Two decades after Catherine Robertson arrived in Grand Junction, the Bureau of Land Management is surveying a significantly different landscape than the one Robertson took over in 1992.
Back then, mountain biking was a Moab, Utah, thing, the energy industry was something that had gone horribly awry a decade before, wild horses had yet to stampede into the public consciousness and many people considered the bureau, if they thought much about it at all, as a place to get Christmas-tree permits.
Robertson, who had gained a nodding familiarity with Grand Junction while working for the bureau in Denver, still remembers Grand Junction in the ‘80s.
“I remember walking down Main Street and it was completely dead,” she recalled.
Mesa County slowly regained its economic bearings, Robertson moved to northern California and in 1992 returned to Grand Junction as head of the BLM’s field office on H Road, where she has been in charge ever since.
The Grand Junction office, Robertson noted, is a plum assignment, one she says is likely to be sought out by BLM employees in light of her retirement at the end of the year.
“This is kind of a jumping-off point,” BLM spokesman Chris Joyner said of the Grand Junction office. “A lot of people in the agency have gone on from here to high-level things.”
Western Colorado residents who have dealt with Robertson for years said the one person they’re not eager to see go on to bigger things is Robertson’s replacement.
“Can you replicate Catherine?” said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, “someone who’s fair dealing and candid.”
Robertson’s extended tenure gave her a unique perspective, said Diane Schwenke, president of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.
“For her to be here 20 years and as a result really build long-term relationships, it allows you to look out for your community as well as the agency you oversee,” Schwenke said.
The Grand Junction Field Office will be headed temporarily by Katie Stevens, field manager for the McInnis Canyons Conservation Area, and then for 12 weeks after that by Colin Ewing, planning and environmental coordinator for the office, Joyner said.
Robertson “has created a fairly unique culture” in the Grand Junction office, Schwenke said. “So I would look internally.”
The job, however, is open to the entire agency and Joyner said he expects applicants from around the agency to seek it out.
In her two decades, Robertson oversaw the development of a network of mountain-bike trails, the establishment of two national conservation areas, a wilderness area, development of a plan to protect the Grand Junction and Palisade watersheds in the event of drilling, and most of the drafting of a resource-management plan that will guide the agency for the next two decades.
“It hasn’t always been a lovefest,” former Fruita Mayor Ken Henry said, noting that Robertson had to deal with her share of controversy.
“It’s a tribute to Catherine that she didn’t say no” to a trail proposal to honor a private individual, Henry said. “She tried to find a reasonable compromise.”
Robertson was a careful leader behind the scenes as the Clinton administration’s effort to expand Colorado National Monument morphed into a national conservation area, said former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo.
Robertson stayed out of the fight between him and the administration but did intercede at the right time to suggest that an association needed to be formed and how to make it work, McInnis said.
Robertson, McInnis said, took no sides and made it clear “she wasn’t there to make the congressman happy. She was there to make sure the mission of multiple use was carried out.”
Establishment of the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, originally the Colorado Canyons NCA, set the mold for the establishment later of the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area. Taken together with the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness within the McInnis NCA, Robertson managed about 400,000 acres of NCA and wilderness lands.
Robertson has an “uncanny ability to bring various competing interests together for collaboration on the management of our public lands,” said Joe Neuhof, formerly of the Colorado Environmental Coalition and now the executive director of the Colorado Canyons Association.
Robertson’s successor “needs to bring her ‘no bull’ understanding of the core management issues in our resource area,” Neuhof said.
One group, off-highway vehicle users, maintains it came out on the short end over the years.
Robertson “leaned to the environmental side pretty hard,” said Art Cook of the Western Slope ATV Association.
All-terrain vehicle users, said Brandon Siegfried, a public lands-access advocate, have been “the redheaded stepchild in the room” when multiple use is under discussion.
Robertson herself points to the development of off-highway vehicle trails as an accomplishment over her tenure.
Robertson leaves the agency next month and she said she looks forward to spending even more time on the trails of the public lands she managed for two decades, though not on a bicycle.
“I think I would hurt myself on a bike,” she said.
Opening the backcountry to the public that owns it is an accomplishment, she said.
“It’s wellness, it’s a healthy community we have,” Robertson said, calling BLM land “incredible for therapy.
“You can’t be grumpy when you’re out having fun on BLM lands. It’s forbidden.”