Friday, July 25, 2014

Durham Could Become Detroit If It Doesn’t Adapt

There is much for Durham, North Carolina, where I live, to celebrate in The New Geography of Jobs.

While the author often jumps from metro areas to multi-metro consolidated statistical areas in search of data without distinguishing, it is clear Berkley economics researcher Dr. Enrico Moretti finds Durham one of a handful of centers of innovation.

But the book is more than that.  It is an excellent primer to remind policy makers what is and isn’t economic development and why.  It also pinpoints how some cities avoid decline while others don’t.

They continually and strategically economically adapt.

Detroit was once like Durham is today, a center for research, technology and innovation but it became complacent and peaked in 1950.  Instead of patting themselves on the back, Durham leaders should be running scared.

The community is where it is today because it has economically adapted at least four different times during its history, five or six if you count transitions by Native Americans here.  That this is an almost temporal part of its personality is no guarantee.

Most communities. such as nearby Raleigh, another emerging innovation center, have been lucky to do it once.

When one examines Durham’s economic transitions, they were both gradual and farsighted but each took root long before its then-current economy peaked.

Durham’s status as a center of innovation today is rooted in a time more than a hundred years ago when it was a bustling center for tobacco and textile manufacturing, fifty years before they would dissipate and nearly ninety years before they would disappear.

Architects for new developments around the historic American Tobacco Complex elected to ignore truly historic elements dating back more than a century and emulate instead a building erected in the 1950s.

Those erected by the City ignored even that, defying its own design guidelines.

American Tobacco’s founders, though, began re-thinking Durham’s economic future a little more than 20 years after the final addition to the Old Bull Building was completed in the 1880s (now a National Landmark, it dates to 1874.)

This strategic foresight began to evolve just before the far more distinctive Neo-Romanesque portion was erected in 1900, also reflected in several other thriving historic districts such as Brightleaf.

These historic buildings and more than a million square feet of others of that vintage or earlier are filled with innovation workers today.  But the foundations of that transition were laid in 1892 when Durham’s tobacco and textile generation facilitated the relocation of Trinity College here.

The school was transitioning to the German university model with an emphasis on research over recitation.  This was less than two decades after Durham’s adaptation from agriculture to manufacturing.  Within a decade, seeds for the next adaptation were already being sown.

In 1907, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt moved to break up the massive Duke trust, one of two forged by Durham natives, one tobacco and the other fertilizer created from tobacco byproducts.

Its fall from grace began because of its complete monopoly of licorice, a flavoring used in tobacco.

Two years earlier his father, Washington Duke, had died just as J.B. Duke was founding The Southern Power Company, an entrepreneurial endeavor to help North Carolina adapt economically.  It’s now known as Duke Energy.

He would fight the breakup of his tobacco trust all the way to the Supreme Court four years later, but I think he had already seen the “writing on the wall” based on breakups of similar trusts.

In spite of their differences with Roosevelt, both father and son were also ardent Republicans, subscribing during its last few years to a wing committed to the downtrodden.

After breaking up his trust on behalf of the government, J.B. Duke walked away from tobacco for good just as the Republican and Democratic parties traded places on the issue of social justice during the election of 1912.

Roosevelt didn’t break up the Republican Party.  In fact he won every presidential primary but one that year.

But the party’s Wall Street wing used backroom tactics to block his nomination anyway, leaving the social justice wing no choice but to follow Teddy to a third party and to finally convert to Democrats.

The Party of Lincoln had become one that would have shunned its first President, just as today’s version would probably shun President Reagan.

J.B. Duke spent his last decade setting up another kind of trust, this one to create and endow Duke University from its Trinity foundations with one of the foremost goals of establishing a research-driven nationally recognized medical school.

By the end of WWII, Durham and Duke leaders were at the forefront of pushing a proposal by a UNC-Chapel Hill professor to forge a university park out of southeast Durham pinelands.

It would be solely dedicated to research and development. It’s known today as Research Triangle Park, “triangle” emblematic of the first three of now four universities involved, half of them also based in Durham.

The Park’s tenants are corporations, but employees have always spun off to launch another economic transformation, this time smaller innovation concerns.

By 1987 when time American Tobacco abandoned its plant in Durham for good two years before I would arrive to jumpstart the community’s first destination marketing agency, innovators were already beginning to gravitate to downtown to live and work alongside artists in converted lofts.

Even the city center district of Downtown Durham was receiving positive reviews for sense of place and authenticity long before it began trying to earn them.

