Described as looking like a modern-day West Texas sheriff: tall and slim, cordial, and affable with a quick mind —and a black string tie to top it off, his parents had named him James E. Mixon.
That name did not really fit, and he was known by all as Jim Mixon. Jim’s father was a Navy man and Jim moved to 13 different schools getting an education. He was born in New Orleans and returned to Louisiana to obtain a forestry degree from Louisiana State University in 1936.
Mixon worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps for one year and then was hired by the Florida Forest Service as a nurseryman. In 1940, Jim was named forest superintendent for the Louisiana Forestry Commission’s state forest at Woodworth. Forestry in Louisiana at the time was in doldrums: virgin forests had been cut out and reforestation just beginning. With the event of World War II, only four foresters remained in the agency. Jim was discharged from the Army because of a medical problem.
Jim Mixon was named State Forester by Louisiana’s Board of Forestry Commissioners in 1947. This was a positive move since the governor had previously appointed the state forester. At the time, Louisiana had one of the worst forest fire records in the South. Previous State Forester Massey Anderson had little resources, neither personnel nor equipment, to provide fire protection.
Mixon was to remain State Forester for 29 years, outlasting the administrations of seven governors. Under his leadership the fire problem was reduced to manageable levels, Commission nursery seedling production greatly increased, public education efforts to alert Louisiana residents to forestry’s needs and potential were expanded and the Forestry Commission became a model state agency.
Achieving what he accomplished required tremendous determination and dedication. Mixon had strong views on fire causes and they became nationally known in the mid-1950s when he dared to name arsonists as the real cause of the South’s devastating forest fire problem. Law enforcement was all the arsonists would understand, he believed, and that is what he gave them.
The Forestry Commission acquired new equipment that was appropriate for fire protection. To improve the public perception of the agency, Mixon established his annual “100-point inspection.” He was the son of a career Navy man and had a spit-and-polish philosophy about equipment maintenance. Every piece of equipment belonging to the Commission was subjected to an inspection so exacting that one employee reportedly fainted at the scene.
Mixon gained wide-spread respect on how he handled recurring political pressures. The way Mixon worded it, “I promised them whatever they wanted and then did what I wanted.”
He told the story: “Earl Long called me up one time and said, Jim, I’m a little red in the face about something that has happened — you know, one of my relatives on the fire crew in Winn Parish was fired. How am I going to explain this to my kinfolks?” I told him, “Governor, I was concerned that you would be embarrassed if I didn’t fire him. He’s a drinking man and I was afraid it would get out that one of the Governor’s relatives was drunk and on the state payroll, while he’s supposed to put out fires. Earl thought about it a minute, then asked me what I thought he ought to do. I said, well, I thought the highway department would be the right place for him. The Governor thought that was a good idea, and that’s where he put the displaced fellow.”
Another governor objected strongly to the string ties that Mixon wore. So, Jim would keep a four-in-hand tie in his desk drawer to slip on whenever he was to meet the chief executive. It did not always match the suit he happened to be wearing, but the governor never seemed to notice. Mixon was known for his “unaffected and unabashed outspokenness, no-nonsense practicality — and a propensity for string ties.”
Mixon’s long tenure gained him political influence of his own. During the 1950s and 1960s, Mixon with his colleagues, William Mann of Forest Service Research and Charles Lewis of the Louisiana Forestry Association, guided major advances in forestry in Louisiana and the South.
In the 1950s, millions of acres of cutover land remained in Louisiana and the surrounding states. It was foresters with World War II experience who took on the challenge of developing the technology to restore and manage these forests.
Under the auspices of a Research Advisory Committee organized by Forest Service Research and representing all major forestry interests, a military styled program began to address this issue.
The leadership triumvirate for this effort included Jim Mixon, representing the Louisiana Forestry Commission (LFC), Charles “Charlie” Lewis who led forest industry under the banner of the Louisiana Forestry Association (LFA), and William “Bill” Mann of the Southern Forest Experiment Station (SFES), who provided the research capability for the group — there was no other significant forestry research organization at the time. The reason this triumvirate was needed was the lack of resources available to any one organization to function effectively.
With the adage of “one for all and all for one,” the effort began.
With guidance from the Research Advisory Committee, research priorities were established for the Forest Service to address, research foresters were hired, but resources to conduct the needed research were needed.
Forest industry agreed to provide land, equipment and manpower to establish research studies under guidance from researchers.
The Forestry Commission agreed to support the effort in many ways, including providing land and protection of studies from fire.
Another innovate effort by Mixon was the hire of a German citizen and ex-soldier under some obscure provision following WWII, to conduct research for the state. As soon as Hans Enghardt and has family arrived in the United States, Mixon assigned him to work for Mann with the Southern Research Station as a research forester with pay and support from the LFC — this arrangement continued for nearly 20 years.
Charlie Lewis, of the LFA, was the front man of the effort. He was a master of public relations and led with a unique style and unflappable attitude.
In a time when forestry was just expanding, he gained support for forestry programs with messages that were anything but boring. He had his own version of a striptease where he would remove all items that were not made from forest products. In winter visits to Washington, DC, he would bring boxes of camellias to soften his entry into every office. These were attention-getters, but the substance of his work was especially important. He and the LFA justified expansion of reforestation programs, pushed for research and development that resulted in the plywood industry in the South, and led the effort to stabilize tax assessment on forest land.
One of the team’s many accomplishments was congressional funding for the establishment of the Forest Service’s Alexandria Forestry Center. It was this major research center that shaped forest industry development across the South.
This collaborative effort was amazingly effective. As soon as results from research studies were developed, they were put into practice by forest industry—before they could be documented and published. Within 10 to 15 years, the results of this effort were applied across the South and the southern forests were becoming the most productive in the world. And, without question, the technology was largely provided by the Louisiana collaborative effort.
This triumvirate of leadership worked because the three men were committed to the effort and each other, and under the auspices of their political capital pushed the limits of their authority for the common good. Before long, bureaucratic restrictions were developed to limit such individuals from developing the political clout required to make such collaborative efforts to happen again.
Jim Mixon, then, had a broader vision than that of a typical state forester. He became recognized across the South for his leadership in forestry in general and in the process for the excellence of his organization, the Louisiana Forestry Commission.
Jim Kitchens, who served 11 years as Information and Education Chief with the Commission and moved on to major forest industry responsibility, described Mixon: “He has rendered outstanding service to the forestry interests of Louisiana…by molding a strong professional organization with high esprit de corps; he has afforded an excellent administration and supervision; and he has managed to do all this in complete cooperation with the changing political administrations of public office holders in Louisiana.”
(Dr. Jim Barnett is emeritus scientist for the U.S. Forest Service.)