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Kurt Nelson Fought Fires, Floods and More to Protect Resources
Wednesday, June 7, 2023


He served under five presidents, beginning with Jimmy Carter. He braved a plane crash in Alaska’s wilderness and dared to hunt wounded bears. He “trained” eight Forest Service supervisors, six regional foresters and eight Forest Service chiefs.

He spent 45 years with the Forest Service—28 of them as Ketchum District Ranger, making him the longest tenured district ranger according to his colleagues’ estimations. And during that time, Kurt Nelson was as enthusiastic about installing new pit toilets at Uncle John’s Corral as he was reclaiming mining areas in Deer Creek.

Nelson retired this week after a long career, during which he rebuilt more than a hundred miles of trails and several miles of road following fires in the Sun Valley area, relocated the Deer Creek Road out of a riparian zone where it was prone to washout and helped construct a strategy to manage fisheries and habitat in the Interior Columbia Basin.

“For me, it’s what the people—the community and we--can get accomplished on the ground, and I think we got a lot accomplished,” he said. “It’s all about what’s right for the resource and what’s right for the community. And this community is not afraid to let me know what they need, what they want. It’s a give and take—a life’s journey. Work, play, life--all comes together.”

Nelson grew up in Santa Paula, Calif., where his parents had orange orchards and his father handled  marketing for the Los Angeles Times. Every summer he headed to the grandparents where he turned into a free-range kid living on peanut butter sandwiches and hot dogs while romping through the woods.

“When I was 7, my folks took us camping and we went to a park ranger campfire talk. I said right then and there: I want to be a ranger. I didn’t want to be in the concrete urban space of Southern California,” he said.

Nelson studied forestry and played soccer at the University of Berkeley-Calif. His first project with the Forest Service was in 1978 as a wildlife biologist on the Carson National Forest of New Mexico where he studied wild horses and took part in countless contentious meetings hammering out the master plan for Taos Ski Valley.

After four years he followed his heart to the Chugach National Forest in Seward, Alaska, where he started as a wildlife/fisheries biologist and in 1985 became the youngest district ranger in Alaska.

He loved the wildness of the area, with its winters on steroids and its parade of grizzly bears, caribou and wild sheep. He also experienced some of the most hair-raising experiences of his career there. On one occasion, he was enroute to clean up an early warning system left over from the Cold War when the bush plane in which he was traveling landed precariously, leaving the runway. It sped through alder brush and stuck its nose on the edge of a cliff.

“I’m pretty calm. I called out on the phone and told them we’d had a little trouble,” recounted Nelson. “The pilot was closest to the bottom so he climbed out on the landing tire and stepped back carefully so as not to jar the plane. I followed. The rescuers hooked a rope around tail of the plane and pulled it away from the edge. Then they told us, ‘You ‘re good to go.’ I said, ‘No way!’ But, when you live in Alaska you live on the wild side.”

On another occasion, one of Nelson’s biology technicians was studying the impact of human activity on bears on the Kenai Peninsula.  Awakened in the middle of the night by a black bear, the technician and a co-worker left their sleeping bags and were backing away when one fell over a log.

the technician shot and the bear ran away. And Nelson got an early-morning call that they were looking for the wounded bear. It was Nelson who came face to face with it.

“It was on its back—dead in a brush pile,” he said.

It was the incessant rain that drove Nelson from Alaska.

“My district went from Cordova to Seward. There was 50 miles of road and you did the rest by boat. It also got 220 inches of rain a year. One year it rained 76 days straight through May, June and part of July.  I knew it was time to get back to the Lower 48 when we went to the front range and my daughter picked up a handful of dust and said, ‘Daddy, what’s this?’ ”

Nelson followed a friend to McCall where he worked for the Payette National Forest.  Six years later in 1994 he moved to Walla, Walla, Wash., as the Terrestrial Science Team co-leader for the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project.

While engaged in the listing process for the chinook salmon, he met Kaz Thea—theirs was one of three weddings to come out of that project.

“We’re a good match,” Nelson said. “We both like adventure. We have similar interests, such as the environment. And we both loving serving—me as a district ranger and Kaz as a city council member, a volunteer.”

Nelson took on the Columbia Basin project with the condition that he could move to the place of his choice when done. He narrowed his choices to the Wrangell Ranger District in Alaska, Steamboat Springs, Colo, and Ketchum.

And after one and a half years of 60- to 80-hour work weeks he headed to Ketchum where he succeeded Alan Pinkerton as district ranger in 1995.

“I wanted to return to being a ranger. It’s more hands on and you get to know the community,” he said. “I had come to Sun Valley in the mid-1970s to ski when I was working as a liftee at what was then Squaw Valley. And I remember looking around and thinking, ‘I could live here.’ ”

Nelson had hardly gotten settled when a routine emergency stop on a high-speed quad at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia initiated a chain reaction, causing four chairs to roll backwards, killing two skiers and seriously injuring nine others. An investigation determined that Yan’s detachable lift design was inadequate, causing damage to the grips and causing chairs to fall.

