For Michael Donald, overseeing national forest and public lands is like the shrewd management of a bank account.
As of March, he is the White River National Forest’s new deputy forest supervisor — the No. 2 for the 2.3 million-acre federal territory that surrounds much of the Western Slope region, including Summit County. And it’s his primary goal not to overdraft or even dip into the ledger.
“I see it as living off the interest, so you can leave the principal behind,” said the 52-year-old. “The whole intent in forming the Forest Service 100-plus years ago was to use it, to enjoy it, but not to the extent that it doesn’t provide the same opportunities for the people who follow and we’re disadvantaging them.”
The White River, with its headquarters in Glenwood Springs, is Donald’s fifth forest after 27 years with the service. He previously worked temporarily as the acting deputy forest supervisor in Lake Tahoe, was most recently a district ranger on the Plumas National Forest for eight years and also earlier was a fish biologist and planner in Montana and Washington state.
He holds a bachelor’s of science in fisheries biology from the University of California-Davis but spent time in Colorado growing up visiting relatives in Denver and, as an adult, bringing his children to explore. He recalled taking the train past Glenwood Springs some years back and taking in its splendor through the window.
“It certainly is a beautiful, beautiful place,” he said. “The physical beauty is just amazing. I knew it was pretty, but it impressed me even with that expectation.”
The position as second-in-command on the White River under forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams opened up, and Donald jumped at the opportunity just as he was looking for a new challenge. He cites his aptitude and desire to partner with a multitude of groups and entities as one of his greatest strengths.
It’s an ability he learned and embraced while working abroad in Latin America for a total of 10 years while working as a Peace Corps volunteer following college, and then again a decade later. He returned to Honduras following Hurricane Mitch — a devastating category 5 tropical storm in October 1998 that caused nearly 20,000 casualties — to aid in recovery efforts. He also spent stints in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, assisting each with community-driven forest management projects.
“The Peace Corps whet my appetite,” he said, “and I really enjoyed natural resource management with those various Latin American cultures and learning how other countries do their management, which is different, and learning how to apply that to my job here. I also got to share how we do it in the United States with those other countries.”
Fluent in Spanish, Donald hopes to use that skill when involved in outreach with an assortment of stakeholders for partnerships on projects, including the relatively large Hispanic population in the area.
“Our goal is to be as inclusive as possible,” he said, “and I’m anxious to do just that.”
Noting the financial limitations across the forest — particularly on one such as the White River that is so heavily dominated by recreation — and how overcoming that is a necessity nationwide, he expects his background to be a factor. While in the Sierra Nevadas, he dealt extensively with fire management and restoration, as well as a broadening wildland-urban interface, which he feels will alleviate some of those funding strains.
Ultimately, though, he sees his new role as merely taking the models of resource management he observed and helped design while in Latin America, as well as on his four previous U.S. forests, and relaying them to the White River. With community buy-in and assistance, the forest will be sustainable and long outlive its present consumers — an approach he believes you can take to the bank.
“I look back to what Theodore Roosevelt did for us in developing the forest reserves at last,” he said, “and created a model for us for public lands that is unparalleled, as I’ve witnessed. It’s a great legacy that he left for us. We need to make management pertinent to the people who we serve — the stakeholders, the constituents — but at same time, we need to manage it so that the next generation has the same opportunities we do.”