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Friday, February 20, 2015
Forest Service hires Bill Jackson as new head of Dillon Ranger District
#Summit County, Colorado.
Courtesy Bill Jackson
On Wednesday, Bill Jackson eyed the box that held his stand-up desk. It was just like the one he had used for two years as a Forest Service district ranger in Vermont. And now it sat in his Silverthorne office, waiting to be assembled.
Jackson was one month into his new role as head of the Dillon Ranger District, which manages the three-quarters of Summit County’s land that is part of the White River National Forest.
Jackson said he disliked sitting for long periods, but he hadn’t prioritized his desk because he’s been busy connecting with his staff, meeting with government and ski area officials and learning about Summit County’s landscape. In the little time he’d spent in his office, he’d sat in a heavy leather chair.
“What is this?” he said, pushing the chair with a bemused smile. He half-joked that it was a relic from the era of Rick Newton, who held Jackson’s title until 2008.
Jackson, 43, replaced Jan Cutts as district ranger when she retired in January after six years in the role.
Jackson became interested in public land management through his time in the Peace Corps in Central America and has spent most of his career in western Colorado.
Now 15 years after his first Forest Service job, he arrived in Summit with experience managing recreation facilities, wildfires, motorized and non-motorized user conflicts and ski area permitting — all sometimes sensitive issues familiar to local residents.
FROM PEACE CORPS TO PUBLIC LANDS
Originally from North Carolina, Jackson studied natural resource management and economics at North Carolina State University.
He then went straight into the Peace Corps in the mid-1990s and spent two years in Honduras working in the early years of the country’s national parks. He became fluent in Spanish while promoting ecotourism, constructing park infrastructure and teaching environmental stewardship.
At the end of his service, he gave the Honduran government the results of his eight-month survey of park visitors with his recommendations.
“I was really excited about this whole ecotourism concept and community-based tourism,” he said.
That passion led him to a master’s program in natural resource management, recreation and tourism at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
As part of his degree, Jackson spent a summer studying how to improve the recreation experience at a popular boating reservoir in California, which opened Jackson’s eyes to how his work in Honduras could be applied in the U.S. and what it was like to work for a federal land management agency.
He moved to Craig, Colorado, after grad school for a job with the Bureau of Land Management. On his first day, his boss handed Jackson a stack of maps and the keys for his work truck and sent him off to learn about the area’s roads, trails and people.
For the next two years he worked with the campgrounds and outfitter guides there, and for a year he commuted from Steamboat, where he fell in love with skiing, mountain biking and river canoeing.
In less than 20 years, Jackson has worked on the White River, Pike, San Isabel, Grand Mesa Uncompahgre, Gunnison and Green Mountain national forests and the Cimarron and Comanche national grasslands in various capacities, mostly as a recreation specialist.
He’s also completed short stints in Alaska, New Mexico and Washington, D.C.
Jackson met his wife, a fellow Peace Corps veteran and then a Forest Service employee, in the nation’s capital, and the couple married in Breckenridge in 2003.
Jackson’s ties to Summit County come from skiing at Breckenridge, Copper and other resorts in the early 2000s when he was based in Leadville and Colorado Springs.
In 2005, Jackson moved to Basalt to become a National Environmental Policy Act coordinator for the White River National Forest. There he came to appreciate how that law drives the agency’s decisions on oil and gas industry proposals, ski resort expansions and timber, range and recreation projects.
He considered pursing a doctorate and was accepted into an urban planning program in Wisconsin, but he decided to stay in Colorado and moved his family to Gunnison for another Forest Service recreation job.
“We really enjoyed Gunnison,” Jackson said, describing the tiny town close to Crested Butte.
The family lived there for five years, the longest Jackson has stayed anywhere since college, and soon Jackson took advantage of opportunities to serve as acting district ranger. He enjoyed the more holistic perspective the upper-level position provided, and that led to another move, this time across the country, for a district ranger job in Vermont.
After 15 years in Colorado, living in New England brought a culture shock not unlike what felt in the Peace Corps, he said, laughing.
His district was home to two-dozen town governments, and residents regularly packed town hall meetings. The Forest Service often brought issues of concern to the meetings without any defined plans and asked people what they thought the agency should do.
“Everybody had a chance to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what would stick or not,” he said. “It was really open, really transparent.”
Though he worried over decisions on a large timber project and a road reconstruction, he worked with vocal minorities until everyone felt their concerns had been addressed. People in the eastern U.S. are generally more supportive of the Forest Service’s work than in the West, he said.
After two years in Vermont, Jackson craved the overwhelming scenery, famous powder, mountain biking trails and people of Colorado.
“If you don’t have a passion or an ethic for the landscape, it makes your job even harder,” he said. “We were missing the Rockies.”
INFLUENCE IN SUMMIT
Jackson found time to hang up some photos in his last few weeks in Summit.
In a picture on the wall behind his desk, he smiles with a bunch of coworkers in ski gear on top of a mountain near Crested Butte. One of the men in the photo died in an avalanche not long after it was taken. Jackson said the picture reminds him of what’s important, like spending time with his two young daughters and prioritizing his birding, skiing, running and biking hobbies.
One of his goals as district ranger will be helping his employees stay sane.
After a sharp decrease in funding in recent years, the White River has been told not to fill many vacancies. For Summit, that means the Forest Service will be saying no to more projects and sharing resources, including employees, with other districts.
“One person can’t do two jobs sustainably and be healthy,” Jackson said. “We don’t want to kill people.”
He has met one-on-one with each of his staff members, talking about their projects, challenges and aspirations.
“He’s doing a really good job in getting to know the district and the people,” said Cynthia Peech Keller, deputy district ranger. “I really like having a ranger who’s a family man and hopefully is going to be around for a while.”
Jackson also has been learning which aspects of Forest Service management in Summit could be improved, like the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area, and which to continue.
“I don’t plan to do anything different that’s working well,” he said.