Moretti cites research in his book for why innovators like to congregate in Durham besides the fact they like authenticity in their surroundings.  “Geography matters for the spread of knowledge, and knowledge quickly dies with distance.”

He cites research that the transference and synergy important for innovative ideas falls off dramatically between zero and 25 miles.  In fact Harvard researchers have correlated it to being less than a kilometer away or just over a half mile.

RTP is four miles from downtown Durham and Duke ranges from being adjacent to two miles from downtown.

Similarly, he notes that is important to venture capitalists to be very close proximity to their investments.

Clearly Raleigh developers and realtors who beginning in 1960 hoodwinked so many newcomers into commuting to Durham by disguising the location of RTP, undermined more than the housing market and philanthropy here.

In his book, Dr. Moretti also explains another reason innovation centers are very geographically compact.  Innovation concerns not only locate in clusters for the exchange of ideas, but like Facebook has recently admitted, they also buy other concerns and close them down.

This isn’t to eliminate competition but because the true objective of the transactions was to secure more talent.

Durham leaders, especially those responsible for economic development would do well if they haven’t really read and re-read The New Geography of Jobs, not to reinforce self-perceptions of exceptionalism but to see and understand broader influences.

For example, it may take decades before we know whether downtown revitalized because of shifts in macro-psychographics nationwide including whether it would have happened even without massive subsidies.

But far more important is that Durham learn from its adaptive past and also the past of great cities now in decline.

Other than accredited community destination marketing organizations, economic developers are not known for strategic thinking, especially on the supply-side.  Often this is because governing boards and stakeholders limit them to just “shoveling more coal on the fire.”

But for continuing and never-ending economic adaptation to perpetuate, strategic thinking is imperative, especially among elected officials.

It isn’t enough to celebrate today’s accolades, really a credit to preceding generations of Durham leaders.  But we can learn from their example and be inspired by their witness.

Judging by how far ahead past economic transformations took root in Durham, today’s leaders need to be focus on 2050 and beyond or risk Durham becoming another Detroit one day.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Leaving Something of Ourselves Behind

A friend of mine who teaches strategic thinking and consults for organizations from time to time estimates that 2% to 3% seem to come by this skill naturally.

It was probably embedded beginning at age 3 in the way their parents and grandparents schooled them in pre-school foundational skills.

The professor estimates the percentage rises to 10% at college graduation and then levels off.  He finds it curious that so many  that pick it up naturally studied history in college, not business.

I’m not surprised, really.

Interest in history is piqued during those very early years, and when studied,becomes a way to make connections and see patterns in the world.  It’s about looking back to see forward, all foundations of strategic insight.

Maybe a required course in historical analysis should be required in business schools.

Driving  home from giving a lecture in the mountains earlier this week,  a passage penned by Dr. Peter Bieri for a “philosophical thriller (smile)” and published under the name name Pascal Mercier kept running through my mind:

We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away.

And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there (Night Train to Lisbon.)”

When my paternal great-grandparents and grandparents homesteaded the ancestral ranch the shadow of the Tetons, where I was born and lived until the age of accountability, only one had Idaho roots dating to when it became a territory during the Civil War.

At the time, only 20% of Americans lived outside of the state in which they were born.  Today, it is 33%, half of college graduates by the time they are thirty but only 17% of high school dropouts according to the research in the book The New Geography of Jobs by UC-Berkley economist Dr. Enrico Moretti.

The book is an excellent primer on economic development.

When my paternal great-grandparents and grandparents homesteaded ancestral ranch more than a hundred years ago in the shadow of the Tetons where I was born and lived through the age of accountability, it was so the younger generation could afford land of their own

Only one had Idaho roots dating to when Idaho became a territory during the Civil War but all of them had been born in the Rocky Mountains.

Idaho, at the time, had fewer than 2 persons per square mile, “the census classification for frontier.”  At the time, only 20% of Americans lived outside the state where they were born.

Today, it is only 33% including half of college graduates by the time they are thirty but only 17% of high school dropouts according to the research in the book The New Geography of Jobs by UC-Berkley economist Dr. Enrico Moretti.

Homesteading land made available by the federal government back then worked much as a “relocation credit” Moretti proposes for today.

Homesteaders in the first two decades of Idaho statehood anticipated the routes of soon-to-be-laid railroads which those companies, such as the Oregon Short Line, actively promoted through intensive marketing.

