Q&A with Matt McCombs

Collaboration a key for valley

[ by Mark Reaman ]

Matt McCombs has been the district ranger for the Gunnison National Forest for more than four years but will start a new job January 3 as Colorado’s state forester. He brought a passion for public lands and collaboration and we wanted to have a chat about his perspectives before he left his home in CB South for the Front Range.

MR: Let’s start with what your new job is and what you’ll be doing? What is it and where will you be located?
MM: The title of my new role is state forester and director of the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS). The CSFS is housed within the Warner School of Natural Resources at Colorado State University and my new office is located at the Foothills Campus in Fort Collins near Horsetooth Reservoir. The State Forester leads the CSFS while also providing staffing to the Division of Forestry within the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. The mission of the CSFS is “to achieve stewardship of Colorado’s diverse forest environments for the benefit of present and future generations.” The agency provides outreach and technical services to private landowners, partner organizations and state and federal agencies ensuring Colorado’s forests are managed effectively while advancing adaptive strategies across all ownerships to respond to a changing climate and the challenges associated with a rapidly growing state and country.

MR: How will that differ from your district ranger position with the Gunnison Forest?
MM: As the state forester my role will serve at the state level much the way the chief of the USDA Forest Service functions at the national level. I’ll be leading the agency as opposed to functioning as a field level manager implementing the agency’s mission thus shifting my focus from field operations to championing CSFS employees, advising state legislators and the Governor on policy and deepening relationships with a variety of communities and interests across the state and country in support of Colorado’s forests.

MR: With the new position, will you have any involvement with issues in this region?
MM: Absolutely, much of Gunnison County and the Western Slope are blanketed with forested landscapes.  My concentration here will remain stewarding Colorado’s forests for clean water, air and soil, abundant habitats for people and wildlife and responding to the challenges associated with a warming climate and rapidly growing populations.  I’ll just be doing so vicariously through the capable CSFS staff based here in the basin.

MR: You’ve been in the valley for four-and-a-half years. What did you expect when you came here?
MM: The Gunnison Ranger District is one of the largest in the country and has a reputation for some of the grandest landscapes one can manage in the USFS. There is a reason that the job has only opened up three times in roughly 30 years. I came having a good sense of the ground and many of the players from my time with Senator Salazar’s office and as a frequent visitor to the basin growing up on the Front Range and as a recurrent Western Slope resident. I expected it to be a great place to stretch my wings in the fields of collaboration and recreation management.

MR: Was it what you expected?
MM: It was more than I expected. The month I started was the month the STOR committee met for the first time. This fortuitous juncture has underwritten much of the district’s success while I’ve been here, helping us take on successfully some of the most pressing challenges facing the forest around recreation. On the vegetation management side our partnership with Western’s Center for Public Lands facilitated creation of the Taylor Park Adaptive Management Group which aided transparent, stakeholder-driven timber and fuels planning in the Taylor Basin setting up the program for the next decade. Add in a supportive, innovative and dedicated staff and this assignment has been a highpoint in my land management career, exceeding my expectations and completely changed my perspective on what’s possible when you dig in and do the hard work of building something together you couldn’t have built on your own.

MR: It feels to me that you jumped in quickly and brought a new energy and direction to the job that was centered on collaboration. Is that fair?
MM: I get a sense generally the community is pleased with the direction we’ve taken the district together. The pace of change and our collective response in facing down the shifts we’re seeing in visitation, technology as well as the impacts from a changing climate has been marked by thoughtful and innovative action and folks are happy we’ve moved out as we have. From my vantage we’ve built up a stronger foundation in relationships and expectations that will serve the community well boosting our ability to raise funds, plan together and continue to grow our impact. We’ve proven we can act big and move swiftly when we’re in alignment and communicating our concerns and ambitions in real time as opposed to responding to crisis as it happens.

MR: What sort of accomplishments came from that collaboration?
MM: There’s a litany of cool stuff to celebrate however, I’ll offer three things that stand out. First is the work we did together in the north valley to address the unreasonable impacts from rapidly growing visitation. The designated camping project was accomplished leveraging every tool we had in the toolbox: collaboration; partnering; and innovative financing. This project showed us the power of students in Western’s Masters in Environmental Management program and introduced the Gunnison Country to our friends at the National Forest Foundation who’ve now taken up permanent residence.  It will serve as an example for addressing similar challenges across the district and the country.

