Finding the Story in History

By Joyce Badgley Hunsaker

Putting a face—and personality—on 184 years of public land laws is a daunting task.  When the Washington Office approached me in early 1995 about creating a living history program for BLM’s 50th anniversary in 1996, the guidelines were simple:  “Give us the genealogy of the agency from creation of the General Land Office in 1812 to the present day.  Make it informative and entertaining.”  I wasn’t sure that could actually be done, but since the BLM’s unofficial working motto seemed to be “opportunity and challenge,” I agreed to try. 

Drawing by Tom Novak.
As I researched, it became clear that to tell such a broad and complex story in human terms would require not one living history character’s “voice,” but five—from five different time periods.  The “Bloomers to Briefcases” program was born, featuring homesteader Pera Nowlin (1812 to the mid-1860s), Wild West Show performer Maybelle Montana (1870s to the 1940s), World War II Irish war bride Maggie Baker (1946 to 1965), second-generation BLM employee Amy Chamberlain (1970 National Environmental Policy Act, 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and into the 1980s), and District Manager Luisa Ramos (1996 and beyond.)  Each composite character’s voice and personality needed to be authentic to the time in which she “lived.”  Even her accent, speech patterns, and cultural views needed to be indicative of those commonly represented in the historical records of her era.

History does not happen in a vacuum.  Attitudes towards public lands and public land laws and policies, and the ramifications of those policies, changed substantially from Pera’s time to Luisa’s.  My challenge was to reflect our changing national identity (which led to the creation of the BLM and directly affects the agency’s relationship with our public lands and public land users today) through the voices of these women who were directly impacted by those changes.

From Pera’s time of the federal government’s wholesale disposal of public lands for settlement and development, through Maybelle’s pivotal era of what had been considered the “limitless West,” to our first national attempts at conservation, the Dust Bowl days, and the Taylor Grazing Act, the human story and the story of the land were largely ones of use and misuse.  Maggie heralded our modern age:  the need for increasingly controlled management of uses on public lands and what many considered to be the “shotgun wedding” of the General Land Office and the Grazing Service to form the BLM.  New land ethics and ideals resulted in organization, reorganization, and multiple-use management as our users—and their expectations—became more diverse.

Amy grew up as a second-generation BLM employee who set her sights on management through science, Johnny Horizon’s cleanup campaign, Earth Day, NEPA, and FLPMA.  The agency was changing from what some old-timers termed the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining,” to an ever-more intricate, complex, and sometimes seemingly contradictory agency, which in Amy’s father’s words “now had to hire every ‘-ologist’ known to mankind.  And attorneys.”  Luisa brought BLM’s story into 1996, the Bureau’s 50th year.  Her Hispanic and Native American heritage—combined with her natural resources education and breadth of experience within the agency —gave Luisa unique cultural insights into the lands she oversaw as a district manager.  She—like the rest of us—stood perfectly poised and committed to help shape BLM’s impact on public lands for generations to come.

Spanning an era of bloomers to one of briefcases, this living history program time-traveled around the nation throughout 1996, giving voice to BLM’s story.  For the next 10 years, an abbreviated version constituted the “Cornerstone” (history) segment of Pathways, the BLM’s new-employee orientation program, and was delivered twice every year at the National Training Center in Phoenix.

My “opportunity and challenge” ended up being my privilege and my joy.  I found that it could, indeed, be done.

Joyce Badgley Hunsaker was a living history professional and historical interpreter for over 30 years.  She retired from live presentations in 2008.  She is an award-winning author of historical nonfiction and interpretive travel books. One of her books of multimedia artwork was included on a national tour of The Sketchbook Project.