The Fiddlin’ Foresters is the U.S. Forest Service’s official band, using old-time music to spread the agency’s message of nature preservation and conservation.
All the members are current or former Forest Service employees. The band took off in 1994 when it played for Smokey Bear’s 50th anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C.
“It just escalated and built from there,” said Jane Leche, the band’s lead singer and public affairs specialist with the agency’s Rocky Mountain Region.
Leche and her fellow band members – Lynn Young, Jim Maxwell, Tom Dalton McFarland and Doug Wagner – use old-time fiddle and banjo music as their platform to reach the public about nature conservation. The band has played more than 300 concerts in 25 states for audiences that include both local residents and international tourists.
“Music is just the universal language,” she said. “Even if they don’t get our message as thoroughly, they understand the feeling and they do make that connection.”
Leche recounted a story where a coworker had prepared her resignation papers and later changed her mind when she heard the band’s music. Leche said the woman “came up to us and said, ‘I’m pulling my papers. This is a great agency and I don’t want to leave.'”
The band’s role, then, is to both deliver a public message and to boost employee morale, particularly at a time when federal pay and benefits and agency budgets are targeted by legislative proposals.
“I got to admit, it’s not easy to work for the federal government sometimes, especially in these times,” Leche said.
The Fiddlin’ Foresters .gov website has personally taken a hit from cuts. The website is offline after President Obama called for eliminating unnecessary spending, naming the band’s website as an example of wasteful spending in an address posted to YouTube.
“The bottom line is he’s the boss and doesn’t want to pay for it, so we’re taking it down,” Leche said.
Fiddlin’ Foresters’ new website is fiddlinforesters.us. The change won’t affect the band’s performances. As it has for nearly two decades, the band will continue to sing about fire prevention, nature preservation and protecting our lands for the future.
Audience cheers, tears
The reaction to the Fiddlin’ Foresters’ music has “run the gamut” of emotions, Leche said. Often the audience claps and laughs and even gives standing ovations. People have also left the room crying when the band performs “Cold Missouri River,” a song about the 1949 Mann Gulch wildfire in Montana where 13 firefighters died.
Music can change a mood and even peoples’ minds. Once, playing in a small town in Wyoming, the band members noticed one man in the audience who did not clap. He sat staring at the band with a “stern gaze,” Leche said. At the end of the set, the man stood up, turned around and said to the audience, “I take back everything bad I’ve ever said about the Forest Service.” And then he sat back down.
Later, the band learned he was a local who had vocally opposed all Forest Service programs in the newspapers and at meetings.
“So that was a big accomplishment, I thought,” Leche said.