Nantahala District Ranger retires after 29 years

Nantahala District Ranger Mike Wilkins is hanging up his U.S. Forest Service uniform and is looking forward to spending more time with family.

“I am retiring for several reasons; the Lord and my wife say it is time and I believe them, I want to spend more time with my wife of 41 years, 3 kids, and 10 grandkids, I have a 90-year old mother that I moved to the area and I can help her a little more in retirement, I will finally have time to scout for deer sign and hunt a little more, and fish some too,” said Wilkins.

In the 29 years, and 40+ years as a USFS public servant, Wilkins has seen the USFS evolve.

“Computers and email,” he said. “Hey, during my first 4-5 years, the district IBM typewriter would only hold three pages. The capacity our computer has to run programs for analysis, spread sheets, and statistics for timber, wildlife, etc. is wonderful. Having a GIS maps and all sorts of various resource layers improves management and decision making. The capacity to send instantaneous emails for increased communication internally and externally can be a huge time drain from work. One has to work hard to keep it in balance.”

He added that fire suppression tactics have also evolved over the years.

“Fire management has been a professional sideline of mine since I was on a fire crew as a college student,” said Wilkins. “I have been on one of the 16 National Interagency Incident management teams since 1988. Our capacity to be so much more strategic in our suppression actions through better computer fire prediction models has been a huge change.  Natural resource management is a much more thoughtful ecosystem approach as research continues to educate us.”

Wilkins graduated from Virginia Tech in 1976 and his first job was with the Florida Division of Forestry. Six months as a trainee forester on the state forest and then two years as a county forester giving forestry advice for landowners, writing management plans, and giving tree advice to urban home and business owners and was also involved in fire suppression.

Wilkins joined the USFS in March 1979 as presale forester and a timber sale administrator. He was stationed in Ketchikan, Alaska for 2 years and brought his wife from Orlando, Fla. to an island in Alaska. From mid-April to early November was field season. Wilkins would fly on a small-float plane to Prince of Wales Island on Mondays and would come home of Fridays if the weather permitted.

Career Timeline:

1981-1983: Timber Management Assistant in charge of all timber management planning and implementation and roads on a 1-million-acre district with numerous islands around the Prince of Wales Island.

1983-87: Timber Management Assistant in Wise, Va. on the Clinch Ranger District in charge of timber, roads, wildlife, special uses, right of ways and facilities.

1987-1990: District Recreation Staff person in charge of managing all trails, campgrounds, fire management, and law enforcement

1990-present: Moved to Franklin N.C. and have been District Ranger ever since. District Ranger for almost 29 years.

Wilkins said he’ll miss caring for the land and serving people as a steward of the people’s Forest.

“I have enjoyed working with and for my fellow FS employees,” he said. “After 29 years here and on the forest, they are my date, time, family and will miss them. I have had a tremendous time working with the vast amount of volunteers and partners we have. We have 8 volunteer trail groups and 100 recreation special use permits for special events and outfitting and guiding. All those businesses are folks we have both a contractual and a partnership with as they provide recreation opportunities that a segment of the public requires to recreate on their forest. I have also enjoyed working with a vast array of loggers and timber purchasers who take a very serious approach to good stewardship as they thin and regenerate the forest through commercial timber sales.

On the land side of things, Wilkins said he’ll miss the challenges aimed at improving the Forest.

“I enjoyed all sorts of natural resource projects that improved the forest currently and for the future,” said Wilkins. “From solving erosion issues, improving fisheries, forest restoration, improving wildlife habitat, protecting rare plant sites, protecting our two wilderness areas, managing a 700-mile road system to reconstructing and constructing trails, to maintaining and building new developed recreation areas. Forest management is long-term thing, so we have tried to both conserve and preserve where appropriate.”

Wilkins said the Forest Supervisor will designate an Acting District Ranger. The position will be advertised within the USFS and a permanent replacement will arrive sometime in the fall.

Pictured at the top of the article is Mike Wilkins. Submitted photo

Article and Photos by Brian O’Shea
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