He makes regalia, bangs rock 'n' roll drums, races boats and, now,
leads the Six Rivers National Forest
BY HEIDI WALTERS
Here's a funny story, Merv George Jr. says, leaning slightly forward
in his chair and smiling. It's mid-August, George is just a couple weeks into
his new role as the 13th supervisor of the Six Rivers National Forest, and his
new office — the bigger one that his predecessor Tyrone Kelley just vacated to
accept a new post in the regional office — isn't ready yet. So we're sitting in
the office George has used as deputy supervisor for the past three years. The
walls and shelves are still photo-bedecked: family, race boat, colleagues,
events. George is looking relaxed in a patterned short-sleeved golf shirt and
"I'll tell you a funny story if you want to listen to it,"
he says again. "You want to hear it?"
Back when he was chair of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, George says, he went
to the White House for a conference on economic empowerment zones. About 10
tribal chairs and 40 mayors were at the deal, and at one point they were all
waiting in a large room for Vice President Al Gore to show up and give a
speech. George was chatting with Jerry Brown, who was sitting next to him —
this was 1998, and Brown was mayor-elect of Oakland. George was saying it must
be challenging to govern the city. Brown was saying he knew where Hoopa was and
marveling at George's youth; George was 25, and the year before he'd become the
youngest person ever elected tribal chair in Hoopa.
"Then all of a sudden there was all of this pomp and circumstance
and a 'Ladies and gentlemen, the Vice President of the United States!' and the
doors swing open and here comes Al Gore," recalls George, his face alight
with humor. "And he was just like the quarterback from Yale, the big man
on campus. And as he goes around from table to table, he's actually — I mean
he's a handshake bully! He's grabbing people and he's just jerking them around
and, 'How you doing! I'm Al Gore!' And I want to say the average age of the
people in this room was probably 60. And so I'm sitting here next to Jerry
Brown, and he elbows me and goes, 'Hey, you're a young, strong dude. Don't let
him jerk you around.'"
Finally Gore was at George's table. "And I know what he's going
to do," George says. "He had it in his eye. He'd raised his elbow and
he was coming in for the shark attack. So I gripped him good and I nailed him,
I nailed him hard — because I could hear his knuckles popping in my hand — Pop!
Pop! — and I'm saying, 'Hi, Mr. Gore, my name is Merv George and I'm the tribal
chair of Hoopa.' ... After he left, Jerry's like, 'Man, you got him!'"
Brown took a photograph of it; the picture's hanging on George's wall,
right underneath the one of him shaking President Clinton's hand later that
"I remember that he had the perfect handshake," George says
of Clinton. "It was not too firm, but it was not too wussy. It was not too
hot, and it was not too cold. It was almost like he had this thing mastered.
And when he shook your hand and greeted you, he gave you the feeling like he
was your first math teacher that you really took a liking to and you just
hadn't seen him in a long time. He made you feel like that."
George seems to monitor himself that way. He's not a tall guy, and a
warm smile comes readily to his youthful, round face. But he's broad and
muscular; in 2012, he bench-pressed 465 pounds, and now, despite injuries, he
tries to maintain his ability to press at least 400 pounds. He could be very
intimidating if he wanted. And yet when he greets you for the first time — and
if you're not Al Gore or some other handshake bully — he grips your hand
lightly but firmly as he looks straight into your eyes.
It's the No. 1 rule of good business relations, mastering that
handshake. In a metaphorical way, George also has been mastering the handshake
between the two halves of his world — the tribal world of his family and
ancestors and the non-tribal world in which he spent his schooldays — ever since
he was a little kid at Lafayette Elementary School in Eureka trying to explain
ceremonial Hupa regalia and dances to his classmates.
Connecting, forging bonds among disparate leanings, communicating well
— these are the skills upon which the now 41-year-old George thrives, and which
he plans to employ generously in his new role as head of the Six Rivers
It's an important moment in the Six Rivers' history. George is the
first Native American to be appointed forest supervisor of any of the 18
national forests in the agency's Pacific Southwest Region (which covers
California and the Pacific Islands). He's the first local — with roots going
back thousands of years, no less — to run the Six Rivers. And, countering the
accepted agency tradition in which employees bounce around, gathering important
posts for their resumes, George plans to stick around. This is his home.
