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Friday, December 19, 2014
Pine beetle, women’s rights defined tenure of retiring Summit County forest manager
#Summit County, Colorado.
It’s not easy being green, and in Summit County, those who wear the green uniform of the Forest Service are charged with protecting natural resources for the future and the sometimes conflicting community values of the present.
The beetles became a defining challenge in her 25-year career with the federal agency.
Now after six years leading the Dillon Ranger District, Cutts will retire in January. She will leave behind a legacy that includes a more cohesive team of employees, stronger community relationships and Forest Service projects that spurred heated discussion.
“She took some hard knocks.” But overall, “people just like her. She’s just a genuine person who cares about people and who cares about the land.” Cynthia Keller deputy district ranger
Though Cutts, 49, arrived after the planning for fuels-reduction projects, which entailed controversial clear-cuts, was underway, she oversaw the Forest Service’s local reaction to the beetles and move toward timber contracts that send beetle-killed trees to a nearby biomass power plant.
Cutts also supervised at least one large project at each of the county’s four ski resorts. She directed analyses of Breckenridge Ski Resort’s Peak 6 expansion and push toward more summer activities, the Tenderfoot Mountain motorized trail system and the Summit Hut Association’s backcountry Weber Hut.
County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said over Cutts’ six years, some local Forest Service projects, and the environmental analyses required when anyone proposes large changes on national forest land, drew just as many comments in opposition as in support.
Still, Cutts bravely moved forward and stayed positive, Stiegelmeier said, while dealing with budget cuts and maintaining open-door communication with the public.
“It’s a tough job,” Steigelmeier said. “She will be greatly missed.”
White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, Cutts’ boss for the last five years, said the role of the district ranger has become more complicated since the days when it mostly involved field work.
“I always tell them, ‘You are the face of the agency in your community,’” he said. “She just has done a marvelous job.”
WALKING IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS
The middle of nine children, Cutts was born outside San Francisco and grew up with four older brothers and four younger sisters.
Her father worked as an English teacher while her mother took care of the kids, and during the summers the family would travel to historic sites and museums around the West.
Those trips and a love of the TV show “Quincy, M.E.,” which aired from 1976 to 1983, led Cutts toward a career in forensic anthropology.
She earned a degree in anthropology from the University of California Davis, where she focused on human evolution and biology, and she started a master’s program.
In 1989, her plans shifted when she found seasonal work as an archaeologist in California’s Inyo National Forest. The forest archaeologist there inspired her to continue her work surveying and protecting sites, and two years later Cutts became the year-round assistant forest archaeologist.
She loved that her job meant taking weeklong backpacking trips in the Sierra Nevada mountains, including in the Golden Trout, John Muir and Ansel Adams wildernesses.
“How many people get to get paid to go out and look for archeological sites and protect them?” she said.
She discovered that history, by federal law, meant anything 50 years or older and worked to preserve cabins built in the early days of the Forest Service as well as some built for the set of a 1917 movie called “The Virginian.”
She also protected the area’s Native American history, she said, remembering some pottery pieces she found with fingerprints still on them.
WORKING WITH SENSITIVE SUBJECTS
In the 1990s, Cutts started facilitating discussions with players in the Golden Trout Wilderness, where the Forest Service was working on watershed restoration and protection. She got to know cattle ranchers, whose families had been living that way for a couple of generations, and she talked to leaders of a bottled water corporation.
“I just fell in love with bringing people together, especially when they don’t see eye to eye,” she said.
In 1994, Cutts earned an award from the secretary of agriculture for her work inside and outside the Forest Service on civil rights and women’s issues.
At work, she led the civil rights committee in her national forest, and during her time off she volunteered with a domestic violence crisis center. Cutts was the person who answered the phone at 3 a.m. when people called fearing for their lives, and she met women at the hospital after they’d been assaulted.
She also helped start the Eastern Sierra Clothesline Project, which allowed domestic violence survivors and family members to tell their stories anonymously through words and images on T-shirts.
The shirts hung in public parks, airing out dirty laundry and bringing awareness to hidden issues, she said. Cutts later brought the T-shirt display to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
She also helped start a support organization for cancer patients and their families, called the Eastern Sierra Breast Cancer Alliance.
Cutts said she has no personal connection to domestic violence or breast cancer. She did, however, support suicide prevention efforts after a brother killed himself when she was 15.
Her community service, which she’s excited to return to upon retirement, helped prepare her for her next role as Inyo National Forest public affairs specialist and civil rights officer.
She learned communication is key, she said, while she tracked complaints, resolved internal disputes and ensured that diversity and discrimination laws and policies were properly followed by Forest Service employees, contractors and others.
WITH GREAT POWER
In 2005, Cutts was promoted to district ranger in the Tahoe National Forest.
She asked the universe to wait to give her a large wildfire until she had at least a year’s experience.
A year and one day after she became district ranger, she responded to wildfire classified Type 1, which is as large as they get. It threatened humans, homes, railroads and power lines and involved multiple incident command teams and weeks of firefighting.
When Cutts moved to Colorado, she took charge of a ranger district that managed more than three-quarters of Summit County’s land.
Those who’ve worked with her say she has used that power well.
“She has absolutely transformed not only our district, our office of employees, but she’s transformed the way the community sees the Forest Service also,” said Cynthia Keller, deputy district ranger.
Cutts is a good listener who worked to build trust among everyone at the district office, Keller said. “She just shows that she cares.”
Fitzwilliams, who became forest supervisor a year after Cutts became district ranger, said, “She has created a highly functional unit that I understand was not that way when she got there.”
He added that as an employee she has never been afraid to challenge him.
“She’s not afraid to push back if she sees something a different way, in a professional manner, and I appreciate that,” he said.
Gail Shears, board president of the district’s nonprofit partner Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, also had kind words.
“We tend to do our own thing, but she’s always been so incredibly supportive,” Shears said. “I’ve always heard a good leader is a non-anxious presence, and that’s how I would describe Jan.”
Keller said she admired the way Cutts built relationships with county officials, ski areas and others and made long-term decisions to benefit the environment and people enjoying the forest that were sometimes unpopular.
“She took some hard knocks,” Keller said. But overall, “people just like her. She’s just a genuine person who cares about people and who cares about the land.”
Cutts said she was surprised by the few times when people were hurtful and unhelpful. When someone yelled at her or an employee, she tried to remember that the angry tirade stemmed from love for the place, the same love that bonds most of the county’s residents.
She also learned to ask more questions and challenge her assumptions, she said. “Oftentimes that thing that’s jumping out and being really noisy isn’t the issue. There’s something underlying.”
Cutts’ last day will be Jan. 9, and her replacement will start Jan. 12. The time frame separating the two leaders — just a weekend — is unheard of for the Forest Service, which usually spends months between permanent district rangers.
Cutts is looking forward to focusing on community service, traveling and visiting a home in New Mexico with her husband, who also works for the Forest Service in Golden and will retire in the spring.