After 15 years of being a calm presence at the center of some of northern Minnesota's most fractious environmental battles, Superior National Forest Supervisor Jim Sanders retires today.
He leaves a legacy of strong stewardship of three million acres of land that every American owns — an area that people are incredibly passionate about, even though many likely have different ideas on what should be done with it.
From logging fights to this summer's controversy over management of the Pagami Creek wildfire in the Boundary Waters, Sanders has won the respect of people on all sides.
In Forest Service-speak, he's an expert at managing the land for multiple uses — which he concedes is often a daunting task.
"Yeah, that's sometimes viewed as an impossibility, but you work to balance that and find the common ground and go forward on it," Sanders said. "But that's the challenge and the fun of managing public lands. There's no one answer to get there."
The key, Sanders said, is to focus on the entire forest, not on one particular parcel.
"You don't do it on every acre, because every single acre can't be wilderness, and every single acre can't be harvested for timber," he said.
It's a delicate and often politically-charged balancing act. Just three weeks after Sanders moved into his Duluth office back in 1996, activists chained themselves to old growth pine trees to try to prevent a timber sale known as "Little Alfie," that Sanders' predecessor had authorized.
"I think that Jim really in that issue proved his mettle to everyone that he was up to this job," said Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries.
The timber sale eventually went ahead after the Forest Service modified it. Brandt said the Superior National Forest hasn't lost a lawsuit over a timber sale in over a decade.
"Jim has shown how to overcome the roadblocks that may be thrown up, and really manage the Superior National Forest for the good of all, and that's a testament to his skill and professionalism," he said.
That's an opinion also echoed by environmentalists like Jan Green, who's been involved with Superior National Forest issues since 1969. Green works with the Audubon Society and Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.
"Jim is the — let's see, 1, 2, 3...eighth supervisor I've interacted with," Green said. "So I have a bit of a history with the Forest Service."
Green said Sanders is the best because of his ability to work with all kinds of different people, from environmentalists to industry groups.
"That's a talent that not every bureaucrat has," she said.
It's a talent Sanders honed working in Washington, D.C., on what he jokingly calls "quiet issues" like protecting the northern spotted owl and logging of old growth forests. Before that he worked on the Gallatin National Forest north of Yellowstone National Park. In 1988, the massive wildfires there affected him both professionally and personally.
"We had that experience where even my wife and kids were ready for evacuation for over two weeks, and that really personalized those types of emergencies for me," he said.
Sanders said he can still hear his wife's voice in a video she made in the middle of the night documenting their household goods. He drew on that experience in Minnesota, particularly on July 4, 1999, when 90-mile per gusts ripped across the Boundary Waters. Millions of trees were torn out of the ground. The "big blowdown" created a huge fire hazard.
He has also managed fires in Alpine Lake, Cavity, Ham Lake — and the Pagami Creek fire this fall.
"This is a very personal and emotional thing," he said of turmoil surrounding the fires.
Those wildfires were trying events during Sanders' tenure, and some of the decisions he made were highly controversial. Among them was a choice not to immediately snuff out the Pagami Creek fire, which eventually scorched nearly 150-square miles of the Boundary Waters.
While no one is going to approve of every decision, people like Betsy Daub, a member of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, say their voice was always heard.
"He has approached all of these issues, and different personalities, and conflicts, in a way that has been respectful, with an open door policy, understanding that he's having to deal with sometimes conflicting desires for the forest," Daub said.
Daub said Sanders is retiring before one of the biggest issues to ever face the Superior National Forest has been resolved — the future of precious metals mining, that environmentalists fear could cause devastating water pollution. That's one controversy Sanders will not have to deal with.