The 957,590-acre Six Rivers National Forest encompasses some of the
wildest, most rugged, mountainous land in California's Pacific Northwest. It
stretches long and narrow from the Mendocino County border with Humboldt north
140 miles to Oregon, taking in portions of six rivers — the Eel, Van Duzen,
Mad, Trinity, Klamath and Smith — and landscapes rising from near sea level up
to almost 7,000 feet. The Six Rivers also manages the adjacent Klamath National
Forest's Ukonom Ranger District, which means the supervisor of the Six Rivers
actually oversees more than 1 million acres.
Six Rivers has wild and scenic rivers and endangered species, forests
and grasslands, timber and grazing lands, recreational areas and wilderness.
Nine percent of California's fresh water comes from the Six Rivers' 1,500 miles
of streams. The region also enfolds numerous small communities, and overlays
the territories of tribes whose people have lived there for thousands of years.
Merv George Jr. descends from several of these local tribes. He's a
member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, and his father, Merv George Sr., is the
tribe's ceremonial leader for the white deerskin dance and jump dance. George
Jr. makes ceremonial regalia and helps lead ceremonies. His wife, Wendy George,
who is Karuk and Hupa, is vice chair of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. Her parents are
ceremonial dance leaders for the Karuk Tribe. She weaves baskets and makes
ceremonial dresses (she and her husband both have studied their ancestors'
regalia in museums, including the Smithsonian). The Georges live in Hoopa and
have three girls and one boy.
But George grew up in Eureka. Before he was born, his dad got laid off
from a mill in Hoopa and took a maintenance job with the Eureka Public Works
Department, where he worked for the next 30 years. George was born in Eureka
and attended city schools. He loved math, football and track (as a Eureka High
junior he became the county's 100-meter champion) and student government (being
"in the throes of the decision-making process" thrilled him). He also
played piano and drums and, at 16, started playing with his dad's rock 'n' roll
band, the Merv George Band (he's still the band's main drummer).
Every weekend, holiday and summer, however, George was in Hoopa with
his relatives. There, like all the males in his family, he got into hydroplane
and jet boat racing on the Trinity River (twice he's been a U.S. champion). And
he learned his tribe's religious traditions.
"My earliest memories were learning from my elders and being
taught the lessons of what our dances mean and what our religious beliefs
are," he says. "So I knew I was very different from the get-go. You
know, these things were not what all my buddies in Eureka were doing. They
weren't participating in jump dance ceremonies or white deerskin dance
It wasn't always easy, he says. He remembers distinctly how, during a
homecoming, one of Eureka High's classes hung a dummy of an Indian from its
float. He asked them to take it down; they told him he was overreacting and
that it just represented the Del Norte High School Warriors' mascot. Even some
of his best friends couldn't understand why it bothered him, he says.
"I remember thinking, 'Man, that's not right.'"
But instead of letting the duality of his upbringing get him down, he
says it made him realize something important about himself: He enjoyed being an
"Because it really made me uncomfortable to be so different from
someone else," he says. "And you can do either one of two things: You
can hide from that diversity of thought and shy away from it. Or you can just
hit it head on and use it as an educational opportunity."
He says traveling around with his dad's band, playing all sorts of
venues — the Ingomar Club, the casinos, the Elks Club, the rodeo — reinforced
the idea that he was meant to bring people together.
"I talk to people," he explains, adding with laughter,
"I'll talk your ear off if I sit next to you on the airplane; I'm the
annoying person. And at break time or before and after the gigs, you get to
hear what's important to people. You get a pretty good sense of what the
politics and the issues are locally."
After high school, he started refereeing youth sports. And he signed
up at Humboldt State University, where he thought he'd study engineering. He
was good with numbers and problem solving. But it wasn't social enough, and he
struggled to get Bs. He was getting straight As in his Native American studies
classes, though, and when the university created a bachelor's program in that
field he went for it.