Founded by Union Pacific, “short line” stood for the shortest route between Wyoming and Oregon but by 1889 that railroad was laying tracks north to Ashton four miles from our ranch, then by 1908 up 57 miles over the Rea’s Pass across the Continental Divide to the western gateway to Yellowstone Park.

By 1912, a spur had also been laid from Ashton southeast to Victor where connections were made over the Tetons and up the Jackson Hole to the southern entrance to Yellowstone and the much anticipated creation of Grand Teton National Park.

In 1954, my entire elementary school took a field trip along that spur behind a steam engine a few years before the demise of the Yellowstone Special and the Yellowstone Express passenger trains, one from Chicago and one from Los Angeles.

It was the end of an era but the old rail lines are now being leveraged into another kind of economic development.

Abandoned rail lines are now trails throughout Idaho including the two routes out of Ashton, a thirty mile rail-to-trail along the length of the Tetons and the 34 mile Yellowstone Branch Line Trail through the canyons of the Henry’s Fork from Warm River to the Divide.

In 1896, when Butch Cassidy and his Hole in the Wall Gang robbed a bank in Montpelier, Idaho near where my maternal grandparents would live during my early years, my paternal ancestors were still living just across the Bear River Range.

Soon they headed north to homestead against the Tetons when Idaho barely had 160,000 residents, after the National Forests were first established but before Targhee National Forest was created up behind the ranch in 1908.

But in 1906, Congress responded to powerful special interests by gutting some of the national forests and reopening some of the less forested land to homesteading through the Forest Homesteading Act.

Public use back then did not include recreation and although only 1.8 million acres were eventually patented for homesteads, the act effectively pried 12 million acres away for developers.

In all, by WWII, only 19% of public land had actually been leveraged into  homestead ranches and farms.

When the first of six transcontinental railroads began to tunnel through the Bitterroot Mountains of Northern Idaho, there were less than a thousand non-native people living there.  By 1900, there were more than 10,000 living in each of the two counties through which I’ll soon pass.

Many had moved there because of inexpensive public land given to the railroads and then sold to settlers before construction crews even began grading.  By 1900, these land sales reached 105,000 acrese a year.

That’s the year the lumbering industry arrived after depleting stands in the upper Midwest.  Before 1891, the land from near Spokane, across to Montana and north to Lake Pend Oreille belonged to the Coeur d’Alene Indians, about 500,000 acres left of their ancestral lands by treaty.

Responding to special interests, all but 70,000 acres was pried away.  Even given the Forest Homesteading Act, settlers were soon overrun by lumber “robber barons,” some through legal means, but much of it through fraud.

As I drive down from Lookout Pass and across northern Idaho again, three things will be on my mind.

First is that one day, we need to build in time to detour down the St. Joe River Scenic Byway along a series of Forest Service roads, hopefully astride my Harley Cross Bones.  For now, having Mugs along and my grandson’s eagerness to get to the lake take precedent.

Second is how ironic it is that the route of the Milwaukee Road’s old Hiawatha passenger train is now a 15-mile trail in Idaho alone from Lookout Ski Areas to Pearson for trail bikes and hikers, alternative forms of National Forest economic development.

Another rails-to-trails adaptation is rated one of the 25 best in the nation, a 72 mile asphalt Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes greeneway from the Tribe’s reservation at Plummer, along its namesake lake and up to the early 1850s Cataldo Mission before ending in Mullan.

One of the most spectacular views during my hiking days was heading up the St. Jo River north of St. Maries to its headwaters, a must for fans of the book The Big Burn.

One or the Forest Service heroes of the firestorm, 25-year-old Joe Halm, took his crew to safety there.  Little did I know as we hiked that stretch, that a few years earlier, a group of University of Montana students had climbed up the other side.

Well into a second century of controversy over Northern Idaho logging on public lands, they have been advocating for over 40 years for the roadless area to be set aside as a 275,000 acre wilderness area straddling each side of the Bitterroots.

Third, is what will soon be two Tribal Casinos on the plains above Spokane, near the original Longhorn (southern pit-style) Barbeque restaurant, one a leisure and convention resort opened by Idaho’s Kalispel Tribe and nearly through the approval process by the Spokane Tribe, just desserts I suppose.

To paraphrase Pascal Mercier,There are things in us that we can find again only by going back to the places were we have left parts of ourselves behind.”

