Lloyd McNeil A life in the forest caring for the land, serving the people

MANCOS – Rarely, but sometimes, a man fits a job and the job fits the man. When that happens, you can have decades of productive, meaningful work.

Such is the legacy of Lloyd McNeil, a forestry technician who worked with the San Juan National Forest for 37 years and passed away this spring at 76, leaving 10 children, 26 grandchildren and miles of developed trails for us to hike.

I had the pleasure of meeting Lloyd to discuss one of his favorite topics – the Jersey Jim Fire Lookout Tower in the Dolores Ranger District, which he helped save in the 1980s.

Fire towers have less value nowadays because of airplane surveillance. Forest fires can be detected in other ways than by having lookouts 55 feet off the ground at 10,000 feet elevation on the alert for early smoke, which “is almost always white and almost always lingers,” writes Philip Connors in his award-winning book Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout.

Connors explains that 90 percent of American lookout towers have been decommissioned. In the prologue to his memoir, Connors describes the Osborne Firefinder: “A topographic map encircled by a rotating metal ring equipped with a sighting device. The sighting device allows you to discern the directional bearing of the fire from your location ... Once you have an azimuth, you must then judge the fire’s distance from your perch.”

Lloyd and I had climbed the 70 steps to the top of the Jersey Jim, and he turned his regulation U.S. Forest Service ball cap around so he could squint down the line of the Osborne Firefinder to demonstrate it to me. If Phil Connors has written a modern classic about fire lookouts – in the rich vein of his predecessors Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Edward Abbey, who wrote about their lookout experiences – Lloyd McNeil had done Connors one better: Lloyd helped save the Jersey Jim Fire Lookout Tower, 14 miles northeast of Mancos, so guests can spend the night in that lofty perch.

“Saving the fire tower was his baby,” says Clara McNeil as I sit in her large kitchen in Mancos.

“My husband heard that the Jersey Jim was going to be torn down, and he didn’t want to see it happen,” she says. “He got in hot water because he started to have meetings without asking the ranger. If that had been scrapped, he would have grieved the rest of his life.”

Instead, Lloyd and friends created the Jersey Jim Foundation, a legal nonprofit, and Clara spent 18 years on the telephone as visitors made reservations to spend a night in the sky.

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Lloyd was like that. He helped maintain hundreds of miles of forest trails on the west side of the La Plata Mountains, and he assisted with restoration and preservation of both the Aspen and Glade guard stations. He worked with volunteers, Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts. According to Clara, his goal was “to save money for the taxpayers and make the best use of his time.”

Always ready with a firm handshake, a smile and a project to be accomplished, Lloyd worked with the Back Country Horsemen, though he himself did not own a horse. He rode a Forest Service mount named Willie. When it was time to put the steed out to pasture, the Forest Service gave Willie to Lloyd.

“He was Lloyd’s favorite ‘person’ on the forest,” recalls Clara. “He used Willie to pack in gravel, culverts and anything else a trail needed.”

Many San Juan National Forest employees have fond memories of Lloyd.

Public Information Officer Ann Bond remembers: “Lloyd on hunter patrol, patiently explaining to folks how not to damage the forest. Lloyd dropping by to visit every artist who stayed at the Aspen Guard Station. Lloyd at my desk to lament the latest vandalism to interpretive signs, historic buildings and recreational facilities. He would shake his head; he just couldn’t fathom why anyone would hurt his beloved national forest.

“I remember the hundreds of people, young and old, who came to his retirement party at the Mancos Opera House,” Bond says. “Lloyd spending personal and quality time with each and every one. Lloyd was the ultimate person to have at your campfire telling stories. Lloyd McNeil, always proudly in uniform, the heart and soul of the Forest Service.”

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McNeil built and maintained trails and fences and kept some of the cleanest campgrounds anywhere, but he also belonged to Mancos Grange 339 until it closed. In 1966, he won a national talent contest playing a ukulele. In the Mancos Valley Chorus he sang tenor. As a whistler, he placed in the top 10 during an international competition. And he wore kilts.

From string instruments he switched to bass and snare drums for the West Wind Pipes and Drums, a Scottish bagpipe band he helped found. The band tartan or kilt pattern is McNeil of Bara, Scotland, Lloyd’s family. His band members say Lloyd “could always be relied upon to keep a strong and steady beat.”

Lloyd was warm, congenial and inquisitive. When he learned the Thompson Park Campground north of U.S. Highway 160 had once been special to the Utes as a place for practicing with bows, arrows and later rifles, he sought a name change.

Today, it is known as Target Tree Campground. He consulted with both Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes to reinstate the spirit of Ivikukuch, or target tree. A short interpretive walk lets visitors learn about the peeled ponderosa pines along the trail and the importance of the area to Ute hunters centuries ago.

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“Affectionately referred to as ‘The Geezer,’ Lloyd spent his entire career on the San Juan National Forest beginning on the old Mancos District in 1969 in recreation and finishing up as trail foreman for the Dolores Public Lands Office,” explains Toni Kelly of the San Juan National Forest. “Lloyd adapted to several positions throughout his career, including LEO (law enforcement officer) and VIS (visitor information services).

“He had a remarkable career that tied the Forest Service to the local community in so many ways,” Kelly says.

“Known as the whistling cowboy, Lloyd would merrily pack in Southwest Conservation Corps trail crews to remote locations on the San Juan National Forest while whistling and leading a pack string, never faltering,” says Kevin Heiner, regional director of the Southwest Conservation Corps Four Corners Office.

“Lloyd seemed happy and rarely troubled, immersed in the day-to-day tasks of caring for the resources he loved so dearly,” he says. “Many SCC crews and individuals gained a respect for hard work and stewardship of the land as they worked under Lloyd’s direction.”

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Surely, his was a life well lived. I am grateful to have met Lloyd and to have spent a night with my wife in the Jersey Jim Lookout Fire Tower watching a brilliant sunset reflect off Hesperus Peak, and later the night lights of Cortez twinkling in the distance.

At his retirement party, Lloyd offered advice to his fellow foresters. Advice we should all heed: “Take care of the land and serve the people.”

We’ll try, Lloyd. We’ll try.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.