He learned tribal history and tribal law, and soon took an interest in
his own tribe's politics. At the age of 22, while still in college, George ran
for a seat on the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council and won. He was the youngest
council member the tribe had ever elected. Two years later, at 24, he became
its youngest tribal chair.
George admits he's a competitive person. In high school, an HSU
football coach came to watch him play and agreed he was fast, but too small to
play at Humboldt.
"So all that did was it committed me to a weight room," he
says. Three years later, he walked into HSU's weightlifting gym where the
football players were hanging out and told the strength-training coach he could
beat the record in the 185-pound weight class. George was in his street clothes
— Levi's and a white T-shirt. The coach sized him up with a "really,
now?" and said go ahead.
"And of course I'd been lifting at home, so I kind of brought
this rez strength kind of thing into this Forbes [Physical Education]
Complex," George says. He broke the record for his weight class,
bench-pressing 360 pounds. "The coach is like, 'Who are you, where have
you been, why aren't you playing football, and can you run?'"
He got to play. "And so it was a mental thing," he says.
"Tell me I can't do something and I'll figure out a way to do it."
George is driven to succeed, it's apparent. Even so, says his wife,
Wendy, he always puts his family first, coaching the kids' softball, football
and wrestling teams, and never missing any of their events or birthdays.
This caring for others, combined with ambition, make him a natural
leader, she says.
"It's his comfort zone," she says. "We both thrive off
of fixing things — creating policy and following rules and making rules that
help programs and departments run more efficiently, and working with people to
implement those plans."
Leaf Hillman, 50, is director of natural resources for the Karuk Tribe
and has known George all his life. The Karuk, Hoopa Valley and Yurok tribes
share a number of traditions and their religious ceremonies often intersect.
Hillman's family owns the rights to the Karuk's white deerskin dance; George's
father is the Hoopa Valley Tribe's head ceremonial leader. And they've worked
together on fish, river and fire management issues. George was executive
director of the non-profit Klamath River Intertribal Fish and Water Commission
for almost nine years (after his four-year term on the tribal council), and
Hillman represented the Karuk Tribe on the commission. And George was executive
director of another non-profit, the California Indian Forest and Fire
Management Council, and later became deputy forest supervisor just as the Karuk
and Forest Service were wrangling over a collaboratively hatched Orleans
fuel-reduction plan that went awry.
"He's an easy guy to get along with," Hillman says.
"He's easy to like, a lighthearted guy, open, honest, with good people
skills and good management. ... He doesn't hold grudges."
Former Six Rivers Supervisor Kelley agrees, and adds that George
"can also separate the things he likes from what the community
He's also methodical, says Kelley. He makes checklists and works through
them. He organizes his emails into folders. And his home files are as tidy as
his office ones. Want to know where a Pacific Gas and Electric bill from 1995
is? He can find it in a snap. His zeal for organization, says his wife, is one
of his best qualities.
"Right down to his socks being perfectly matched up," she
says. "And that's what makes him very successful. He returns phone calls
and he doesn't leave anybody hanging. He's never late on a bill; his credit's
"I take that really seriously," George says about his credit
rating, laughing. "If I'm not up there close to 800 or so, I get really
He's like his mother that way: Laura Lee George, who has an MBA from
Humboldt State, works in the university's Native American program and was
superintendent of the Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District.
George is a bit of an anomaly in the Forest Service, apparently.
According to studies, he says, the agency is populated overwhelmingly with
people who are self-identified as being on the quiet side and like their office
to "be out in the woods somewhere, or near a creek, near a lake."
George recalls the time he and Kelley took personality tests as part
of a supervisor-deputy leadership training.
"Tyrone was off the charts introvert, and I was off the charts
extrovert," George says, laughing heartily.
But they worked, and got along, well together. George sold Kelley his
Harley, and Kelley watched George's son play ball. Curiously, Kelley says, in
meetings he was the one who "was quick to go in and establish our
position," whereas George would listen more. "You'd expect the
reverse from an introvert and an extrovert," Kelley says. He attributes
his confidence to his many years of Forest Service leadership.
