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A Passion for People and Places
Idaho native Richard H. Holm Jr.'s career unites his love of the state's history, its land and flying as he works to preserve stories of the past before they disappear
by Kevin TaylorRichard H. Holm Jr. ’05 found his life’s calling at the University of Idaho. But it’s not like he simply signed up for a double major in writing and piloting small aircraft.
Idaho still doesn’t offer that combo.
“I was in the environmental sciences program. I took forestry courses and lots of history,” Holm says.
His bachelor’s degree — plus UI’s private pilot ground school courses — led him to what he does now. He writes history and is also a backcountry pilot.
Though he’s only 30, Holm could be a man of an earlier era, a man immersed in the Northwest’s past and the heydays of remote fire lookouts and backcountry airstrips in the wild central portion of Idaho.
“You know, Richard’s a special kind of guy for his age,” says Larry Kingsbury.
Kingsbury, who recently retired from the U.S. Forest Service, was the historian for the Payette National Forest when Holm, then a UI sophomore, showed up as an intern eager to help out.
“He had an ardent interest in the history of the area, both events and places,” Kingsbury recalls.
Holm says it was almost serendipitous. While growing up in McCall, where some of his family has lived since the early 1900s, Holm says he hiked and took outings to some of the untamed places he’d later write about.
“When you live in a mountain town, you have to take advantage of your surroundings,” Holm says. “I grew up in a place where history was talked about. And growing up somewhere with my family’s lineage, history was around us. We lived in an old cabin,” as did some of his nearby relatives. You can still find some places that older folks remember from their childhoods, he says.
Initially, Holm’s internship assignment was to interview people who’d served in the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal-era public work program. He found people with stories of working at, constructing or packing supplies into remote old fire lookouts across the forest.
“That’s where I found a passion for forestry. It was really fascinating interviewing those people,” Holm says.
A Writing Career BloomsUI history professor Adam Sowards remembers Holm.
“I think I had him in the very first class I taught here - fall of 2003,” he recalls.
Holm’s interviews with CCC and early Forest Service workers later helped inform his senior thesis on U.S. Forest Service policies related to wildfire, and the environmental impact of the lookout towers on the landscape. Sowards was his thesis adviser.
“I think it is actually what led him to the first book on fire lookouts on the Payette. He was a curious student,” Sowards says. “He was an enthusiastic student who was really willing to go places intellectually that not every student is willing or able to go.”
Kingsbury and Forest Service colleague Gayle Dixon were running the Heritage Program for the Payette National Forest when the young Holm joined them as a summer collegian.
“Richard just showed this great interest in people and places and fire lookout history and he met some of the old-timers who were still around then,” Kingsbury says. “He interviewed people who are no longer with us. He compiled all sorts of history, and before you know it he had enough to write a narrative.”
It was a small monograph at first, with Holm’s name on the cover. Kingsbury and Dixon would edit the works of Holm and other volunteers, then print them up as slender monographs that they’d tuck into brochure racks at ranger stations across the Payette National Forest.
The experience was life altering, Holm says.
“There was very much a sense of urgency. These people were elderly and it’s important to get that oral history down,” he says. “It’s something I’ve tried to do in my books ... the oral history is what’s slowly leaving us. That’s what is vanishing. It’s important to capture those experiences in the backcountry and our local communities.”
Holm has dug deeply into those early conversations with the elders and has written books many consider to be the most thorough histories of fire lookouts on the Payette, “Points of Prominence: Fire Lookouts of the Payette National Forest,” and of remote airstrips in central Idaho, “Bound for the Backcountry: A History of Idaho’s Remote Airstrips.”
His work is detailed and accurate - Holm checks oral histories against source documents whenever possible - but it also tells of human foibles, such as the rancher who nearly wore out a Cessna hauling enough bags of cement to his remote property to build a tennis court. Even though he’d never played tennis in his life.
Kingsbury says Holm’s work was so well researched and so well organized that he quickly began using it as a resource.
“He’s 30. He’s already written two books, he’s a pilot and got a college degree. He’s driven. Driven,” Kingsbury says. “He’s got good energy. He is one of those people who are happy and focused about life.”
Holm says he isn’t sure where his unusual bifurcated career will take him. He spends summers flying a backcountry outfitter’s clients to remote put-ins for rafting trips on central Idaho’s famed white-water rivers. He spends winters researching and writing.
He thoroughly enjoys researching distant sites and then flying to them, he says.
Today, he’s enjoying his multiple passions. On a personal note, he says his insider access came in handy when he was courting, too.
“I flew my girlfriend, Amy, to a backcountry airstrip near Moose Creek on the Selway River,” Holm says. “After having dinner under the wing of the airplane I proposed.” And that was that, he jokes. “She had no way out!”
Holm’s books are available at the VandalStore, VandalStore.com, BookPeople, and BookPeopleofMoscow.com