Forest Service veteran had front-row view of changes to Maroon Bells, Aspen-area national forest
Rich Doak’s recent retirement means the White River National Forest lost a key gatekeeper of its institutional memory.
Doak, recreation and lands staff officer, worked for the Forest Service for 37 years after starting as a seasonal employee in the Routt National Forest in 1983 and working out of Kremmling. He spent 30 years on the White River National Forest and was based in Glenwood Springs.
For the past 20 years he oversaw recreation-related programs that are vital in the tourism-oriented White River National Forest — trails, wilderness, developed camping, ski areas and heritage.
“I oversaw all those programs for the roughly 2.3 million-acre national forest,” said Doak, who retired Thursday.
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White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said Doak’s contributions over three decades are “immeasurable” in areas such as developing a Forest Plan, land acquisitions, recreation management at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area and Vail Pass, and overseeing ski area use of public lands.
“We are going to really miss Rich and his expertise and leadership,” Fitzwilliams said. “Rich has committed himself to serving the public and making the White River National Forest a better place for generations to come.”
Doak, 63, recalled when the facilities at Maroon Lake consisted of a couple of outhouses and a cinderblock bus stop. He was assigned the task of launching a $6 million reconstruction project with only a $4.5 million budget. The project’s scope spurred some public pushback and forced some refinements, but the facilities have hosted record numbers of visitors in recent years.
“Looking at things 20 years later, it’s obvious it was needed,” he said.
The Maroon Bells Scenic Area is facing another important time. While the pandemic will have an unknown effect on tourism this summer, the general trend has been for visitation to the area to increase.
When Doak was first assigned to oversee recreation at Maroon Lake, there was a campground adjacent to the existing bus shelter. Campers would return from a hike and find vehicles parked at their site because day trippers couldn’t find any other spaces. Vegetation was trampled alongside the road. Climbers on surrounding high peaks would see the glint of sun bouncing off of multiple windshields.
Many of the improvements addressed the crowding issues, but now the increase in visits is an issue again.
“We’re at that crossroads again up there,” Doak said. “What is the experience you’re trying to provide?”
Doak also helped implement some of the recreational amenities when Interstate 70 was widened to four lanes through Glenwood Canyon. He said he came in at the end of the process and got to shape finishing touches on boat launch areas and the Hanging Lake trailhead.
In the 20 years he headed the White River’s recreation programs, there’s been an explosion in forest visitors to areas surrounding Aspen, Vail and Summit County. Over that time there have been an estimated 200 million forest visitors.
“That’s probably a conservative estimate,” Doak said.
And annual visits are growing. It was probably 7 million forest-wide 20 years ago. It’s now about 15 million visitors annually. Meanwhile, the money allocated to the White River National Forest has been shrinking.
The challenge for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District and other districts in the forest is to accommodate uses without sustaining damages to the land and resources.
The White River National Forest has more than 700,000 acres of protected wilderness, where motorized and mechanized uses are banned. That’s the deep backcountry, Doak said.
The forest also has urban areas of use that are adjacent to or near communities. Those are areas where the agency tends to have developed facilities, such as Maroon Lake.
The areas that face the greatest changes from growing numbers of visitors are what Doak calls the middle country; think Richmond Ridge in the Aspen area, areas north of Vail and the Flat Tops outside of wilderness.
Even the some of the wilderness areas are feeling the brunt of the visitor onslaught. The Forest Service has implemented a reservation system for overnight stays at the Conundrum Hot Springs and is working on a similar system for the Four Pass Loop.
The agency will have to continue to define where and how it protects resources in the forest, Doak said.
“It’s a sign of volume,” he said, noting that annual increases of use of only 1.5% add up to drastic increases over time when compounded annually.
In addition to overseeing the recreation programs for 20 years, Doak has managed the forest’s lands programs for the past six years.
He said that while he’s been involved in some interesting projects over the years, it’s the people he works with who he will miss the most. He has been impressed over the years by the passion Forest Service workers have brought to their jobs and the interest in making conditions better on the public lands. The cost of living in many of the communities in the White River National Forest makes it difficult for agency workers.
“You really have to be here for the quality of life,” he said.
The staff at the forest service has created a culture of finding creative ways to accomplish its tasks, according to Doak. In the past eight years, four employees he oversees have received national awards for their efforts.
Doak also credited the local governments and nonprofit organizations for helping the White River National Forest accomplish its goals. The partnerships help the agency to provide the high quality experience through financial and in-kind contributions.
Doak will remain in Glenwood Springs after retirement and he plans to consult one day per week with the Forest Service. He and his wife bought a camper and look forward to touring the country before long.
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