He Saw 'Noir' In Beetles: Research Forester Leaves Legacy In Black Hills And Beyond

Sep 18, 2020

Russell Graham talks to a group of people during a visit in a forest.
Credit Courtesy photo

Four years ago, Russell Graham was the lead author on an exhaustive, 200-page report. It was a history of mountain pine beetle damage and control efforts in the Black Hills.

For him, the research was personal. He grew up in Sundance, on the Wyoming side of the Black Hills. He knew the importance of the national forest to the culture and economy of the region. He wanted people to use his research, to make better decisions about the tree-killing bugs.

But how do you get ordinary people to read a research report?

His wife, Kathy, said he took inspiration from old Hollywood crime dramas known as film noirs.

“One of the things we enjoyed, there’s film noir on Turner Classic Movies. And we were always watching those old movies,” Kathy said. “So, he loved that term. He said, ‘I’ve got to use that in my next document.’”

Graham realized the story of the pine beetle was similar to a film noir. He used the comparison in the preface of the report.

His colleague Terrie Jain remembers the day he wrote it.

“And we kind of giggled about it,” Jain recalled, “and I said, ‘Well, that should capture the audience pretty well.’”

Here's part of that preface: “The story of bark beetles could also be made into a film noir. It has sex, murder, fights, incest, parasitism, infidelity, necrophilous (eating the dead), cannibalism, and predation.”

Those words and the report are part of Graham’s rich legacy of research. He died in late August of complications from multiple sclerosis. He was 71.

Graham started his Forest Service career at age 16 with a job cleaning outhouses for $1.25 per hour. He worked his way up the ladder as he earned multiple educational degrees, culminating in a doctorate in the 1980s.

By then, he was a research forester in Moscow, Idaho, on the border with Washington. He stayed there for the rest of his career, but his research took him all over the country. He published more than 200 papers and wrote chapters in a number of books.

Jain said when Graham took on new research topics, he always learned from the experts he encountered.

“He would insert himself in a different group of people – totally different,” Jain said. “So he kept progressing in different fields or different disciplines as he progressed through his career.”

Graham studied the effect of cattle grazing on forests. He showed the role forest debris plays in soil health and tree growth. He looked at animal health and determined the conditions that goshawks and the Canada lynx need to thrive. He studied large wildfire behavior and led an assessment of the Columbia River basin.

Through it all, Graham dealt with the debilitating symptoms of multiple sclerosis. To stave off the effects, he walked, jogged and climbed steps with a cane. When the disease put him in a wheelchair, he took up swimming.

Blaine Cook and Russell Graham.
Credit Courtesy photo

He brought a stubbornness to his health and his work. When he needed to, he leaned on colleagues – literally. They helped him in and out of vehicles.

Retired forester Blaine Cook, of Custer, said Graham drove his own ATV during research trips to the Black Hills.

“He didn’t romp and stomp like you think of through the woods,” Cook said. “He went very slow, because he had to kind of hang on from the waste up. But we watched him, so he was able to be a part of the gang, if you will, out in the woods to the best of his ability.”

It wasn’t just research or camaraderie that pushed Graham out into the forests with the people who manage them. Jain said Graham knew his research wouldn’t matter if the people on the ground didn’t use it.

“He had – and has trained me, too – to have a real down-to-earth connection with forest managers,” Jain said. “And he taught me as my mentor that that is really critical – to be able to be humble enough to interact with a variety of people to make the research relevant.”

One of Graham's final projects brought him back to the Black Hills – his boyhood home. It's a report on timber that estimates how many trees there are, how fast they’re being logged, and whether that's sustainable.

Graham and his team filed a draft before he died. His widow, Kathy, said he was still working on the final version.

“He worked till the day before he went to the hospital on this document,” she said.

That was because he cared so deeply about forests, and especially the Black Hills.

“You know, his heart was in the Black Hills because he grew up there,” Kathy said. “He wanted to make sure that the Black Hills National Forest would remain – that it would be able to sustain itself years and years and years down the road.”

His co-authors will finalize the report. Forest officials will use it to help set logging rates in the Black Hills for years to come.

Seth Tupper is SDPB's business and economic development reporter.