Daryl Hodges grew up outside Philadelphia, fishing with his dad, collecting spring water with his grandfather, and running wild up and down the creeks. But Hodges ― who this summer was named the new head ranger for the Santa Barbara district of the Los Padres National Forest ― was also “very much a city kid,” he said, riding his bike from the east side of Philly to the west and attending a high school not far from downtown.
A camping trip that Hodges took as a young man is what ultimately set him on his career path. It was sunrise atop a mountain in the Pacific Northwest. The snow-capped peaks of Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Adams were poking through the clouds. The wind was whipping; the sun was shining red, then orange, then yellow; “and it was just one of those moments,” he said.
Hodges, married with four grown kids, comes to Santa Barbara by way of the Angeles National Forest, but he’s worked all over the country throughout his 27-year career, including as a surveyor and biologist. He’s still getting acquainted with the district ― which extends roughly from Figueroa Mountain through the Santa Ynez River valley and over the Santa Ynez Mountains into the South Coast’s trail-heavy front country ― but he took time to speak with the Independent about his new posting and what lies ahead for the public land. This is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Fire is on people’s minds pretty much all the time around here. What’s been your experience with fire?
When I worked as a natural resource biologist in the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida, I was exposed to a lot of use of fire from an ecological standpoint. We did a lot of management for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and kept the understory down with controlled burns so they could fly and forage properly. More recently, I was a lead resource advisor in the Angeles [National Forest]. My team and I would help fire personnel mitigate any adverse effects that may occur from their suppression efforts.
Meaning they don’t do a controlled burn in an area they shouldn’t?
Exactly, or run over something with a piece of equipment they shouldn’t. We’d get ahead of them and pinpoint things of cultural value, historic value, and natural resource value before they arrived. But let me be clear, I’m not a fire expert. The team I work with here ― there’s about 135 of them with six engines, three patrols, a hotshot crew, and a helitack crew ― they’re the experts, and they’re very good at what they do. I’m just here to make sure they have what they need.
An issue we frequently hear from the public about is access to the Pendola area, which has been closed since 2017. What’s the latest with that?
That’s a big one. We understand folks want to drive all the way up there to the hot springs, but we’re explaining to them that the road is not in the best shape. And because we’re in extreme fire danger, we can’t allow vehicles up there. We haven’t been able to manage the road the way we want to, like controlling brush, and we just don’t want to run the risk of somebody parking on the shoulder in high grass and inadvertently starting a wildfire. We also have a few low-water crossings that need some work.
Is there a timeline yet for reopening?
We’re still working on a strategy. It’s not just one thing keeping the road closed. It’s multiple things. And people can still ride their bikes up there. It’s long, but it’s possible.
What’s your time in Santa Barbara been like so far?
Starting this position in a COVID environment is not the traditional way you would want to start ― not being able to engage the staff face to face or meet out in a big group. Same thing with the public. It would have been nice to meet our partners all at the same time at the beginning. Find out what their issues and concerns are, what my goals are, etc. But we’re getting it done ― a group here, a call there. Everyone has been really welcoming, and I can already tell this is going to be a great experience.
Who do you count among your main partners?
Definitely the Los Padres Forest Association and the Montecito Trails Foundation. They’re the ones who actually are out there looking at pieces of trail, coming to our rangers and saying hey, we’d like to give you a hand on this, or, could we get your support and approval on that.
The Forest Service is often strapped for funding. What’s your budget situation now?
We’re hoping that we’ll be able to utilize some of the funds in the big infrastructure bill to do a few public works projects. We’re always doing the best we can with what we have, and that often means leaning on our partners and volunteers.
Part of your job is navigating the different agendas of different stakeholders. Can you give me a past example of when you’ve done that successfully?
In 1996, when I was working at Gifford Pinchot [National Forest] in Washington, huge floods basically rearranged creeks on the East Fork of the Lewis River. We were doing stream restoration ― creating deep pools to hold back spawning substrate for steelhead trout ― but the kayak community was up in arms about safety. They had valid concerns about flipping over and getting hung up. We didn’t ignore them. We all went down there and located the pinch points together and ultimately redid our design to minimize the hazards. You always have to listen to what people have to say.