The San Juan National Forest anchors Southwest Colorado’s landscape, and, in so doing, is a significant economic, natural, cultural, recreational and political resource. As such, managing the forest requires a deft hand skilled at balancing the various interests and demands that compete and coexist in any ecosystem – natural or otherwise. For nearly 12 years, Mark Stiles has embodied that skill, and with his retirement leaves behind a legacy of studied, inclusive and well-considered management decisions that will positively shape the forest, its many resources and the region at large for decades to come. He has served the role of forest supervisor with exemplary ability.
Stiles will retire next month, but the results of his leadership will be long felt on the San Juan National Forest. His tenure began under rather extreme circumstances when he assumed command of the Missionary Ridge Fire – a formidable task he handled adroitly. The fire’s resulting changes to the land were significant, and Stiles was instrumental in responding to the ecological and recreational implications. He has also been a leader in helping the Forest Service’s wildfire policy evolve in response to more frequent and severe burns – of which Missionary Ridge was an early harbinger.
Less dramatic, though equally critical to shaping the San Juan National Forest’s future, is Stiles’ role in such long-game discussions as how to handle Wild and Scenic River eligibility and suitability for five waterways on the forest – Hermosa Creek, and the Pine, Piedra, San Juan and Animas rivers. This regionally critical discussion – separated into river-specific conversations – was the impetus for the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act now pending in Congress with bipartisan support from Sens. Michael Bennet, Mark Udall and Rep. Scott Tipton. Stiles was an active participant in the collaborative conversation that shaped the bill, which would protect the nearly 108,000 acres of the pristine Hermosa Creek watershed for multiple uses.
He also helped champion designation of the Chimney Rock National Monument – another bipartisan achievement ultimately sanctified by an executive order from President Obama under the Antiquities Act, with support from Bennet, Udall and Tipton.
Though less splashy and glamorous than these significant protective achievements, Stiles’ past role as the joint leader of both the San Juan National Forest and the San Juan Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management under the now-defunct Service First model was a rare but telling example of how the two agencies could be co-managed. Under his leadership, both agencies crafted new management plans to replace long-outdated documents guiding how their respective lands will be administered – a notoriously lengthy process. Those plans – now separated in the post-Service First era – are being finalized at long last. It is an appropriate swan song for Stiles, who saw their beginnings in 2004.
Stiles’ leadership and legacy is not limited to the Southwest corner of the state, though. He was tapped by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to lead a team in reviewing 77 gas leases granted in the waning days of the Bush administration for land surrounding Canyonlands National Park. The “Stiles Report’s” recommendations that 52 of the leases be deferred and eight be withdrawn altogether served as the springboard for leasing reform at the BLM with an eye toward, “increasing the level of coordination and collaboration in dealing with gas and oil leasing and development, both at the federal level and the state level; studying the use of interdisciplinary field reviews for all proposed lease sales; and improving interdisciplinary participation in identifying lease parcels to be offered,” according to the agency. That was a significant and welcome broadening of the leasing context and conversation.
Stiles’ expertise and adept leadership has been a boon to the agency he now leaves – and those with which it partners. He has earned his days of freedom.