FEATURE: The Doctor is Out

By on October 20, 2015

Digging into the activist, altruist roots of adventurer Doc Hayse.

(Photo: Sargent Schutt)

(Photo: Sargent Schutt)

Jackson, WY – Bruce Hayse was deep in the rain forest of the Central African Republic when he contracted malaria. For the third time. He wasn’t exactly sure where he was. He had no GPS. They weren’t on the market yet. A crude Russian map of the area told him he was more than 8,000 miles from home. He knew the mosquito-born disease would slow him down for a while and, as a physician, he also knew it would pretty much have to run its course. He would have to live with it.

Hayse, all 6’2” of him, is the kind of guy who is patient with and tolerant of his environment — an environment he has risked his life for more than once.

“Everyone should have to get malaria sometime in their life,” Hayse said. “It can teach you compassion for those Africans who are, millions of them, shivering in these oppressive huts every day,” he told The New York Times after returning from the world’s second-largest continent.

But malaria wasn’t what bugged Hayse on that trip. Not the tsetse fly, the crocodiles, poisonous snakes or grumpy hippos. Hayse was put off, rather, by the lack of wildlife that should have been flourishing in the lush habitat. But that’s getting ahead of his story.

Hayse was born in 1949. His backyard was the Steens Mountains surrounding Burns, Ore., where he grew up. In the 1950s and 60s, the eastern Oregon high country was still relatively pristine and free from intrusive development. Yet Hayse is the first to admit he was born too late. Probably 1849 would have suited him better. Or even 49 – AD or BC. Maybe it’s an allergy to concrete (he should run some tests on himself). But given the option of the well-worn path or the one less traveled, Hayse has always passed up both in exchange for a seedy game trail or none at all. He likes it wild.

“When I was a kid I lived to go out in the mountains, out in the wild,” Hayse said. “Your parents let you go. I was 12 or 13, and my friends and I would go on camping trips with our old WWII rucksacks and those old flannel sleeping bags. Our parents didn’t know where we were.”

Hayse admits he often didn’t know where he was, either. It didn’t matter. He always found his way home.

He remembers the era with fondness – a time when parents allowed their kids to find their own way, to challenge themselves. The freedom he felt in that time and place is what Hayse found. He’s never let go of it.

“I remember in high school, they had ‘career day.’ You were asked what you wanted to be when you grew up. What vocation you might be suited to,” Hayse recalled. “Well, every summer when I was up in the mountains, I would run across these hobos riding the Union Pacific. They would be sitting there eating their sandwiches and drinking beer and riding through the mountains in the open air. I thought, ‘Geez, that looks great. What a life. Total freedom.’ So I wrote down that I wanted to be a hobo.”

It didn’t go over well. He was summoned to the principal’s office. They called him a bad example for the student body. With his grades and intellect he could be a CPA, the principal told him. Hayse couldn’t imagine anything worse. But off to college he dutifully went. Medicine didn’t interest him then, and certainly not adding up numbers in a spreadsheet.

College lasted a year. He got kicked out. Something about a dorm room fire. Hayse spent the next year or two bumming around the West, taking “some crazy part-time jobs” now and then. He worked for the Forest Service and spent a winter in British Columbia in a geodesic dome that leaked so badly it was a battle of wills to get a fire going. He especially remembers an insane stint at the Army Post Office in San Francisco at the height of the Vietnam War.

But Hayse couldn’t let his intellect go to waste. He eventually returned to college in Madison, Wisc., studying molecular biology and chemistry. Forces were hazing him toward medicine but Hayse was resistant. “I hated med students, sitting there in the front row and raising their hands all the time to be noticed. And medicine seemed like a very unpleasant profession to me. I couldn’t handle being stuck in a lab in a city somewhere for the rest of my life,” he said.

But school administrators insisted Hayse was a perfect candidate for medicine even if medicine wasn’t so suited to him. Once again, Hayse confounded school leaders.

