic and start lashing back. You keep your emotions under control," said Barbee.
Again and again, Barbee returned to his personal belief that even if every blaze that erupted in the park this summer had been instantly and vigorously attacked, "we'd still have had a tremendous amount of fire in Yellowstone."
"You have all these conditions that come together only every 200 years or so: The forest contains incredible expanses of fuels, you've got low humidity, round-the-clock burning periods, and the killer of all, those winds," recalled Barbee.
"I just despair at this `they should have known' attitude. There was no way to anticipate this, it's never happened before."
Barbee has stressed repeatedly that he did not make day-to-day firefighting decisions, but adds, "I clearly, because I am sitting here, am responsible, and I accept that."
"The illusion is that I'm somehow in charge of all of this. But Bob Barbee doesn't sit here and make all these decisions. Everybody had a piece of this action, and it was an incredible effort. There were a lot of heroics out there by a whole lot of people, and nobody has to hang their head because they botched up the effort," he said.
"The professionals throughout this episode can be anguished about the whole sequence of events, but they have nothing to apologize for in the way they conducted themselves."
Barbee expects the controversy to continue for months to come.
"Yellowstone draws fire because it is the `Mother Park,' it has a symbolic aura about it. We who care for it have a sort of sacred charge."