Jim Sanders, who guided the Superior National Forest through 15 sometimes tumultuous years, has announced he will retire at the end of December.
Sanders, 58, is the longest-serving supervisor in the storied 102-year history of the more than 2 million acre forest that covers much of Minnesota's Arrowhead region.
"It's been a great run. But it's time to step aside and let someone else take the lead," Sanders told the News Tribune on Wednesday.
Sanders and his wife, Pat, who have two grown children, plan to stay in Duluth after he leaves the post.
Sanders has worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 36 years, and his final stint was marked by the ongoing debate between preservation and development of the forest.
The amicable forest boss arrived in Minnesota in 1996 in time to deal with growing controversy over logging on the Superior forest, including a period where anti-logging activists chained themselves to old-growth pine trees and to the doors at the forest headquarters in Duluth.
Sanders also led the emergency rescue and cleanup effort after the July 4, 1999, windstorm that toppled millions of trees in a broad swath across the middle of the forest, devastating parts of the 1.1 million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Over the past five years, Sanders, who was in the Yellowstone region for the infamous 1988 fire season, was the Superior boss during a half-dozen major forest fire battles -- including the 2007 Ham Lake fire that destroyed dozens of cabins and homes along the Gunflint Trail; as well as the controversial decision this year to allow the Pagami Creek fire east of Ely to burn for weeks before attempting to control it. That fire eventually broke free and burned across 94,000 acres, much of that on a single day, Sept. 12, as Forest Service crews and campers frantically moved to escape the blaze.
The decision to allow a small fire to burn, and to ignite an intentional fire to rob the wildfire of fuel, continues to raise questions among some residents and others in the region. It was the largest wildfire in Minnesota for more than a half-century.
Sanders also has been in the mix as the 1964 and 1978 federal wilderness laws that created the BWCAW are reinterpreted and reworked -- from motorized portages and motor permits to this month's decision changing how visitor permits are issued.
Just last week, Sanders continued to play a key role in negotiations to trade state land still locked within the BWCAW for federal land outside the wilderness.
"It seems like we just moved from one big thing to another without a lot of time in between," Sanders said.
Despite the rancor that often fills headlines on forest-management issues, most of Sanders' work has been lauded by local officials, logging interests and environmental groups. Many have praised his efforts to weigh all sides' concerns before making key decisions.
"In all my years in natural resources, Jim Sanders is one of the finest professionals I have ever dealt with," said Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of the Minnesota Forest Industries group. "He may not have always agreed with you, but you always knew you were heard and you always knew he was gong to give you a fair shake."
Brandt's group was often at odds with the Forest Service for not allowing more trees to be cut on federal land -- at the same time environmental groups battled to leave more old trees standing and cut fewer trees on the same land.
"He is very detail-oriented, which is probably one reason why very few of their big (forest management) decisions were ever overturned when they were appealed," Brandt said.
It's that kind of divisive debate over the forest that Sanders will remember most.
"It's because the forest touches so many lives, that people cherish it so much, that make the differences between them appear to be so great sometimes," Sanders said. "I tried to bring people together and work together. ... I believe relationships are the currency that make the world go round."
Jan Green of Duluth, a longtime environmental activist who has focused on forestry issues, said Sanders "has been the best forest supervisor I've ever dealt with, and I've been doing this for 40 years."
"Jim was able, even in the middle of a lot of difficult issues, to cut off that personal acrimony and work with people to get the issue solved," Green said. "He's also understood the politics of the situations up here and he's done a lot of community outreach to get past that."
"A lot of us have been dreading this retirement because that kind of leadership is hard to replace," Green added.
Sanders has spent much of the past four years dealing with the forest's latest big deal -- if and where to allow mining for copper and other metals.
"Obviously, as someone comes in to this position, that's going to be the biggest issues they face," Sanders said. "But it's really following the same pattern of the others, whether it's the wilderness or logging or permits. ... It's all about how we manage this great forest. After being here 15 years now I totally understand why people get so passionate about this place."
Sanders first made his announcement last week in an e-mail to the hundreds of Forest Service employees under his wing.
"I have been afforded an amazing career that has taken Pat and me from the mountains of northern Idaho, to the shores of the Columbia River in eastern Washington, to the Yellowstone area in Montana, to Washington, D.C,. and to Lake Superior and the Superior National Forest. In addition to working for the Forest Service I have also spent time with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Congress," Sanders wrote. "It is now time for me to step aside and allow someone else the opportunity of a lifetime that I have had here with you on the Superior National Forest."