Thanks for keeping me company.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Is This ‘The End Boom, Boom, Boom’? - Part 2 of 2

I wrote yesterday about lessons learned and a situation I faced running the destination marketing organization for Anchorage, Alaska.  This, as Paul Harvey would say, is “the rest of the story.”

They went to the press with a story, just not the real story.

Unfortunately, those attempting the coup chose a straw issue that was very easy to refute, but it was clear the conspirators all had one thing in common, reliance on and allegiance to tourism originating out of Seattle and heavily invested in Southeast Alaska.

This calculation relied on gridlocking a generations-long web of economic and personal relationships.  It also played to a deep insecurity, particularly in small towns in Southeast Alaska that Anchorage, with half the state’s population, wanted it all.

The board to which I answered unanimously held fast.  The complainants followed through and publicly dropped their membership, but they miscalculated the reaction.

News editorials saw through it as did our Anchorage membership along with nearly every elected official including those in high office.

While from opposing political parties and ideologies, both the mayor and the long-time former mayor who was an officer on our board at the time especially understood.

Even several CEOs of Seattle interests saw through the vendetta and backed away. Meanwhile, many of us worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help those involved save face, but to no avail.

Within a few months or so, those involved in the coup were being transferred or had faded behind the scenes. However, Alaska tourism relationships, stretched thin, would never quite be the same again.345882026_03d978c5ba_b

Nor would Alaska tourism.

I pressed on for another year after that, going on my ninth there and one of our most productive given the distraction.

But I also knew from experience that once again I had been unavoidably “splattered with blood.”

Completing startups is incredibly stressful, especially those that shift paradigms.  Not yet 40, I had already spent two-thirds of my adult life forging intense change.

I felt exhausted, teetering on burn out, but more than that I suddenly felt a flood of repressed anger.  Even after venting to friends, anger “colonizes the emotional life” and clouds one’s judgment.

As Dr. Robert Karen would pen a dozen years later in a small but powerful book entitled, The Forgiving Self, unresolved anger:

“…is like a cancer, sapping our vitality, aggravating our feelings of shame, weighing us down with depression, and secreting a steady stream of bitterness throughout our being.”

I needed a pause for reflection and rejuvenation.  I realize now I also needed to find a way to forgive and hope to be forgiven, especially forgiving myself.

The DMO board and Anchorage community were extremely disappointed when I told them I was moving on - first to help the mayor jumpstart the foundation of and a governing board for a traditional supply-side economic development corporation, then - to take a hiatus from DMO work.

At a farewell dinner thrown by several hundred community leaders, I encouraged them to think only of what we had achieved together by being strategic and data-driven.

I thanked them for forgiving me my mistakes and asked them to forgive others, but it would be another 16 months before I would truly forgive, especially myself.

For two decades after I left, Alaskans would write or call to check in.  A long-time newspaper editor there would regularly post updates on my whereabouts. It’s that kind of place.

A little over a year after I left Alaska and was fully rejuvenated, I landed in Durham, North Carolina to participate in my fifth DMO or economic development start up if you count the one I did in college at BYU.

This time, the challenge included reclaiming Durham’s story, assets and identity from Raleigh, a separate but then over-reaching metro on the other side of the co-owned airport.

Having by then just turned age 40, I knew full well what the drill would be.

That certainly didn’t make it any less intense.  Within a few years, Raleigh interests were repeatedly calling for me to be fired and openly lobbying for Durham’s DMO to be disbanded, often strapping a sycophant to the front bumper.

It only fueled resilience and hardened support, but I had also learned to look past such threats to try and see opposing points of view while still coming to admire those who couldn’t yet do that in return.

And, as so often happens in life, this story circles back around. Eventually one of the participants in the Alaska coup attempt relocated to North Carolina.

Friendship and mutual respect renewed once he let slip details as to who was behind it.

I wasn’t surprised to learn the ring leader was Seattle-based with long ties to Southeast Alaska but it didn’t matter.  I had long ago forgiven - as well as come to grips with the fact - that there was so much I could have done differently, too.

Soon another friend who had lived in Southeast Alaska during that time took charge of a DMO across the state, but we never spoke about what happened other than in coded references and jokes about the job hazards that came with our chosen profession.

Over my more than two decades on the job in Durham before concluding my four-decade career five years ago, I probably made just as many mistakes as I had elsewhere, some the same, just maybe not as stupid.

Whenever I clashed with interests not Durham’s it merely seemed to raise my stock.  It’s just that kind of place.