“The assistant dean asked what kind of scores I got on the MCATs? I said I didn’t know what those were. He was appalled. He couldn’t believe I hadn’t taken them,” Hayse said with a chuckle.

Hayse was assistant teaching a class in field ecology at the time and not really focused on the material covered in the standard medical test but he took it anyway, without studying. “I figured I would just take them and wouldn’t do that well and I could forget about this idea of going to med school,” he said.

Hayse scored in the 97th percentile. He was urged to pursue Yale or Harvard but that might mean a “career” of subspecialized study when all Hayse wanted to do was help people get well. He graduated from the University of Oregon medical school. He spent the following year with a hospital in El Paso, Texas, to satisfy a commitment with the National HealthCare Corporation that partially funded his schooling. In exchange, he had to give a year of service in a medically-underserved area. It suited Hayse to a “T.” Serving the underprivileged is what he is still known for today in Jackson. He’s happily seen many a patient with little or no ability to pay.

“I got into the real nitty gritty of it down there on the border,” Hayse said. “I was seeing all kinds of interesting stuff that I couldn’t see otherwise. People without medical care, and diseases that I would have never seen. I really did love that.”

Hayse eventually opened a few clinics in rural southeast Idaho but fled to Jackson Hole in the 1980s when faced with the “horrifying prospect” of putting his kids into the Idaho educational system. He took over Dr. William Hurst’s practice in Jackson in 1983.

The wrench in the works

Before long, Hayse had trekked every inch of Jackson Hole’s wilderness. He skied it, hiked it, boated it. Meanwhile, his passion for preserving wild lands for future generations (and his own) took hold in a new way when he helped launch the radical environmental advocacy group Earth First! in 1979. Stirred by a counterculture of protest movements that symbolized the 60s and 70s in America, fraternal fascicles like Earth First! were a short fuse in search of a match. Ignition was provided by Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”

Hayse just laughs when asked if he is really the inspiration behind one of the characters in Abbey’s seminal 1975 novel. But he was there from the beginning of the movement with guys like Dave Foreman, Mike Roselle and Abbey himself. One of the group’s first meetings was in Jackson Hole.

“We had a rally up Granite Creek where they were trying to put oil and gas wells in,” Hayse remembers. “Ed Abbey was here. And Mike Roselle, a good friend of mine at the time, was living in Jackson. Mike was a great big guy and kind of rough looking. He was the quintessential redneck: a southern Appalachian hillbilly, high school dropout. He sort of destroyed this meeting we had with oil company officials in Jackson. He got up on a table and started pounding it. ‘We got hunters. We got fishers. We don’t need no fucking oil wells!’ he shouted.”

Energy extraction companies backed off on plans to drill in Granite and Cache creeks. Dick Cheney and others later helped pass a bill that would protect millions of acres establishing the Gros Ventre Wilderness. But there were other battles to fight.

Earth First! conducted sit-ins, tree sits, and established roadblocks by chaining themselves together in order to halt logging in Cove-Mallard, Idaho. Their revolutionary tactics succeeded in shutting down timber harvesters in Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest by the new millennium. It was one of a string of surprising victories for a loosely knit group intent on defending mother earth with a mix of neo-conservation biology and hippy angst.

“It was all in reaction to a big Forest Service study [RARE II – the Forest Service’s Roadless Area Review and Evaluation] in the 1970s. They came out with this horrible plan. Basically, it gave up most all the remaining wild country in the western U.S., everything that hadn’t been formally protected already, which was a lot, and all the big national conservation organizations caved in to it,” Hayse said. “Logging was a really big deal then. People like Forman, Bart Koehler, Howie Wolke, and a number of guys here in Jackson; they just couldn’t go along with what these national groups were agreeing to. But nobody knew what to do. Nobody knew how to go about it. Obviously you couldn’t attack it at the legislative level. You didn’t have any power or anything. So we started out by doing ‘direct action’ types of things.”

Earth First! served its purpose and finally crumbled when the FBI, tiring of the nuisance, infiltrated the group with an agent provocateur who succeeded in convincing a few rogue members to blow up a power plant. Foreman was arrested on sabotage charges in May 1989. The first call he made in jail was to Hayse.

