Nestled in the south central part of the Alaskan coast lies the Chugach National Forest, the most western and northern and second largest national forest. Of the forest’s 5.5 million acres, 890,000 acres belong to the Seward Ranger District where Robert Stovall practices his management dream of helping the district’s employees be among the U.S. Forest Service’s best land stewards. A deputy district ranger there since 2009, he employs his training and 35 years of wildlife biologist and land management experience to care for some of the most soul-refreshing and adventure-inspiring scenery, behold eye-to-eye encounters with moose and bear, weather the vagaries of changes in Alaska’s yearly snowfalls, help residents and visitors enjoy their national forest, and personally master the joy of ‘catching the big one.’
Weather seems to be on everyone’s mind especially this winter. How are you experiencing winter in Alaska as the West wrestles with drought and the East shelters from record snowfalls?
So far, we’ve received a total of about three to four inches of snow this winter. January brought temperatures that were in the 40s for about half the month. People here are describing the warmer conditions for the last couple years as extraordinary. Yet four years ago in the winter of 2011, I had more snow fall on me here than I’ve had any other year with 260 inches of snow. I’ve been in Alaska on the district since June 2009 and spent 10 years from 1992 to 2002 on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge which also has the oceanic influence on the island’s weather patterns. I’m a weather observer from way back and bottom line, within the last 10 to 20 years it has seemingly warmed here.
As a wildlife biologist, what are some of the highlights of your career?
I began my career working for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildlife biologist on the Mount Hood National Forest, Barlow Ranger District followed by 18 years on national wildlife refuges in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Rhode Island. As a wildlife biologist my goal was to work in Alaska. That came true when I became a subsistence wildlife biologist on the beautiful Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, home to some of the 1,000 pound, 10-foot tall Kodiak brown bears. I also developed programs for Sitka black-tailed deer population studies and partnered with the Coast Guard for aerial surveys on Kodiak and surrounding islands.
I met my wife here in Alaska and after our children were born, I started looking for promotion opportunities and became a journeyman level wildlife biologist on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. It was a job I loved with a lot of great habitat work, constructing savannahs and ponds, and working with biological control insects for certain forest pests. I worked on the environmental assessment to introduce the Laricobius and Pseudosymnus beetles to control the hemlock woolly adelgid that was destroying hemlock trees.
Then I decided to use my developed people skills to join the agency’s line officer corp and found an acting ranger detail on the Monongahela which led to a deputy district ranger position on the Allegheny National Forest. However, I felt the call to go back to Alaska and found a great position here in Seward.
What are you involved with in your job as a deputy district ranger?
I help manage the various resources on the district and assist with overall forest management activities when needed. I’m focused on helping our district employees with the day-to-day stewardship of our mission. I like to be a good listener to bring out the best in our employees, to bring parties together, to work out team solutions, and to facilitate compromises and collaboration. For example, we had a large bark beetle outbreak 10 years ago that affected about a third of the district so we’re engaged in restoring the forest from the beetle troubles.
What excites you about your job and what makes it fun?
I believe it’s the camaraderie I have with employees throughout the forest since I've had the opportunity to be acting district ranger on all three ranger districts. I enjoy working with the district and forest leadership teams. It’s fun to work with good people like Tom Malecek, our newest district ranger. He has what I call the old-style ranger qualities – someone who is very knowledgeable about the Forest Service in general and the district that he currently serves. He has extremely good people skills and knows how to go out and kick the dirt around and talk.
What’s special about the Chugach National Forest and the Seward Ranger District?
I think the forest and this district in particular exemplifies the true multi-purpose mission of our agency. We have a little bit of everything here – many special places, the opportunity to engage youth, the scenic Seward Highway, a fuels and firewood program, a strong fisheries and wildlife program, the national recreational Resurrection Pass Trail and many other types of recreational opportunities for all ages.
