Lynx that wouldn’t leap: reflections on a public-lands career

It was freezing in the San Juan National Forest that day on the Upper Piedra when Mark Stiles stood above the cage waiting for the female cat to jump out. He had the door raised but she wouldn’t budge.

She was a beautiful long-haired lynx fresh from Quebec and part of a unique attempt to re-introduce Canadian lynx to the southern Rockies. After years of planning, permits, and passports, an endangered species was to be released on the Western Slope to establish a major predator back into alpine ecosystems. But after such a long journey the feline just lay in her cage, her tufted ears twitching.

For field biologist and Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles, his whole career stood poised that moment a decade ago. Then in the cold, his nose began to run and dripped down on the cat. Non-plussed, she refused to leap to freedom.

Recently, I interviewed Stiles, who just retired after 32 years with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. He began his career trapping mice for an inventory along irrigation ditches near Delta. After many postings and a stint in Washington, D.C., he came to Montrose in 1995 as BLM District Manager and then West Slope Center Manager in charge of fire programs, information technology and administration.

In 2002 he was assigned to Durango to manage the 70,000-acre Missionary Ridge Fire, and a year later he became supervisor of the San Juan National Forest in charge of 1.8 million acres, a staff of 160 and a $15 million budget. Not bad for a biologist who began by looking for mice along Delta ditches.

“I like stuff that’s controversial,” he told me over breakfast. “I enjoyed the public processes. That’s where the edge is, the margin for change.”

Stiles and his staff wrestled with ATV and snowmobile use versus quiet or non-motorized uses on public lands. In the northern San Juan Basin, oil and gas well expansion resulted in 68,000 comments.

He told me, “Thirty years ago I saw as few as three to seven comment letters on a major EIS or Environmental Impact Statement; now we’ll see 20,000 to 70,000 comments. We try not to do tallies. That perpetuates the voting concept.” That’s the notion that land managers will shift their opinions and decision-making based on the preponderance of comments, many of which are emailed. Instead, Stiles explained that the comments they most use when making long-range decisions have detailed analysis showing that respondents have thought through the issues.

We all love our public lands, but how they are managed can result in fierce debate. On oil and gas management, Stiles said, “We spent a lot of time listening to people; then we pushed the envelope on air quality for enforcement for conditions of approval on individual wells. That was a new collaborative breakthrough.”

Other significant public-land issues include climate change and the vital role that Colorado forests will play in water retention as patterns shift for earlier snowmelts and pulses of water flow at different times.

Stiles explained that we need to think of snowpack like water in a reservoir. When it’s gone or greatly diminished, where will we get our water? Hydrology has long been “the purpose of national forests,” and in the future it will be even more critical.

“Climate change is already real for vegetation. Just look at the impact of bark beetles in dying spruce,” Stiles told me. Across Colorado and now increasingly on the Western Slope, we have stands of dead or dying trees that are hard to access for their timber.

Stiles helped to evolve policies to calibrate the risks of fire to resources as well as risks to firefighters prepared to deploy in rugged terrain. The old Forest Service rule of having every fire out by 10 a.m. the next morning has resulted in too many trees in the forest.

We now understand fire as an ecological re-set button and an important natural force in how habitats function.

“Recognize that forests will burn,” Stiles said. “In a lot of cases they need to burn and, long-term, it can be a benefit. Let’s quit talking about catastrophic fire. It’s just fire.”

Under Stiles’ leadership, in October 2012 a small fire started by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was allowed to burn up to 11,000 feet and did not die out until December. On the 25,000-acre lightning-caused Little Sand Fire, Stiles helped change national policy.

“We made a major difference in how we perceive of wildfire,” he said. “We calculated all the values and, rather than build an expensive firefighting line, we used sophisticated meteorology to calculate the risks, to understand the probability of success, and we let the fire come to us. It’s more like a military model where you fight on the high ground.” Yes, there was more soot and ash in Pagosa Springs that summer, but the forest is healthier.

Colleges are now graduating fewer students in range management and forestry. Staff members hired decades ago are retiring. “Federal systems, statutes, regulations, policies, are very complex and it takes many years to get a handle on them and to learn from your mistakes,” Stiles mused. He wondered whether the new work force will be “steeped in the same environmental and natural resource culture America saw in the 1960s and 1970s and whether that will make any difference.”

Stiles made a difference. Both in Montrose and in Durango, he led his staff to formulate long-range decisions for the betterment of public lands. Always accessible, willing to listen, he knew how to hesitate and pause, and how to balance access, energy and conservation values. Perhaps he learned from that female feline, the lynx who wouldn’t budge. She stayed in her cage, sniffing, looking, testing. Finally she ventured forth.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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