“Dave called me that day and I called Gerry Spence,” Hayse said. “Gerry was just appalled to hear what happened. He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take the case and I’ll do it for free.’”

The case against Earth First! was eventually settled but a resulting restraining order on Foreman and a growing realization that EF was now on the fed’s radar convinced most members to lower their profiles.

The world and everything else in it

Before it’s all gone, Hayse says, he wanted to see wilder and wilder places. The mountains of Jackson Hole, the deserts of Oregon and Utah suited him for a while, but progress was closing in. Beginning in the 1980s, Hayse began excursions to Africa. “I was really intrigued by some of the wildest places left in the world. Places where nobody went.”

He talked with leading ecologist and conservationist Mike Fay who suggested Africa. Fay was planning his 455-day, 3,200-mile walk across the continent [MegaTransect] and a later MegaFlyover – 70,000 miles of bush pilot photography – in conjunction with National Geographic.

“We asked Fay, ‘What’s the wildest river in Africa?’ He said, ‘The Chinko. Nobody’s ever mapped it. Nobody even knows what’s in there,’” Hayse recalled. “Well, we found it on a map of the Central African Republic (CAR). We went there and asked around. Nobody had any idea about it. People that lived around there all their lives, that should have known about it, just said they thought there were lots of villages up there but no one they knew dared go in there. Everybody over there was scared to go down the Chinko because these Arab poaching gangs from Sudan had been butchering wildlife and people for years.”


(Photo: Bruce Hayse)

Add ruthless poachers in a lawless nation to the list of deterrents that had kept most world travelers from ever setting foot in the dark jungles of the Chinko River Basin. Perfect, thought Hayse, sounds like my kind of river.

“We floated 300 miles down this river and didn’t see a soul. There weren’t any villages. It was spooky, though, because there weren’t any animals, either. This was ideal wildlife habitat but these poachers were just slaughtering everything in there. The river was once known as the River of Elephants. We hardly saw any. It was really tragic.”

At the end of the Chinko was a village of pygmies. They had never seen a white man. They were convinced Hayse and his crew were there to save them from the brutality they had suffered at the hands of Sudanese poachers. Like a good doctor, Hayse listened to their symptoms and offered a cure.

Hayse met with the country’s president. He signed a contract that more or less made Hayse a defacto despot over a third of the country – 60,000 square miles of threatening and threatened “Heart of Darkness” wilderness that President Ange-Felix Patasse just as soon wanted to forget about. Hayse, with the help of fellow Jackson physician Christian Guier, founded and funded the African Rainforest and Rivers Conservation (ARRC) with the idea he could help stop the needless decimation of Africa’s wildlife before it was too late. The result was essentially a paramilitary of 400 men armed with assault rifles. Their orders were to catch poachers and shoot them. It was Earth First! times 10. It was a small army.

“We hired a South African ex-commando that had been doing some solo anti-poaching work. Actually, he had become disillusioned with militia work and basically wanted to only kill people who were killing animals now,” Hayse said. “And he was very good at it.”

But things started unraveling for Hayse. “We got in over our heads. We were out of our league,” he admitted. “First, we got hit from all sides back in the states. I was on NPR one day and couldn’t believe all the vitriolic blowback. We were vilified as these nasty Americans who think they can run the world. We got attacked by the right wing. Rush Limbaugh talked about me and what a bad guy I was and how we environmentalists value animals more than people. On the other side, we had all the left-wingers saying what a horrible bunch of racist Americans we were going over there and murdering these poor local tribe people. Even the major conservation groups distanced themselves from us because we were pretty up front about saying anti-poaching requires a certain level of violence and small warfare. We were attacked by everybody.”

When General François Bozizé assumed control over the CAR and infighting in that country erupted in another civil war, it was time to walk away, Hayse admitted.

