Big Forest Has More Appeal Than Big Apple



Walt Thole is probably the consummate outdoorsman. The Payson Ranger District's recreational staff officer is happiest when he's hiking in the forest or cruising around the Rim country on his mountain bike.

In large part, Thole's love of the outdoors was a reaction to growing up in downtown Manhattan.


Walt Thole

"My dad worked for the city of New York fixing elevators," Thole said. "He never even had a driver's license."

Neither did Thole, until he left the Big Apple for college when he was 18.

"I wanted to be a forest ranger and I looked around at different schools," he said. "I decided to go to Oklahoma State University."

How does a kid growing up among skyscrapers decide on the life of a forest ranger?

"I'd go to Central Park, often by myself, just to walk around, be around the trees," Thole said. "I would take the subway; it was just two or three stops from where I lived."

But growing up in New York City, Thole also got to do some things other children didn't -- like hanging out in the very building scaled by King Kong himself.

"Before they became automated and he got into repairing them, back in the 1950s, my father was an elevator operator in the Empire State Building," he said. "He would take us up there and we'd get the inside tour."

After graduating from college in 1973 with a degree in forest management, Thole signed on as a firefighter with the Cleveland National Forest near San Diego. After five years he moved to the Mendicino National Forest where he was a fire engine foreman.

From there, he moved to the Heber-Overgaard area as a forester trainee with the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

He transferred to Payson and the Tonto National Forest in 1993.

"I requested to come to Payson to be a recreation manager," Thole said. "I wanted to make a transition from the timber field to more of the recreational and trails areas.

"I could see a lot of the timber issues were going to be contentious for a long time. I went through a big change in the Forest Service where timbering was pretty much shut down."

As recreational staff officer for the Payson Ranger District, Thole now oversees camping.

"I deal with all of our campgrounds," he said.

"We have pay campgrounds, and then we have our dispersed campgrounds like along the East Verde River and Tonto Creek. You can pretty much camp anyplace you want."

Coming off the busiest Memorial Day weekend he's ever seen, Thole had a quick explanation for the crowds that swelled the Rim country's population for a few days.

"A lot of that was because this was the first year we haven't had any closures or fire restrictions in at least six years," he said. "Everybody really piled in here."

Fortunately, most people are responsible campers.

"Generally people are pretty good," Thole said.

"But you always get those few who leave their trash."

Thole has only returned to New York City a few times since he left, but his last visit -- to be with his ailing father -- was memorable.

"He went to St. Vincent's Hospital, and from his room you could see them doing the cleanup on the World Trade Center," he said.

His father died in 2002, living his entire life in New York City. Thole is glad he didn't, and he's happy he pursued the career he did.

"It's worked out for me," he said. "There's a lot of red tape with government jobs, but the pluses definitely outweigh the negatives. I've been pretty lucky."

He's not planning a visit to New York City anytime soon.

"It's too scary," he said. "Once you get out of that element for as long as I have, it's a whole different pace of life and you just feel out of place. I'm used to wide, open spaces."


Name: Walt Thole

Occupation: Recreational Staff Officer, Tonto National Forest

Employer: U.S. Forest Service

Age: 54

Birthplace: Manhattan, New York City

Family: Wife Addye, son James (25), daughter Anna (28), both graduates of the University of Arizona

Inspiration: I always looked up to Teddy Roosevelt. He was an outdoorsman and he pretty much set up the national forest system.

Greatest feat: Getting out of New York City.

Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Mountain biking

Three words that describe me best: Enjoy helping people.

I don't want to brag but ... I can't.

Person in history I'd most like to meet: Teddy Roosevelt

Luxury defined: Hiking on a real beautiful trail. I love hiking in the wilderness.

Dream vacation spot: Galapagos Islands

Why Payson? The job.

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