After 13 years of overseeing the health and welfare of the forests around the Rim country, Ranger Steve Gunzel will bid farewell to the Payson Ranger District in September. Gunzel has been transferred to the Sierra Vista Ranger District on the Coronado National Forest.
"We're expected to move periodically," Gunzel said Monday. In fact, he said, his tenure in Payson has been roughly 2 1/2 times longer than any other ranger in the history of the district.
"I've been very fortunate to be here as long as I have," he said. "It allowed me to put my kids through high school here. It's just time to get some new and different experience."
Gunzel began his career in Payson in 1985, just four years before the Rim country's most notorious wildfire --the Dude Fire.
"I had a lot of fire experience," Gunzel said. "With 25,000 acres, six fatalities and the loss of 70-some structures, I don't care how experienced you are, that's a huge impact. Even nine years later, it was huge."
Over the years, Gunzel said one of his biggest accomplishments stems from the Dude Fire.
"We've done a very comprehensive rehabilitation plan of that area," he said. "That plan included things like tree planting, wildlife habitat improvements, watershed restoration projects, and we introduced controlled grazing out there."
Another highlight in his career, he said, is the overall forest health and the rural urban interface around Pine and Strawberry.
Gunzel said the Forest Service has worked diligently to reduce the fire hazard around those communities with projects like creating shaded fuel breaks. "It's still a high-risk area," he said, "but we've made a significant difference out there."
While he's enjoyed many successes in his career, he includes one final one as an accomplishment, one that will be a little more far reaching -- "that would be the restoration plan for the Gila trout re-introduction," he said. The Payson Ranger District has been working with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on reintroducing the endangered species to Gila County waters. In fact, he said, public comment on the plan closed Aug. 27, and he expects to make his decision in the next week to 10 days on what the Payson district's role will be in the project.
"The restocking of the Gila trout is a Game and Fish operation," he said, "but it falls on the land managers --in this case, the Forest Service --to help support the project." If all falls into place, Gunzel said the Gila trout could begin swimming in Gila County waters as early as this fall.
The 30-year-veteran of the forest service said he'll miss the Payson area, but is looking forward to his new post in Sierra Vista.
That district is just about as large as the Payson district, he said, but offers a few different opportunities.
"There's the international aspect, working with the common boundaries of Mexico," he said. "And, with Fort Huachuca and the large Army military base down there as a direct neighbor, it will be different."
It's also a good move for his family, he said. He and his wife, Jill, both have family in the Tucson area, and their children are grown and have moved away.
Gunzel will leave Payson toward the end of September, and reports to his new station Sept. 27.