A follow-up expedition in 1998 to Gabon was next on the conservationist’s bucket list. Hayse and a small band from Jackson Hole set out to be the first people ever to float the Ivindo River through the lush Mingouli Forest. Hayse and company documented incredible waterfalls and abundant wildlife. Upon learning the area was under constant threat of clear-cutting, Hayse and members of ARRC managed to convince President Ali Bongo to preserve the region as a permanent park and monument under Gabonese control.

In 2002, Hayse was off to the Congo to navigate the largely unexplored Lindi River in Maiko National Park. The park was established in 1970 but funding had all but dried up, leaving the condition of the isolated and biodiverse region a complete unknown. Shortly before the journey, Hayse was contacted by the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo who at first forbade him to go but then relented only on the condition he take along native “soldiers” to protect him and guide him down the river.

“None of these guys had actually been in there. It was an unknown area to them. They were terrified for us to go in there,” Hayse said. “They were going to be of no use whatsoever. Plus, they were all engaged in fighting with each other. That got very tricky. So we just agreed with the president and then paid these guys off and told them to get lost.”

Two weeks into the trek Hayse and his company were captured by rebel Congolese. They were not happy with the intrusion and took a keen dislike to one of the group leaders, a local named Faustan Mesasu. Mesasu was known to the Mai-Mai guerillas as a “most hated man.”

“They wanted to kill him and throw his head in the river. They were insistent on that,” Hayse said. “We didn’t actually like him, either, and probably wouldn’t have minded if they did. But we are the ones who took him back there so we felt we had to stick up for him. We haggled with them for about a day, and they really were going to kill us all if we weren’t going to hand over the Congolese guy to them.”

A payoff and a threat broke the tension. Hayse told his captors through Guier, who spoke French, that he would have to call the United States via his satellite phone to tell them whether he was alright or not.

“We told them we had to check in daily or else the U.S. would send in the military to our last known location,” Hayse lied. “That and $500 seemed to make a favorable impression. They let us go at that point. They didn’t want to get bombed.”

Calm, cool and connected

Hayse has mellowed only marginally at 66 years old. He still puts in a full day at the office with time for the great outdoors when he can make it. Preserving the earth’s last wild places is still his passion but he’s now realizing it might be better (or at least safer) changing people from the inside out.

“I’ve been conservation-minded all my life from when I was young,” Hayse said. “I don’t feel like I’ve lost any of that feeling at all. I don’t wake up in the morning feeling that I’m too old or too tired or don’t dare to do ‘that’ anymore.

“It’s a real spiritual thing – to get out there and feel totally a part of nature. No separation from it at all. I think people living in society today become more and more focused on themselves as individuals. They get carried away with all the bad stuff that happens when you are thinking only of yourself. Things like insecurity, which leads to greed and power then pushing other people around. But you get up in the wilderness and you suddenly realize there is really no pressure on you. You don’t have to be anything. You are just part of nature and that’s enough.”


Hayse served on the boards of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Western Wetlands Project, and Wyoming Wilderness Association. He serves on the board of trustees for St. John’s Medical Center. He was named ‘Citizen of the Year’ in 1992 by the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. (Photo: Sargent Schutt)

The peace and tranquility aren’t for everybody, though. The spirituality aspect is too “hippy” for some. Today’s weekend warriors arm themselves with gear, global positioning and Gortex in what amounts to more of a battle with nature than a coexistence. Hayse likes where conservation is headed today and appreciates that many in the Jackson Hole area live here to be “out there.”

But he worries some groups, like high-octane athletes who put the “X” in extreme, just don’t get it.

“I’ve seen this shift away from a real interest in protecting wild country, and that’s kind of sad,” Hayse says. “So many people like to use the outdoors as their personal gymnasium, or as a way to demonstrate their own abilities for ego’s sake. Wilderness is a great place to commune with and appreciate the outdoors for the natural wonder it is. You don’t have to fight against it for your own personal gratification all the time. It’s not how many peaks you’ve climbed or pitting yourself against nature. It’s about the happiness, freedom and spiritual fulfillment of being connected to the land. For me, anyway.” PJH

About Jake Nichols

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