George's Forest Service career has zoomed like a jet boat, putting him
at the top of the Six Rivers in just six years. He started with the agency in
2008, at a whopping GS-13 pay level ("GS" stands for "general
schedule," and the higher the number, the higher the pay). It's typical
for a person with a bachelor's degree and some experience to start at the
Forest Service around GS-7; it's not uncommon for a person with a Ph.D. to
start at GS-11.
His first position was the Pacific Southwest Region's tribal relations
program manager, where he was the liaison between 210 tribes and the
supervisors and resource managers of 18 national forests. In 2011, he became
the deputy forest supervisor for the Six Rivers National Forest. And for a
brief stint this year he filled in as temporary supervisor on the Lassen
Is he ready now to lead the Six Rivers?
Absolutely, says Kelley. Among the biggest challenges facing the Six
Rivers is managing an overly fuel-loaded forest where catastrophic wildfires
are a constant threat. When George joined the Forest Service, the agency was
just starting to shift its fire management policy away from wildfire
suppression and toward ecological restoration. In conjunction, the agency began
opening its arms to collaboration with other agencies and community and private
partners. One example is the recent formation of the Western Klamath
Restoration Partnership, a private-public group working to restore a million
acres of historically fire-adapted (but long-suppressed) lands.
"I think [George] is the perfect person to continue that dialogue
because of his outgoing personality and how he really can develop and maintain
relationships," Kelley says. "And, he knows the issues very well —
salmon, spotted owl, landscape types. Even if he wasn't a tribal member, he'd
be the right person."
But his tribal connections help. Hillman, with the Karuk Tribe, most
of whose territory is overseen by the Six Rivers, says George can see through
modern politics to focus on the traditions local tribes hold in common. Tribal
mistrust of the Forest Service runs deep, Hillman says, going back to the early
days when the agency first banned many traditional and ceremonial practices,
including the use of fire to improve crops and hunting grounds. The agency has
only recently, slowly, begun allowing those practices.
"It helps that we can [look at George] and say, this guy isn't
going anywhere," Hillman says. "I know where he lives. He's got a
family here. And he's going to be here a long time."
George and his family moved away once, spending three years in Vallejo
for his tribal relations job at the regional office. He loved the job, but they
all missed home. Now he plans to grow old here.
And he believes in the Forest Service's mission of "serving the
greatest good for the greatest number of people over the greatest amount of
time." He thinks it can do that in sync with tribes, rather than in
"We're a conservation-minded organization," he says.
"So we save things to use things. Which falls right in line with what
tribes have done."
George learned at an early age about the tensions between tribes and
the Forest Service. In Hoopa, he'd hear people complaining about how the Forest
Service wouldn't let them do traditional burns, or use their sacred sites. Back
in Eureka, he'd pepper his youth football coach, Tony Montana, with questions.
Montana was the only guy George knew then who worked for the Forest Service.
"I'd ask him, or his son, Nick, nonchalantly, 'What is the Forest
Service?'" George recalls. "And Tony helped give me a more balanced
approach. ... What I think the future needs is a blend of current best
management practices and modern science and laws, combined with some
traditional ecological knowledge."
He's looking forward to tackling that. And his main approach will be
to improve communication. For starters, he plans to hold a series of
meet-and-greets in the communities of the Six Rivers. This will encourage his
staff, many of them those "quiet types," to interact more, as well as
inform residents about the Six Rivers — about its many creeks and rivers, its
campgrounds, its roads and wildlife.
"I want to become better neighbors," George says. "I
want to include more of our public in decision-making."
Hearing all of this — George's success at virtually every endeavor,
his rise through the Forest Service and his brash confidence — a person might
wonder if maybe he is a little full of himself. But he likes to point out the
things that have humbled him, too. He's hurt someone he loves. He saw two close
cousins die in boat-racing accidents. And he's had three near-death
experiences: a burst appendix at 14; a boat-racing crash under the Trinity
River Bridge in Hoopa at 22; and almost blowing his own head off at 26 when he
tripped while hunting. These, he says, taught him "what matters."
matter," he says. "Feelings matter. Things that you work on to give
back to others matter. Helping others. Leaving something better than when you
found it. Sharing, that matters. Taking care of things and not taking them for
granted matters. Family matters. Pride — pride really matters. Pain matters,
and what you do with that pain."