Two, the rapid response initiated to address the mountain pine beetle epidemic in Taylor Canyon has become THE model for shared stewardship nationally. The district took on that challenge at scale, working across boundaries through shared priority setting bringing together federal, state, non-profit and private interests. It really is a story of everything working and a concept I’ll be taking to scale in my new role.

The last project, which I’ll not get to see through to fruition, is the work we’re doing to settle now and forever the future of Mt. Emmons. I was well aware of the complicated history surrounding Red Lady before I arrived. I’ll be back for the party when this amazing alliance of federal, state, community and corporate interests comes together to ink what I think will be a groundbreaking model for land exchanges for the agency. Beyond that, I get excited for the future of beavers in this valley, for more restored wet meadows, for the potential of fenceless grazing management, for well-built and well-managed trails and a growing integration of forest stewards that draws together corps crews, volunteers, students and local governments to love on the backyard.
MR: Why has it worked here?
MM: I’ve commented many times, this place just seems hardwired to work together. Be it preserving a species, a way of life or charting the course for a new future, the people of the Gunnison Country seem to dig doing it together even if it gets a little spicy along the way. This is not a ubiquitous quality present in every community. It’s a special one and sets us apart and needs to be actively conserved as the challenges, the change and the opportunities keep rolling in.

MR: What were some of the most fun things you’ve done here, both professionally and personally?
MM: Monday staff meetings with donuts and coffee, camping under the stars after a long day of canoeing, fishing and paddle boarding on Spring Creek Reservoir, happy hour at Pita’s, Father’s Day dinners at Garlic Mike’s, yucking it up at STOR meetings, cruising 401 for the first time, hiking to the top of Cochetopa Dome, WESA tourneys in Junction and Durango, driving the district and talking to folks on fire patrol, bombing International, taking the dogs up Cement and Halloween parties at our place at CB South, which we’re keeping by the way. All these things involved new friends who we’ll not let go no matter where life takes us.

MR: What do you see in terms of the community involvement with public lands in this county in the short-term and long-term?
MM: This is the hallmark of our success. One of my maxims is “broadly supported equals implementable.” I hope that the collaborative spirit that has guided our achievements during my time endure and that the community understands collaborating should not be optional for their District Rangers, it’s the secret sauce that allows us to plan, act and monitor together proactively, quick-wittedly and democratically.

MR: What sort of insight did you glean from your time here that you can take to the new job?
MM: The lasting impression of my time here is a foot stomp affirmation that America’s public lands are truly the brightest and most beautiful demonstration of democracy the world has ever seen. The idea that we put aside not just any lands but the best lands to the benefit of the many as opposed to the few is a truly remarkable thing to be a part of. Our forests unite people in ways no other power can, they sustain what’s best in us as a society, they renew body and mind, house our wild neighbors and ensure the water keeps flowing.
As Colorado’s next state forester my focus will be singular to ensuring the health and productivity of Colorado’s forests regardless of ownership. My mission will be to ensure the benefits of well-managed forests persist deep into the future and to leave things better than we find them.

MR: Any advice for this community as you move to the Front Range?
MM: I landed into your community as a fellow Coloradan deeply absorbed by the landscapes that define who we are. I’ve been haunting the Western Slope in phases my entire life. What I’ve learned from this role is working together doesn’t just feel good, it is the good. It shouldn’t be discretionary. The USDA Forest Service has a job to do, has a jurisdictional responsibility to manage these lands on your behalf. However, I believe there is an equal charge for agency leaders and staff to draw people in, to connect them, to share in this weighty charge.

None of this is in the Constitution, it’s just really good ideas translated into a national ambition and safeguarded to date by the law of the land. Laws can change, thus the people not just their agents need to feel coupled to the land and its management so in return they support and defend it from the trials and tribulations of an unknowable future. Bottom line, whoever comes in behind, tell ‘em “collaboration is how we do it here, and we do it well.”

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