I had not only learned from Spokane and Anchorage, but found Durham even more gritty in my defense. Someone defending me once told someone complaining about me, “he may be an a**hole but he is our a**hole.”

I suspected a few for whom I had long been an irritant might have gloated when I retired but they didn’t.

That didn’t stop a Durham sycophant or two from taking a cheap shot but the only rumor I ever heard involved the ever worsening “essential tremor” in my hands, there from childhood.

Instead several people, thinking it was a degenerative cousin such as Parkinson’s, whispered to friends of mine, “Is this it?,” meaning The End and thus the title of this essay, a hit song by the The Doors when I was in college made even more memorable as the intro during my time in Anchorage for a movie classic.

It wasn’t, but it was time to move on toward an entirely new stage of life.

Looking back I have no regrets.  But I can more easily spot what I could have done differently or better.  This is human.

Due to the power of forgiveness as well my brain’s innate ability within a short time to shed rather than obsessing over bad experiences I can relay them to help someone learn from my mistakes.

As I hope any of my former antagonists are,  I am entirely at peace.

No longer a “hired gun,” but each day still pursuing change.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Finding Myself Still Alive At 30 - Part 1 of 2

When I landed in Anchorage, Alaska thirty-six years ago this summer, I knew what I was in for.  I also knew the reason I had been recruited to complete its fledgling DMO startup.

Still facing my 30th birthday, I had cut my teeth as a DMO exec in Spokane, where business executives had tasked me with separating that startup from the Chamber of Commerce then under a very powerful executive who took it personally and made it personal.

I jumped at the opportunity when Anchorage made the offer for many reasons.

As a good friend put it once regarding something similar that happened to him - once a struggle like that is concluded it is very complicated for anyone in the room who has “blood splattered all over them.”

Possibly this is also what led a later successor to apparently whitewash the history of that organization leaving himself at the center or possibly I failed to leave a folklorist in place (smile.)

But I had already exceeded the average tenure nationwide for DMO execs surprised to find myself still alive at 30 five years seemed like an eternity.

Anchorage found me appealing that due to my Expo ‘74 experience I had a grasp of the far greater potential of tourism beyond just conventions, rare at the time for peers in that profession.

The governing board in Anchorage also knew I had proven to have grit and they tasked me with something even more difficult.  They wanted me to pursue Anchorage’s full share of tourism economy.345897070_aabb0989de_b_thumb1

That meant gently weaning it out from under the control of then interlocking tourism interests in Seattle and Southeast Alaska but without taking anything away from what had long been the Alaska tourism “establishment.”

As we left the room after our first meeting, I remember telling a member of our governing board who happened to head a major Seattle-based Alaska-focused tour company (who became a good friend,) that to achieve that end, it would take between two and five years, but I might not survive that long.

The easy part was exceeding Anchorage’s fair market share for regional and national conventions.  But even adding in state meetings that segment would be but a small fraction of Anchorage’s visitor potential.

Even back then, the convention and meetings segment was showing some signs of losing steam, what we know today was in fact a long, slow decline as a proportion of overall travel.

The real potential for visitation to Anchorage would be doing something Alaska had never done.

We strategized that the real potential was going after travelers who, with only a few days to visit, wanted to experience the full breadth of what Alaska had to offer without spending two or three weeks jumping all over the state as had been customary.

This was an untapped segment focused on minimizing costs and logistics in what would be the equivalent of a long weekend’s stay but it meant breaking with the tradition.

Instead of the way each community had traditionally been identified for tourism with a particular feature to maximize tourist frequent movement and stay, we would reveal to this untapped segment that all of these could be done in day trips around Anchorage.

Analysis showed if carefully communicated to target markets, this new segment would be value-added to Alaska, and Anchorage could still serve its assigned role as an overnight stop for escorted tours or as a jump-off point for expensive fishing and hunting lodges.

The strategy also included tapping into visitation from Asia and Europe, working to develop stopover visits from air passengers refueling during flights over the pole and opening up winter tourism.

We also sought to persuade cruise companies to add itineraries that came all the way from Seattle and Vancouver into the Port of Anchorage without sacrificing their traditional itineraries limited to Southeast Alaska.

The reason I told our governing board I probably wouldn’t last very long is that back then Alaska tourism was very incestuous and heavily under the influence if not the thumb in some ways of a few Seattle-based businesses.

Alaska tourism had always been primarily about Southeast Alaska because this historically originated with cruise excursions to Glacier Bay organized by naturalist John Muir in the late 1800s.

