During a long and varied National Park Service career, Ken Mabery always was keeping an eye out for an opportunity to return to the Colorado Plateau.
That chance came in 2015 when, after initially serving in an interim capacity as superintendent of Colorado National Monument, Mabery was hired as the permanent superintendent.
At the end of April, that local role, and Mabery's Park Service career, came to an end as he retired. But he and his wife Jeannie "fully intend to stay in the Grand Valley area," he said in an interview.
He said when he was hired for the monument job, "it was our intent all along that this would be our last stop in the journey."
The Park Service expects to be announcing a new superintendent at the monument in September. Meanwhile, Phil Akers has been working as acting superintendent. He is chief ranger at Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan and was chief ranger at Colorado National Monument from 2005-11.
Moving around can come with the career of many Park Service employees. The Park Service life was a familiar one for Mabery as a kid. His late father, Roby "Slim" Mabery, was a park ranger. Ken Mabery said he was raised in national parks primarily in the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges in Oregon and California. But his dad got the bug to work on the Colorado Plateau after seeing it after serving in World War II, and got a job at Arches National Park, where Ken Mabery spent much of his high school years tramping around.
Mabery started working in the Park Service while still in college, beginning at Canyonlands National Park as a seasonal ranger.
He attended New Mexico Highlands University, getting degrees in international relations and geology. He served in numerous Park Service units on the Colorado Plateau, including all of those in northern New Mexico, he said.
"I really like the scenic diversity, cultural diversity, and just the surprises that the plateau parks offer in terms of landforms, rock art, prehistoric Native American sites, biological diversity, all of that, and I really enjoy the visitors who come to Colorado Plateau parks," he said.
But Mabery's career called him elsewhere at times. He spent time working at the Park Service national headquarters on task forces that were involved in bringing new technology to the agency. He also chaired a committee that focused on how the agency can support employees who have dealt with critical incidents such as fatal wildfires or mass shootings.
From 2003-15, Mabery also worked with an Interior Department international technical assistance program, traveling about twice a year to the country of Georgia to help it develop its own national park system.
Eventually Mabery went into superintendent work, first at Park Service units in Pennsylvania and New York State, and then at Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska, just before becoming superintendent at Colorado National Monument.
As the monument superintendent, Mabery focused on working to strengthen the community bond with the monument, while emphasizing that it's not a city park but a national resource. Mabery said that can involve educational efforts such as getting out the message that while locals recreating in pot holes above Glade Park may be fine, doing so in pools in No Thoroughfare Canyon in the monument isn't because they are in better ecological shape but also vulnerable to being harmed.
Mabery said he and his staff boosted public relations efforts at the monument, along with youth education. He also credits Colorado Mesa University's efforts on behalf of the monument, when it comes to everything from piñon-juniper forest fire ecology research and management, to working to produce a new visitor orientation film.
"Some of the professors and leaders of that university really embraced their students and faculty involvement in positive ways in the monument," he said.
"… The community here was just wonderful at being responsive to the kind of leadership I wanted to bring to Colorado National Monument."
There were frustrating aspects to Mabery's job, such as dealing with government shutdowns. Those shutdowns raised the potential for resource damage by the public in the skeletally staffed monument. And Mabery worried about staff members who were early in their careers and perhaps lacking in savings and struggling to keep up with bills. What Mabery describes as the "rules of engagement" during shutdowns kept him from working in an official capacity to reach out to staff and see how they were doing. So he took another approach.
"With my leadership team I would actually invite them over to my house for beer so it was a social occasion, and we would figure out ways to take care of our staff," he said.
Park budgets that he said have been essentially frozen for a dozen years have proven a challenge for managers. Mabery said salary and other costs continue to increase, forcing managers to take measures such as imposing mandatory furloughs on some employees, which holds the potential to impair operations and also is a hardship for those workers.
Mabery's budget experiences inform his view on the debate over whether the monument should become a park.
"Right now Colorado National Monument is at the limit of what the staff can handle and there would be no new money coming in" with a park designation, he said. "Absent no new money it's going to create more problems than it's going to bring to the valley."
He doesn't think a change to park status would impact visitor numbers much in the short term. But he also worries about the potential that it could help lead to the kind of crowding problems being experienced in places like Arches National Park in the long run.
Mabery, who serves on the Visit Grand Junction board, said the Grand Valley already benefits from the Moab effect by getting visitors who can't find lodging in Moab.
"There's enough tourism economy in the valley to do well by the valley," he said.
Mabery plans to remain involved with that board, and with the Grand Junction Rotary Club. He and his wife hope to do more traveling, and he anticipates doing some more work with Georgia on its park system.
He has written an orientation booklet for people planning to travel to Georgia, and he's expecting to do some more writing in retirement. He said one project he has in mind would be a guidebook to smaller geological features in the area, such as desert varnish and clay washes, to help people understand what they're seeing.
Such a project would be just one more manifestation of Mabery's longtime love for the Colorado Plateau.
"This area has always had a soft spot in my heart," Mabery said.