USFS Shift Impacts Lake County Recreation
“Nine, I think,” stated newly appointed USFS Leadville District Ranger, Pat Mercer in his first interview with Leadville Today when asked about the number of people currently on staff at the local office he is now charged to oversee.
“Half, if not more than half, of what used to be here. Yet, we have the same land base,” he added.
While it wasn’t a succinct answer, it was most likely the clearest picture that the Leadville Ranger District office has painted in recent years, as it cycled through several temporary or acting Rangers, at one point in 2018, questioning the need for the position altogether.
But – for now – it appears that the Leadville Ranger position is here to stay. And that’s good news for Lake County considering that the Forest Service maintains and manages thousands of acres, a large portion of the 74% of Lake County property that is federally owned land. Forest land intersects with the local economy via recreation-oriented businesses and athletic events, many of which play out on USFS trails.
But in recent years, the continual flux in leadership, in addition to a seismic shift in focus from wildlife to wildfires has given rise to absentee management, creating conflicts at campsites and concerns about overuse in many of the USFS-managed areas in Lake County. So while winter has many of those seasonal issues on ice, for now, it’s a warm welcome to the new Leadville Ranger.
Meet Leadville Ranger Pat Mercer
Wildlife Biologist Patrick “Pat” Mercer grew up in the hills of southern Indiana, on the outskirts of Cincinnati, OH. It was here that his love of the outdoors, particularly for all of the critters who live in the woods, took root. After four years in the Navy, Mercer attended Ohio State University, obtaining a BS in Science and Natural Resources. In 2003 Mercer secured his first USFS job working on the Santa Fe Watershed project.
He has been on staff at the Forest Service since 2006, doing stints in New Mexico, Idaho, Minnesota, and closer to his roots in the Wayne National Forest in Ohio.
“I’ve been here for three weeks, I started January 6,” said Mercer. “And in the interest of full disclosure, I think I’ve worked for a total of two months in Colorado as a wildlife tech.” The interview also revealed that Leadville was Mercer’s first Ranger assignment, aside from a temporary gig he for a couple of months.
“I’ve got some background in fire,” he shared when the conversation shifted from wildlife to wildfires, one of the USFS paramount focuses, especially in the west.
“I had a couple of opportunities to go out on ‘western’ fire crews.” Mercer makes note of the difference, referring to the Type II official wildfire attack crews that the agency has had to develop for wildfire mitigation on federal lands. But aside from that issue, what does Mercer see as his other priorities as the new Leadville Ranger?
Ranger Pat Mercer’s Priorities
In addition to mitigating wildfire risk, identifying what the ecological needs are, not only in Leadville but in surrounding areas is important to him. Mercer considers protecting the watershed of the Arkansas River to be a top priority.
“It all starts up here,” he said, speaking directly “to help to mitigate some of the abandoned mine issues, things that impact the downriver quality.”
The Leadville District’s natural resources are also one of Mercer’s top priorities. “People come here because the resources here are so great, so a lot of folks choose to recreate here,” explained Mercer emphasizing his commitment “to ensure that we maintain the highest level of quality in that recreation experience.”
The Future for the Leadville District
Eventually, the discussion turned to the nuts and bolts. Aside from the reduction in staff that the Leadville office has seen in recent years, what was the status of their current office location, which anchors down the corner of McWethy and Highway 24, acting as a southern welcome portal for visitors?
“That’s a good question,” stated Mercer. “It’s in a little bit of a flux right now. We have quite a large office here. We don’t really have a lot of staff to fill the office.” He added that lease agreements are handled at the next level.
However based on a media advisory the federal agency released last month regarding a new office being built just over the mountain for the Aspen District, the answer might be a bit clearer. In fact, as part of the “Forest-wide re-development initiative,” in order “to meet current building standards and improve operational efficiencies, the Forest is looking to modernize its buildings and right-size facility footprints,” all signs point to a likely downsize in Leadville in 2020 (see full release below).
So while Lake County’s recreation vision expands, the USFS staff and office will likely continue to see a contraction in services and staff. Mercer said that while the Leadville Ranger District is highly driven by recreation, it’s an area that has seen a budgetary reduction.
“There’s only one pot of money,” Mercer explained referring to the sizeable shift in USFS funds used to fight wildfires. “So some other programs had to be downsized. I think Leadville is a prime example of that.” Good to know as businesses and event planners set their sights on summer 2020. And if that’s you, better make sure your ducks are in a row!
In closing, on a personal note, Pat Mercer’s family which includes his wife Maggie, a schoolteacher, and two children, an 11-year-old and a six-year-old, who plan to attend Lake County Intermediate School next fall as they make the transition to Leadville at the end of this school year. Welcome to Leadville, Ranger Mercer!
Aspen District To Build New Office
The White River National Forest (WRNF) is planning to redevelop the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District Office as part of a Forest-wide re-development initiative. To meet current building standards and improve operational efficiencies, the Forest is looking to modernize its buildings and right-size facility footprints. The existing Aspen-Sopris Ranger District office is not functionally efficient and does not fully accommodate District staff and operations. It is no longer cost-effective to continue to maintain the 1939 office building initially constructed as the District Ranger’s residence.
This re-development project will improve the safety, functionality, energy efficiency, and access to the property. The proposed building and site design is intended to better meld with existing buildings and structures in the downtown Carbondale area, and would retain local charm and appeal. The new office will be better equipped to host events, provide improved access for disabled visitors, and offer visitor bicycle parking.
The ranger station is hosting a public open house on Friday, Feb. 7, from 5 -7 p.m. for the public to look at new office designs and learn more about the project.
In 2005, Congress gave the Forest Service the authority to sell, lease, or exchange excess administrative sites and keep the proceeds under the Forest Service Facility Realignment and Enhancement Act. The Forest Service sold parcels in Aspen in recent years which provided the capital for this project, the Supervisor’s Office renovation in Glenwood Springs, and many more small renovations on other Districts.
The Forest Service will be working closely with the Town of Carbondale, local businesses and residents to ensure that the project causes the least amount of disruption as possible. However, sidewalks along Main Street and Weant may be closed during parts of construction.
The Forest Service anticipates that demolition will commence in March 2021 and new construction will begin shortly thereafter and take approximately one year to complete.