We knew that when Anchorage ventured outside its designated role as an overnight, it might set off alarms in other parts of the state which would cause some to appeal for protection to powerful allies further south.

We had to try even more than Anchorage already had to simultaneously fulfill our role in traditional Alaska tourism promotion while repeatedly making the case that what we were doing differently was a win/win for Alaska.

Many understood, but suspicions of Anchorage motives ran deep, some with good reason, thus the pejorative at the time that its best attribute was that it was 10 minutes from Alaska (insinuating it wasn’t really Alaska.) 

To build good will, I spent a lot of time on projects that, while they didn’t benefit Anchorage that much, they did other parts of the state.

I tried to make friends and alliances all over Alaska and took time to call and meet with them frequently to allay any concerns burning up the grapevine.

But I also made more than my share of mistakes, many of them really stupid.

“Suffering fools gladly” is not my default, and I made a mortal enemy one day when I told a senior Alaska tourism operative in front of his friends that I didn’t appreciate his off-color jokes, especially those denigrating people of color.

Telling or listening to these jokes back then was a sign of fraternity, at least for the “good ‘ole boys.”  Regardless of how offensive it was, I could have handled that much more smoothly and without humiliating him.

Twice the age I was then, I know now that people can often read what I’m thinking on my face anyway.

But it also didn’t take long for us to begin tapping into Anchorage’s fair share of tourism which we confirmed with research.  The findings contradicted long established “conventional wisdom,” unavoidably stepping on some toes.

The more we tapped into a fuller share of visitor-centric economic and cultural development, the more the Anchorage community wanted us to do even more.

It was difficult not to cross the line, even in a state as gracious and accepting as Alaska.

So sure enough, in my fifth year, right on schedule, cabals of Alaska and Seattle interests began cornering me in private to press for us to step back.  Way back.

Often they would drop the name of a local constituent intimating it was someone over which they felt they had influence or insinuating the threat of losing lucrative contracts.

In hindsight, I should have raised an alarm more vigorously with my board as a whole, but instead, my low key summaries were designed to reassure them I had it under control.

That was a mistake.  Never underestimated the power of gridlock on personal relationships as a trump logic and metrics.

I went to great lengths each time one of these sessions took place, to review the data and how what we were doing was both/and, and not a threat to Alaska’s traditional tourism infrastructure.

But it was compliance not reassurance they wanted.  It only further alienated me from them.  Fueled by success and feeling threatened, looking back I’m sure my intensity and frustration came across with more than a little hubris.

Within little more than a year, a handful formally threatened my board with resignations of membership support (a small part of our funding) if I wasn’t fired and a course change made.

If not they would smear us in the news media.

To be continued…

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Pivotal Bitterroot Event That Still Shapes America

Today I’m headed up to Appalachian State University (ASU) nestled near North Carolina’s border with Virginia on the western slopes of its namesake range.

Durham, where I live, lies in the foothills of the Appalachians which gives way to the Eastern Coastal Plain just east of Raleigh.  Whoever wrote on Wikipedia that Durham is flat doesn’t walk much.

In just a quarter of our two and a half mile walks each morning, we climb up and down the equivalent of nearly a 15 story building.  I kid my friends down in Raleigh that based on what the legislature is doing there, Durham will be beachfront in a couple of hundred years (smile.)

Invariably, I gravitate to Southern Rock during this twice yearly three hour drive (with stops) up and over the Eastern Continental Divide to ASU where rivers run west toward the Mississippi.

It is a fusion of rock, country and blues, with gospel and jazz that falls under the genre of Americana or “roots” music. East of Blue Ridge, think Marshall Tucker Band and Allman Brothers.

Knowing I am the only son of an only son descending from generations of Idaho ranchers with roots back to before it became a territory may hint at the country music in my genes.

But the truly common thread through my seemingly eclectic taste in music is “roots” music.

On arrival, I’ll be speaking for two hours about strategic thinking and insight to seniors completing a “capstone” course in the ASU business school, with majors evenly divided into accounting, management, marketing and hospitality.

Road construction will prevent a jog in my route along a portion of the Pisgah National Forest set aside in 1912 three years before it was given that name and just two years after a horrible calamity ignited public opinion.

When I arrived here in 1989, less than 30% of its trees dated to that time because industrialists had logged it so heavily before the 1891 act creating forest preserves was finally adjusted to allow set asides in the east.

