Even forest rangers have a lot to learn with the changing seasons, especially in such a dynamic area like the Hebgen Lake Ranger District, which is part of the Gallatin National Forest. 

 

Cavan Fitzsimmons started learning as soon as he stepped foot in the ranger station at the northern edge of West Yellowstone. His house is just a short walk away and located on the compound.

 

He jumped at the opportunity to move to West Yellowstone at the beginning of August, when the District Ranger position opened up. He replaced Lauren Turner, who retired in May. 

 

Fitzsimmons's plate has been pretty full since moving from the Superior National Forest, Kawishiwi Ranger District in Ely, Minn. with his wife April, and their 10-month-old daughter, Brayden. His wife and he are expecting another baby due in six weeks.

 

The Boundary Waters region, along the United States-Canada border, is what drew him to his former position in northeastern Minnesota. 

 

"I went to Minnesota and got out of my comfort zone," he said. "I am more comfortable on ground like this (the Hebgen Lake Ranger District)."

 

Tourist destinations along with a town-to-town connectivity are similarities shared between Ely and West Yellowstone, according to Fitzsimmons. 

 

He concluded that in addition to just working to provide for his family, he is a part of the National Forest Service for so many other reasons. His family is still near the top of that list.

 

"I am excited to have my little girl grow up in Montana. She kind of gets to be raised by a village. Sometimes places like this (West Yellowstone) are taken for granted," he said.

 

Fitzsimmons is enjoying the unique opportunity to live in a small mountain town.

 

"You never get to live in a place like this," he said. "This chunk of ground (the Hebgen Lake Ranger District) is one of the jewels of the Forest Service."

 

Originally from Louisiana, Fitzsimmons has moved around enough to know where he wants to be.

 

Family brought him out west. At age 18, Fitzsimmons explored Wyoming when his mother moved there. 

 

He hopped back across the country to attend college at Colgate University, in upstate New York, where he studied environmental geography.

 

Fitzsimmons started to seriously consider his career options after a knee injury playing football in college.

 

He looked to his early childhood to channel his professional aspirations.

 

"I made a list of what was most important when I was 10 or younger," he said.

 

His dreams of becoming a forest ranger started long before college.

 

When I was 10-years-old, I saw a ranger and thought that would be a cool job," Fitzsimmons said.

 

Fitzsimmons started off as a volunteer with the National Park Service and the National Forest Service in 1995. He then worked as a seasonal employee "for a long time." 

 

He has spent most of his National Forest Service career between Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon.

 

Not everyone can say they've packed mules as a job, but Fitzsimmons can cross that experience off his list.

 

Hiking and ATV riding have grown into hobbies from his outdoor experiences.

 

He thought West Yellowstone would be a nice location because his wife and he are now close to their families. The couple is now within a two to four hour drive of Brayden's grandparents.

 

Fitzsimmons has also spent time in the Grand Tetons region and he likes the lay of the land.

 

Even though he's in a dream location, his job does come with some hurdles.

 

"There are managerial challenges with natural resources and multi-use management." he said.

 

Fitzsimmons is dedicated to his job and is a roamer when it comes to going out and exploring. He wishes he could be out in the woods every day, but also understands the necessity for paperwork and problem solving.

 

"Every promotion is a demotion out of the woods," he said "You think you can do a job pretty well and start off as a volunteer. You try to do something you wish someone had done with you. You put thoughts and things to work."

 

There is no shortage of work to be done within the boundaries of the Hebgen Lake Ranger District. The district has 17 permanent employees covering 350,000 acres of land, according to Fitzsimmons.

 

As the new District Ranger, Fitzsimmons wants to meet everyone, get involved in the community as well as see what the community needs from the NFS.

 

Fitzsimmons's latest project is to set up a trail advisory group. A limited budget pushes him to think even harder about how to achieve the task.

 

"There's a lot of groups that have a different emphasis on the usage of the trails," he said.

 

He went to the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce last month and presented them with the idea for the group.

 

"I would like to form a group to take the first whack at prioritizing trails for 2011," he said. "I want these groups to help me work through some of this planning."

 

Fitzsimmons wants to put names to all the new faces he's been meeting.

 

"I like to get on a first name basis with people," he said.

 

Some of those community-minded efforts are paying off already.

 

A solid relationship has been forged between the overseers of the Rendezvous trail systems, the Hebgen Lake Ranger District and the Chamber of Commerce.

 

"We work close with the Chamber of Commerce and the Rendezvous Trail grooming committee. We're like peas and carrots. So many people in this town work really hard to make things happen. We try to be a part of that as much as we can."

 

Trails throughout Gallatin National Forest are designated for snowmobiles or cross-country skiing. Fitzsimmons reminds people that there are a mix of open areas and other areas where they must stay on the trails. 

