In Memory of James L. Dudley, Volunteer Extraordinaire

December 29, 1938 - May 13, 2017

A long recognized adage in the conservation community, “special places attract special people” describes those wonderful folks who seemingly arrive out of nowhere but quickly shine through with their special passion, dedication and love of special places. James L. (Jim) Dudley was one of those very special people who arrived at a particular special place by the name of Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area and Wildlands near Owings Mills, Maryland. Jim appeared in 1988 at just the right time as the Serpentine Ecosystem Restoration Program (SERP) was beginning. SERP was an initiative coordinated by the Natural Heritage Program of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to reclaim this extraordinary serpentine barrens. When Jim arrived, this endangered frequent-fire ecosystem was about to be lost to rapidly spreading Virginia pines which were no longer being kept at bay by fire, an unfortunate consequence of the Smoky Bear fire suppression campaign.

Soldiers Delight, an internationally known site, boasts rare and endangered resources on top of rare and endangered resources: rare butterflies breeding and feeding on rare plants growing out of rare soils. These unusual soils are easily damaged by even the lightest vehicles or a modicum of foot traffic. So the challenge for SERP was to determine how to cut and remove the invading pines from over 500 acres of endangered habitat without damage. SERP needed a Jim Dudley, and Jim seemingly appeared from nowhere at the perfect time.

Jim (right) with Melvin
after pines were cut and
cleared from a restoration area
Jim was an expert chain sawyer and loved chainsawing. With his professional training and natural skills, he could drop the largest tree on a dime. And he did not mind cutting the thousands of unchallenging saplings and small trees. Perhaps most importantly, he coordinated other expert sawyers into a highly efficient team that was willing to hike in and hike out to the areas in need regardless of the distance and the steepness of the terrain, abiding by the leave no trace ethic. They were impressively efficient and completely voluntary. He also guided the sawing activities of a small contractor hired by the State. The owner of the company, Melvin Beteta, soon became good friends with Jim and both enjoyed putting their knowledge and skills together to maximize their productivity and to avoid impacts to the sensitive serpentine environment.

Jim (far right) poses with a prescribed burn team
Once the pines were cut, SERP volunteers would arrive by the dozens on weekends to form long human conveyor belts to physically transfer the cut and limbed segments to a chipper that had been stationed in a spot that would not impact the soils and plants. Jim would mix with and encourage volunteers while quietly monitoring for environmentally unfriendly snafus. He was a “people person” and, as the saying goes, if you didn’t like Jim, you didn’t like anybody!

Being an avid NASCAR and Formula 1 racing fan, his knowledge of engines and accessories was invaluable. Before and after each SERP event, Jim would prep or repair the temperamental chipper to make sure it was working perfectly. And his mechanical expertise was put to work installing a large storage shed for restoration and prescribed burning equipment and an ultra-terrain vehicle. He constructed a perfectly level foundation on his own with his own tools.

Jim with a couple of SERP volunteers after a fire
Once the pines were cut and removed from the landscape, the next step in the restoration process was prescribed burning: returning fire to this fire-dependent ecosystem. And, once again, Jim became a leader. On his own initiative, Jim would mow lengthy firebreaks with a hand-held weedeater before helping DNR staff and volunteers burn them in preparation for the main controlled fire. This “blacklining” technique, popular in prairies, produces very safe and very low-impact firebreaks without the use of heavy equipment which could damage the soils. Before each prescribed burn, Jim would meet firefighters early in the morning to provide guidance, hand out burn unit maps, and make sure crew members were fully suited with protective Nomex, helmets, and gloves. Once a controlled fire began, Jim would photo-document the burn and be on the lookout for potential problems. After each controlled fire, Jim would make sure all of the equipment and supplies were returned and readied for the next event. The behind-the-scenes, unsung support that Jim provided maintained a smooth-running operation.

Jim and his wife, Evelyn, (far left) help with “blacklining” a firebreak
with their son, Charles, (middle with striped shirt) and DNR staff and
Jim passed away on May 13, 2017 at the age of 78, leaving behind many friends and family members. He spoke often and admiringly of his wife, Evelyn; we all hope for such a perfect match. Jim was a devoted father of Eugene S. Dudley (Karen McCloud), Jami Van Scoyoc (Charlie), Charles C. Dudley (Kevin Adams); loving grandfather of Hunter Van Scoyoc and Jessica Dudley; cherished brother of Karen Dudley, Sandra Knuckles and Shirley Carr. He was preceded in death by two sisters, Marjorie Bird and Linda Nibert, and his brother Richard Dudley. He is also survived by many nieces and nephews.

James was a Vietnam War-era veteran. In 1996, after 32 years, Jim retired from Noxell/Proctor & Gamble Companies where he worked as an analytical chemist. In addition to being a conservationist, Jim was also an outdoor enthusiast who enjoyed camping and hiking. He enjoyed coin collecting, Italian sports car restoration and spelunking. He served as Assistant Scout Master of Troop 792 for the Boy Scouts of America. In his earlier years, he worked in the Chicago area at a steel mill. He enjoyed listening to Judy Collins, Rod Stewart and Peter Nero, as well as jazz and classical music.

            Jim is sadly no longer with us, but for all the visitors to Soldiers Delight, his legacy lives on in the gorgeous panoramas of the serpentine landscape that his hard work and dedication helped produce. This special place has been largely restored thanks to this very special person.  We owe our thanks and gratitude to Jim.

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