By then they were forests in name only on lands nobody wanted.  In photographs taken two decades later to document construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the devastation is still apparent.

Forestry education first took root further south along these ranges in North Carolina, but conservation didn’t.

President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who got his start working on the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, made Conservation a national overarching strategy.

But strategic preservation of forests is an idea that took shape in 1876, a year before the dawn of the “Gilded Age” and four years after Yellowstone was created as the first national park during a fifty year period dating from the Civil War when Republicans were in control.

Things weren’t gilded for 9-in-10 Americans getting by on less than $1,200 a year and most had a sense that deforestation beyond clearings required to make a home didn’t make sense.

John Muir echoed this sentiment that year with one of his first op-ed newspaper essays entitled “God’s First Temples: How Shall We Preserve Our Forests” but scientists were also worried and sounded alarms to Congress based on a paper by Dr. Franklin Hough.

On the Duty of Governments in the Preservation of Forests,” outlined a case for government action based on a study of the fate of countries that ignored the overuse of forests.

Three years later, a month after dispatch riders reached my ancestor’s Idaho settlement and telegraphed word of Custer’s Last Stand, Congress finally responded.

Hough was embedded as a government researcher where he would conduct five more years of forest and timbering analysis.  It would take another another ten years before the forest preserve act would be enacted.

President Benjamin Harrison, the great-grandson of one of the signers to the Declaration of Independence, showed his independence from powerful special interests in his party by setting aside the first 12 million acres of national forest, including a portion of Yellowstone Park.

The same year, John Muir and some friends formed the Sierra Club, modeled after the Appalachian Mountain Club which in 1876 had been formed in the northern reaches of the range I will cross today by vacationers seeking to preserve forests.

The time of Harrison’s bold move was also when Gifford Pinchot went to work for a branch of the Vanderbilt's at their vacation estate in the North Carolina mountains tasked with rehabilitating deforested land following earlier advice from Fredrick Law Olmstead.

Teddy Roosevelt was serving as Governor but a naturalist by inclination he had already cut his teeth on conservation as a New York State Assembly member during the mid-1880s debating the Adirondacks as a forest preserve.

Today’s trip across the Blue Ridge is a warm-up for a cross-country trip I will soon take with Mugs, my English Bulldog.  The route each year is different, with one segment always in common.

After collecting my grandsons and daughter we all head up into the Bitterroot Mountains, an iconic northern Idaho range that suddenly cuts east behind our ancestral ranchland to touch the Tetons.

Regardless of where we cut through these forests, I can’t help but think about the fact that 104 years ago next month, it would have been a scene similar to the aftermath of an Atomic bomb blast.

In 1910, 3,000 fires combined into one and burned 3 million acres, an area the size of Connecticut including a fifth of the entire forest area of northern Idaho.

In the aftermath, the image shown in this essay was taken along Idaho’s St. Joe River, depicting the devastation across the state’s panhandle leading to the destruction of several towns and killing nearly 90 people.

Led by a Republican Idaho senator, Congress had been trying to decapitate the fledgling National Forest Service by starving it of funding.

This forced Rangers to pay for their own supplies including firefighters out of their own paychecks.  Adding insult, special interests and their Republican allies blamed these public servants for the devastation, a tactic often deployed today when funding cuts results in dysfunction.

As a final insult they even stiffed those who were grievously injured but not killed their medical costs and then denied a proper burial for the nearly 90 who died.

A recent book about the event is The Big Burn, written by journalist Timothy Egan, but it’s more than a riveting account of the massive fire. (For any non-readers who made it this far or those who want to see images click here for a documentary.)

Egan’s book weaves accounts of the event with its impact on the American public and a turning point in public policy. As he documents, “conservation was no longer an abstract debate.”

Outraged, Americans turned against the Republican Party and its special interest wing, many leaving for the Democratic Party which found its voice for social justice.

The forest I see carpeting the Bitterroots today began to come back three decades later later after persistent nurturing and experimentation by the Forest Service.

But the impact was still clearly visible in my early years.

Forest products today are turning more and more to commercially grown forests, leaving National Forests for recreation and tourism.

But urban and roadside forests which are even more crucial to tourism, especially in states such as North Carolina, are now under threat of desecration from a different set of special interests

These include insatiable clear-cutting-enabled Billboard companies and developers who are too lazy too lazy to get off their mechanized assets to bother with sustainability.

It isn’t clear when enough will be enough and the American public will rise up again.