 

The staff at the Hebgen Lake Ranger District are refreshing their knowledge of winter use policies that apply in the upcoming snowy season.

 

The District Ranger position has jobs both big and small.

 

Fitzsimmons doesn't mind that some forest service work goes under the radar, like small trail maintenance repairs. Every part of his day involves a necessary duty as a forest ranger, which he cheerfully accepts.

 

"It's really about creating a balance. I know I've said that a lot, but it really is," he said.

 

The NFS helps with trail maintenance and trailhead improvements, working with various private groups, or other public groups such as the National Park Service. 

 

Most importantly, Fitzsimmons knows that it is essential to protect the public lands Americans love so much.

 

"People are really passionate about their public lands," he said. "The district already has a great relationship with the town and the community. That can always get better."

 

Programs that are open to the public, such as summer events at the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center, along Route 287, have helped solidify relationships.

 

The Hebgen Lake Ranger District is always ready to lend a helping hand, according to Fitzsimmons.

 

The NFS conduct land management and leave the "critter" care up to the state, but will assist if there is a request. The Hebgen Lake Ranger District staff can also provide additional personnel for search and rescue efforts in Gallatin County if a request is made.

 

"We let Gallatin County head up search and rescue efforts, but we're here if help is needed," Fitzsimmons said.

 

With his red hardhat and safety goggles beside him, and the trademark pine green woolen overcoat of a forest ranger draped over his chair, Fitzsimmons is more than ready to go out and conduct fieldwork.

 

"I monitor different places sometimes. I go out with specialists and look at different vegetation. We also work with local landowners, private property owners and groups to see where everyone is at on the status of different projects," he said.

 

Seeing is doing. Doing is learning. Learning is experiencing.

 

"You have to get out and see it. Part of the new job is me getting to know the country," he said.

 

Countless rules and regulations are involved in managing the lands and programs that make up the District.

 

Some of those rules and regulations require interpretation from the District Ranger.

 

"My job is not a popularity contest. There are policies, procedures, regulations and things that we work through. We try to be proactive as much as we can," he said.

 

Fitzsimmons isn't quick to judge or make an immediate decision.

 

He is fully aware of the impact these decisions will have on people.

 

"This job keeps me up at night. I think through it (the problem solving process) all the time," he said.

 

An emphasis is placed on the local priorities of the Hebgen Lake Ranger District, but guidance comes from a national level, according to Fitzsimmons.

 

"What works for Hebgen Lake may not work for the Bozeman Ranger District," Fitzsimmons said.

 

He is one of those few people who know the boundary lines between the Hebgen Lake and the Bozeman Districts, which is something he has to pay attention to. He has staff members who transition between the two districts, giving him more ground to cover in addition to the 350,000 acres he helps oversee in his district.

 

Communication is a key component to aiding the separate districts and to operate smoothly as a whole service to the public.

 

"I want to get a feel for a place ‑ know it, touch it, smell it and get to know the people. This job's a balance of taking local issues and local needs, and balancing that with national and regional direction and forest direction. There's a constant communication between all of those levels about where things fall out and where things go. There's a great group of rangers in the other districts who communicate a lot," he said.

 

A new policy may come down from Congress, for example, and Fitzsimmons and his staff need to figure out how to make it work on a local level.

 

The good news is that the NFS has a full team of dedicated staff.

 

"I have never met anyone from this outfit (NFS) who hasn't cared," he said.

 

Being proactive and having an open mind are his best strategies.

 

Integrating a routine into his daily life has strengthened Fitzsimmons's professional and personal philosophies. 

 

Just inside the entrance to his office at the Ranger Station, Fitzsimmons has a note scribbled on the upper left-hand corner of a wipe board stating, "READ EVERYDAY." 

 

An arrow points to a framed copy of Gifford Pinchot's Maxims to guide foresters in public office, a gift from Fitzsimmons's former boss. Pinchot was the first Chief of the NFS. 

 

The first, and maybe the most important maxim, states, "A public official is there to serve the public and not to run them."

 

Fitzsimmons is proud to serve the public.

 

"That (placard of maxims) reminds me of my duties as a public servant," Fitzsimmons said. 

 

There's a new challenge embedded in those duties everyday.

 

"My day rarely goes as planned," he said.

 

He adopted his other daily mantra from a 1934 Civilian Conservation Corps trail crew foreman: "Changes are subject to planning."

 

Fitzsimmons finds a way to work through constantly changing plans and requests from the public, which is all just part of the job.

 

Fitzsimmons's aspirations as a young boy led him to join the NFS. The NFS led him to West Yellowstone.

 

"I plan on sticking around for a long time," he said.