Our district offers more than 270 miles of incredible trails to travel from one end of the district to another and enjoy the scenic beauty. We live within 100 miles of the Anchorage metropolitan area so from summer to fall to winter, we attract those who want to fish, hunt, hike, bike, mine for gold, or camp, whether in our many recreation cabins or campgrounds which are extremely popular. You can cross-country ski, go back-country skiing or even heli-skiing in the Chugach Mountains. Add wintertime dog sledding, snowshoeing, and snowmobile trails with summertime dog sledding on glaciers, salmon fishing, and rafting. Hunting opportunities include moose, the multi-curled horn dall sheep, mountain goat, caribou, black and brown bears, game birds including the Ptarmigan, snowshoe hares and wolves. Trapping is also a big pastime. Our wilderness recreational activities encompass the western part of Prince William Sound including hiking through glaciers. We also have marine activities going on including sea kayaking and boating.
How are youth involved in understanding the forest?
Well, the whole forest is known as the Chugach Children’s Forest which provides opportunities for outdoor educational activities and expeditions. We’re getting youth out into nature to learn in an experiential way. We’re working with schools and other young adults and youth-oriented employment groups. This is very important because these folks are eventually going to be doing my job and I love to see them getting interested in doing my job the way I did by going out and being in the woods.
We’ve also hosted the Student Conservation Association crews for the last three years. Their activities on the district have included work removing invasive plant species, supporting fire and fuels programs, cultural resource surveys, and wildlife surveys such as moose browse. The kids created a number of videos to document their experiences.
Another fun activity involved exploring ancient snowfields that were used by native Alaskans from prehistoric times. These snowfields can be found throughout the Kenai Peninsula. Four years ago, I was involved with an expedition involving youth in an ice patch survey. We rode horses up Devil’s Creek Trail and hiked around the edge of melting ice and snow fields to look for prehistoric signs of hunted caribou. The kids found it to be a great educational experience to learn about their culture. Some of these young folks are now seriously considering a career with the Forest Service.
What are you looking forward to this year?
The Chugach was chosen as this year’s national forest to provide the Capitol Christmas Tree and it will most likely come from the Seward Ranger District. I’ve been part of the search which has identified eight or so candidates for the Architect of the Capitol to consider and make a tree selection. I’m looking forward to all the activities that will be involved in selecting this special tree for its trek next November across the nation to Capitol Hill.
Do you have any special hobbies or interests?
My favorite pastime is of course fishing, especially salmon fishing. When I’m not fishing, I’m hiking around the trails and exploring. Fishing for silver or coho salmon is probably the most fun because they bite at the lures, they’re a big fish, and they’re relatively aggressive. They’re not an easy fish to catch unless you have a lot in an area and you can use a snagging hook method to make them easier to catch. It’s still a lot of work however. People say red or sockeye salmon tastes the best though I think king, also called chinook salmon, actually tastes better but they’re the biggest fish and harder to find and catch.
I also try to explore the trail system here for hiking, biking and bird watching and nervously watching for black and brown bears while fishing at the Russian River. I’m sure to keep any fish I catch within three feet around me to increase my safety. As a wildlife biologist, I think moose are probably the most stunning animal to observe. It’s amazing how an animal that large can all of a sudden be right before you. You come around a corner and there’s a moose. Your first instinct is to run, which if you have to do it, run in a zigzag fashion. Remember, with a bear just back away or let it go where it wants to go and then you go somewhere else.
This month is recognized as Black History Heritage month. What do you believe is the significance of this observance?
This gives us an opportunity to focus on the good that African-Americans have done in this country as a whole and where we need to go in the future especially when it comes to African-Americans who work for federal land management agencies. There are quite a few African-American district rangers and fewer forest supervisors in the lower 48 but I’m the only African American line officer working in the Alaska Region. There is so much gorgeous land in Alaska to be explored and enjoyed so I’d encourage other African-Americans to come up here. If you like being outdoors this is a great place to enjoy the wonderful experiences offered. The Chugach National Forest is probably the most wonderful forest I’ve had the privilege to work on.