From the supervisor’s chair: a look back at leadership on the White River |

From the supervisor’s chair: a look back at leadership on the White River

James Blair (middle) stands between two rangers. James Blair served as the forest supervisor of the White River National Forest from 1906-1928. This photo was taken in the early 1900s.
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The story of past White River National Forest supervisors begins with two men, and two separate forests: the White River National Forest and the Holy Cross National Forest. Both tenured their respective positions for almost 39 years collectively, establishing a strong foundation with the local communities and setting the tone of service for the future for this area.

Harry French, the first forest supervisor of the Holy Cross National Forest, began his job in 1905. A year later, James “Jim” Blair, began his job on the White River National Forest (formerly the White River Reserve).

Together, these men faced a tenuous and delicate situation and sometimes hostile opposition from the local communities and stock growers. They were starting their jobs at a time when a forest supervisor was about as welcome at a stock grower’s meeting as a “coyote during calving season” (White River Centennial History). With that in mind, Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot picked Supervisors for these two forests who would be sensitive and diplomatic when it came to those who use and depend on the forest for their livelihood.

Walter J. Morrill, a professor of forestry, once wrote about early forest supervisors, “Forest Officers were not so very popular … they required much diplomacy, some leniency and considerable firmness, punctuated with a sense of humor and friendliness.”

While now we are governed by a different set of laws than the early days of the Forest Service, the ways in which we strive to interact and build relationships with the public still reflects the same approach that Morrill wrote about all those years ago.

Both French and Blair employed those traits despite a skeptical and sometimes hostile reception by the locals, they knew respect and trust had to be earned. In fact, French spent a great deal of time in the field working to improve relationships with stock growers. In many ways, public relations was the most challenging aspect of his job.

After only two years in their positions Blair and French made headway. The stock growers who had previously been against the Forest Service policies, announced in an editorial in the Glenwood Post that they had switched to be sturdy champions of the forest and its operations because management had proven to “show immense benefit to them.”

Listening to communities and building relationships with our stakeholders is a tradition on the White River that was started by these two supervisors and one we continue today. James Blair ultimately died doing what he loved when he suffered a heart attack on the job while climbing a hill after a saddled horse. Blair Mountain was named after him, a high mountain overlooking the South fork of the White River north of Glenwood Springs.

Two more forest supervisors took the reins of the White River prior to 1945, when the Holy Cross and White River National Forests merged. There was much consternation over the merger and debate of the new name. Finally, it was decided that White River National Forest would be the namesake of the merger after the original 1891 Timber Reserve. The then-Holy Cross Forest Supervisor, Jack Leighou, became the new Supervisor of the new White River National Forest and he remained in place until 1950.

After the merger many things happened that were outside the control of the managers of the White River National Forest, that would ultimately shape the direction of the forest for years to come. World Wars I and II, the results of which prompted the construction of Camp Hale, the subsequent return of the 10th Mountain Division Infantry and the interest and development of ski areas, the recreation boom of the 1950s, the development of the Wilderness concept and subsequent Wilderness Act and “Operation Outdoors” were all factors that kick-started the White River into becoming the ‘pulsing heart of ski country, USA’ (James Folkstad, Forest Supervisor) and a recreation destination. These outside factors, coupled with internal interest to provide new recreation opportunities on the Forest have contributed to where we are today- the most-visited 2.3 million acres of national forest in the country.

From the early 1970s to the turn of the century, Tom Evans, Dick Woodrow, Tom Hoots and Sonny LaSalle ushered in the modern-day recreation industry to the White River. Under their leadership and spearheaded by the ski areas and resorts towns, the White River evolved to become the premier outdoor recreation playground in North America.

The first two and only women to lead the White River, Martha Kittel and Maribeth Gustafson, brought in the new century with a revised Forest Plan and a contemporary vision for the future of the Forest.

We have much to be grateful for as we look back at the vision and integrity of past leaders. Ultimately, the story of the White River is a story about all of us past and present who care about the land and the people. Those who have had the honor to sit in the Forest Supervisor chair realize we play equal part decision makers and facilitator of this story that has been written with compromise, vision and service. The forest supervisors are not the sole writers of this evolving story, the pens and ink belong equally to those of the past and also the future who believe in the value of public land and the benefits of the multiple use mission of national forests.

I am humbled by the responsibility of this job. Our stewardship will continue to evolve with each person who sits in this chair. We have learned much from the past and the person who sits here now and into the future is only effective through the partnership of others who care enough to come to the table, roll up their sleeves and work with us toward the common goal of caring for the land and serving the people.

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