SAN LUIS VALLEY— Mike Blakeman’s retirement party had to be moved to Calvillo's Mexican Restaurant in Alamosa on Thursday, Feb. 28 to accommodate the crowd of well-wishers. After more than 40 years educating the public about the Rio Grande National Forest and other natural wonders, Blakeman stepped down from his position, partly to spend more time visiting the rivers and streams he helped manage through his stories and communication.
On March 1, the day after his last day of work, Blakeman embarked on a book tour of the western U.S. to help his wife, Pam Houston, promote her recent publication, “Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country.” Houston’s book captures different angles of the story behind her 120-acre ranch near the Rio Grande headwaters. Currently in Idaho, Blakeman and Houston started the tour in Winter Park, Colo. and will reach Montana, Wyoming and Utah before returning home.
“It was a real fun, real rewarding career,” Blakeman said from the road before heading out for a cross-country ski tour with Houston in Idaho.
Blakeman graduated from the University of Maine (Orono campus), earning a Bachelor of Science in Forestry (1979) and Soil Science (1982). Specializing in watershed management, Blakeman took his knowledge across the country to a region where water trickles more than it flows. Blakeman earned a BA in secondary science education from Adams State College in 1989.
Starting in 1991, Blakeman created the Environmental Education program for the RGNF. For more than 17 years, he created a network of experts and public educators who helped deliver sessions for kindergartners, nursing home residents and everyone of all ages in between. The lessons always contained general science, but Blakeman focused on specific San Luis Valley issues.
Local communication is key, whether it’s academic for the long term or immediate emergency information. During fires, for example, Blakeman made sure the staff at Rainbow Grocery in South Fork was always kept informed. A flood of customers stock up at the store and fork off in different directions where fire hazards vary.
In 2006, Blakeman took on the public affairs position for the Rio Grande National Forest. Managing media communication shared similarities with educating the public, although the lessons learned are not the same before and after a fire event.
On Nov. 29, 2018, Blakeman received two Gifford Pinchot Awards for Excellence in Interpretation and Conservation Education at a ceremony in Denver. Recognized for four decades of work in conservation education and interpretation on the Rio Grande National Forest, Blakeman also received the national award.
Three decades before receiving recognition, Blakeman provided candor and humility for an interviewer during the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
“You know the Forest Service has certainly made its share of mistakes about how to manage the land, as had the Spanish, as had the American Indians that were there before us,” Blakeman explained. “We all have learned from our mistakes.”
Blakeman continued with details behind the science used for managing the forest, adding that science isn’t enough for tackling the task.
“So science gives us some of the answers, but it is human values that help us make those decisions on how we manage that land,” Blakeman said in 1998. “That is what the Forest Service is about. We are trying to use those values of society as direction on how to manage the land and using science to help us reach the goals that we think we are supposed to be reaching.”
Looking back on his rewarding career, Blakeman said, “I did everything from 12 to 13 years of seasonal work, being outside every day, to then doing conservation education for the forest. It was a real passion of mine. I had a lot of great interactions. Then that morphed into my work with public affairs.”
Blakeman said he might consider writing more himself in the future. “I don’t know if I will or not. We’ll see,” Blakeman said. “I may, but at the moment I’m taking some time off. I’m enjoying retirement.”