Nelson had to tell Sun Valley Resort Owner Earl Holding that he needed to make changes to Sun Valley’s Yan lifts for safety’s sake if the ski resort was going to operate the following year. And Holding responded by having Doppelmayr retrofit the upper and lower terminals and lifts—Nelson on the scene as they worked through the night.

Nelson has sat in on countless meetings with resort officials and conducted innumerable environmental analyzes as Sun Valley installed 500-plus snow guns, replaced the Cold Springs chair, undertook the Bald Mountain Stewardship project to cull diseased trees and protect the mountain against Douglas-fir beetle and dwarf mistletoe. He also was part of the planning for the current project replacing the Challenger and Greyhawk lifts and building the new Flying Squirrel lift.

“It’s been like a little army of workers over there as they try to get everything done,” he said. “We were able to take 30 truckloads of firewood that was cut in the Flying Squirrel area to Duck Valley, and they were grateful as they were just about out after the long winter. We’ll send another 20 truckloads to Sticks and Stones in Shoshone.“

Nelson was joined at the hip to Type 1 Incident Commander Jeanne Pincha-Tulley during the 2007 Castle Rock Fire, which scorched 48,520 acres, including part of Bald Mountain. He asked Sun Valley Resort if they could spare their parking lot to house firefighters, and the resort responded by letting firefighters use River Run Lodge for showers and rest.

“They said they’d never had accommodations so luxurious and they never expected to in the future,” recounted Nelson.

Nelson again played a key role in the 115,000-acre Beaver Creek Fire in 2013, arranging for 2,000 firefighters to stay on the Peregrine Ranch. But he famously got in hot water with the big brass when he tried to save a flock of leaderless sheep without going through the proper protocol as fire raced through Greenhorn, taking out one home.

“You never know what ‘s going to be the topic of the day. It could be a wildfire or something else, and that’s why I liked being district ranger,” said Nelson, who also had to deal with the 65,000-acre Sharps Fire that started near Bellevue in 2018. “In the case of wildfire, we have a whole protocol based on where we are in the fire season. I call the last week of July and the first week of August the witching season. That’s when the thunderstorms are ramping up.”

Nelson has had a ritual of waking at 5 every morning and reading the New York Times with his coffee before a quick hike up Carbonate Mountain. He also perfected the long lunch hour, noted avalanche forecaster Scotty Savage, as he’d come to work a few hours early, then take a three-hour break to go cross-country skiing or bicycling.

Nearly 200 people came together to roast and toast Nelson this past weekend at the Sage School Barn, and colleagues teased him that he’d have to drink his “froufrou coffee” on his own dime and his own time now that he’s retired.

Deputy area ranger Bobbi Filbert said she treasured Nelson’s morning lattes and conversations that encompassed everything from last night’s symphony concert to his latest bike ride.

“Whenever I walked into the office, Kurt would ask me about my family, my kids, my grandkids and my great-grandkids I appreciated that the most,” said another former employee.

Rick Kapala, head coach for Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s Nordic team until last year, said that Nelson was very professional in managing the team’s permits whenever they had competitions: “Working with Kurt we felt like, ‘We’re all in this together.’ ”

Others praised Nelson for his loyalty, his big heart, his ability to keep his cool when things get tough, his leadership, his ability to manage complex issues and his insistence on seeking advice from the best scientists before making decisions.

“The man did incredible work. He served his community well,” said Julie Thomas, retired public information officer with the Sawtooth National Forest.

“Kurt’s leaving some big shoes to fill,” added Forest Supervisor Jake Strohmeyer. “The way he’s engaged his community, proactively approached resource issues and cared for his staff during the last 27 and a half years will not soon be forgotten.”

Kaz Thea praised his eagerness to forge partnerships, noting his work with 5B Restoration Coalition, Wood River Trails Coalition, National Forest Foundation, Sun Valley Company, the Bureau of Land Management, Idaho Fish and Game and others.

“The thing I can say about Kurt Nelson is that his staff loves him because he takes care of people. And he’s passionate about the work of conservation and taking care of the forest,” she added.

Nelson and Thea are headed to Barcelona to celebrate Nelson’s life of service. Then they’ll join friends form the Wood River Valley to bike from the Julian Alps to the Adriatic Sea.

“There’s plenty of things to explore, maybe even opportunities to work for nonprofits in foreign countries,” said Nelson. “But I won’t be leaving. I’m thankful I’ve been able to live here, work here in this community. People go away and say there’s no place better. I’ve loved the opportunity to be a special part of this place on the planet, and I hope I’ve done what I need to do to keep it that way.”


Fire Management Officer Matt Filbert is serving as interim Ketchum district ranger.

“For 120 days I’m the bridge between Kurt and the next guy. If it’s me, great, I get a head start,” he said.

Filbert grew up in Illinois but decided he was never going back after skiing in Summit County, Colo. He left Vail in 2000 to move with his wife to Sun Valley in 2000 to start a family.

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