Conservation Department founder returns on trek

July 7, 2021 – Over the lands of Philmont lies a reverence for nature most everyone who visits here feels on a near-daily basis. That reverence may first be ignited in one’s life by a trek through the ranch as a teenager and may continue to burn throughout the remainder of one’s life.

For those lucky enough to visit Philmont, a crew advisor plays a vital role as a guiding voice, mediator and encouraging presence. Those advisors who have had the privilege of trekking through these lands before provide a unique perspective to their crew on what Philmont can mean and be to those who move through its forests and plains. Robert Birkby is one such advisor.

Advisor to crew 626-Q from Everett, Washington, Bob, as he is known to many, has had a long history with the Ranch. First encountering Philmont on trek in 1966, the then 16-year-old Birkby could not have known the role Philmont would come to play in his life in the coming years.

Birkby returned to Philmont in 1970 as the instructor of Mexican Cooking at Harlan, but it was not until the next year that his experiences at Philmont changed the course of his life. In 1971, Rodney Replogle, a conservationist from the Taos Ranger District of the Carson National Forest, came to Philmont to help rebuild the Rayado Trail, which had been washed out in a flood. Philmont’s leadership asked for help because they recognized the Ranch did not possess the trail-building knowledge to complete the task. Replogle himself trekked Philmont in the 1950s and, Birkby said, the same thing happened to him as happened to Birkby: “He never went home.”

That year, Replogle helped train the members of the newly formed Conservation Department of Philmont. That training, and Replogle’s infectious, bursting passion for life and the land, ignited a similar love in Birkby.

“What he showed us was a way to act on that love,” Birkby said about Replogle.

That love led Birkby to work in the Conservation Department in 1972 and ‘73, then to become Director of Conservation in 1974 and ‘76. Birkby explained that early generations of Cons workers had a renegade mentality, a mentality that he still sees today. In his day, Birkby said Cons consisted of 12 workers headed out into the backcountry to tackle all of Philmont, and they were confident they could do it.

“We roamed the backcountry and did well. We thought of ourselves as unique and capable of attempting great things,” Birkby said.

Now Birkby sees a department whose responsibilities have extended far beyond trail building, a department that is now large and robust enough to handle the entire Ranch.

“It is remarkable to be hiking on trails that were built either during my time or that I know were built after my time and to see how durable and well-built they are,” Birkby said.

50 years on, Birkby looks at the growth of the Cons Department with a warmhearted smile.

“[Cons is a] wildly different world than mine was. I am nostalgic for mine and impressed by theirs,” Birkby said.

Birkby’s experiences at Philmont, “opened the world,” for him. Coming from a small Iowa town, Philmont was Birkby’s first encounter with mountains.

Cons gave him the “freedom of the backcountry and [ability to leave] your mark on the land.”

As Cons Director, Birkby was trusted with enormous responsibility. However, he said he thrived on the responsibility. The land showed him that he could do more than he ever thought he could.

The passion that developed for the land went hand in hand with his growing knowledge of conservation. According to Birkby, Replogle kickstarted the storehouse of conservation knowledge and ability that now exists at Philmont in the Conservation Department. That storehouse is one of the few remaining, Birkby said, due to budget cuts in organizations like the Forest Service and National Parks.

“It is an oral tradition, trail work,” Birkby said.

Birkby’s lifelong career as a writer led him to attempt to systematize that oral tradition in Lightly on the Land (1996). Through that book, Birkby exercised his devotion to conservation by sharing what he could of that storehouse of knowledge. He wrote a few editions of the BSA Handbook and Fieldbook.

Birkby also exercises that storehouse on the trail with his crew. Comprised of scouts from multiple troops in the Everett area, Birkby has used the land to help the crew bond. Birkby said during hike stops on his trek, he often points out how the trails were constructed and unique features about them.

“This place is just luminous,” Birkby said.

On one such stop, around lunchtime, the crew’s ranger circled them to talk about what Philmont means. As a first-year ranger on her fourth crew, she described the magic of the Ranch. Birkby said that he saw in her smiles and in her eyes the same magic that he’s experienced for so many years. He reflected on the friends he has found through Philmont and the friends that he has lost to the march of time in the years since.

“It was an amazingly powerful experience and if nothing else happens in this trek, it was wonderful to get out here again,” Birkby said.

Written by Jarod Contreras – MPS Writer.

July 10, 2021 – Correction: a previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Fitkin’s pick mattock as a pick axe.