Meet the guy who is in charge of managing our local wild place.
In July 2011, Mark Giebel went out to a spot just across Monarch Boulevard from Wildcat Mountain. The HRCA Backcountry Wilderness Area director regularly visited this spot to check up on the status of the first recorded, successful golden eagle nest on Wildcat Mountain since the 1940s. When he glassed his binoculars over the nest, the new eaglet wasn’t there. A moment later, he caught a glimpse of the three-month-old perched in a nearby tree. Before long, the fledgling took off and soared West over Mark’s head from the Wildcat Mountain cliffs—likely on its very first flight.
Long before Mark took his role as director of the HRCA Backcountry Wilderness Area in 2006, he knew decisions had to be made, and steps be taken, in order to protect this wildlife habitat right in the middle of what would become massive urban sprawl. He first put eyes on the Backcountry Wilderness Area as a kid growing up in northwest Douglas County. The land extended west from Daniels Park and south of the not-yet-bustling neighborhoods of Highlands Ranch. Mark left for college at Trinity University in Texas to study biology before returning to the area ready to start his path toward a career of conserving 13-square-miles of wildlife habitat. We caught up with Mark to find out why conserving this piece of habitat is so important and why he’ll continue to advocate for it to stay wild.
The Backcountry Wilderness Area was still in the planning stages when you returned to the area after college. How did you become involved in determining how the property would move into the future?
I worked for the HRCA in high school and through college as a lifeguard and pool manager.
The HRCA was a smaller organization so I knew everyone. After college, I took a job in 1999 as an AFS (assistant facilities supervisor) at a HRCA recreation center with the idea that I wanted to be a part of the planning of the Backcountry Wilderness Area. The CEO at the time let me review the plans and get involved in the various committees. There were committees since the mid-90s to have input on the OSCA (Open Space Conservation Area) Plan. I sat in on those meetings and saw the planning of the first section of the Douglas County East-West Trail. I was also attending seminars and volunteering at places to learn more about IDing plants, grazing, and other aspects of natural resource management ... which would all become very important to managing the Backcountry Wilderness Area.
What did you do in the four years between being included in the planning process and taking the lead on the management of the Backcountry?
In early 2002, a professor from the University of Colorado was conducting research on the introduction of a non-native insect to control knapweed. Knapweed was the number one invasive weed in what would become the Backcountry Wilderness Area and the entire Front Range. His surprising positive results were met with a lot of skepticism in the industry. I coordinated with him to collect insects from his research site and to release them in the Backcountry in order to duplicate his research and results. It worked. Eventually, knapweed was nearly wiped out from those sites and the bug was spreading. That research saved the HRCA a lot of money and was a win for a young guy trying to prove himself.
Habitat improvement and conservation have always been your chief goal in stewarding the Backcountry Wilderness Area even as there is an ever-growing call for more recreation opportunities. Why drives your decision-making process?
The trails near the golden eagle nest are a perfect example. We knew that the Wildcat Mountain cliffs were a historic nesting site for golden eagles. Even though the cliffs had not been used in a long time by the raptors, we made deliberate decisions on trail locations and potential trail closures based on that knowledge. We were able to welcome back the golden eagles to this historic nest due to forethought to balance the need for conservation and the desire for trails and recreation. That same process will be even more critical in the future while also being informed on the latest research regarding conservation and recreation.
The golden eagles' nest is thriving with successful nests in three of the four last years. What's your read on the progression of the Backcountry Wilderness Area as a whole?
The HRCA taking over the Backcountry ownership and management partially in 2006 and completely in 2010 was a big deal. It is still super uncommon for an HOA to own and operate an asset like the Backcountry.
People were worried about the impact on the Backcountry Wilderness Area when we started our programs. The costs were a concern, but also there was a concern for the property. We've shown how these kinds of properties can and should be managed—prioritizing wildlife and providing recreation and education opportunities to the community.
This decision-making process extends across our property as we grow our mission of environmental education alongside our responsibility for conservation. Nobody is more protective over the Backcountry than me. I've been watching the property and the wildlife for 20 years and I've been seeing the changes for the positive. We've been doing right. There are a lot of weighty decisions that I take very seriously. I'm an advocate for wildlife and conservation, and it's balanced by community needs and wants. Now, we are comfortable with where we are at and see a clear path to the future.
Trail Talk: Get to Know Mark Giebel
What's the best part of your job? The best part of my job is that it is diverse ... it's variable. Every day is a little different. Every season is a little different. I love taking kids hunting and teaching them the right way to do it. I love that I get to protect something that I grew up watching get taken away.
What kind of hiker are you? Wanderer? Summit-reacher? Trail scientist?
My favorite kinds of hikes are ones that don't involve a crowded trail. My focus is always on wildlife.
What's the most important rule of the outdoors? Follow the rules.
What's your favorite trail/adventure snack? Mixed nuts.
What are the three things you have in your adventure backpack on every excursion? Headlamp, firestarter, and first aid kit. My wife makes fun of me because I might tend towards being over-prepared.
What wild animal have you always wanted to see ... from a safe distance? Mountain Lion. I don't know why I haven't seen one yet. I'm a bit angry about it.
Where/what is your bucket list adventure? African Safari or New Zealand
Podcast or book? What are you listening to or reading right now? I'm reading River of Doubt. A couple who came on a Backcountry tour with me last summer gave it to me. How nice is that? It's about Teddy Roosevelt's odyssey in the Amazon.
Where is the most "wild" place you've been? Amazon Rainforest for a month. It was great and horrible at the same time.
What's your advice for someone who wants to have an impact on wildlife habitat conservation/environmental education in their own community? Minimize impact. It's not necessarily adding something, but don't take away from, or harm, an important area.
Outside of work, what's your choice way to get outdoors? Anything outdoors with my wife, Kristi. That is typically mountain biking or hiking.
What's your favorite way to pass time when you are on a long adventure?
I like to notice the little things. I want to know what animal made that hole. Or, what bird is making that noise.
What's your favorite thing to do that's not outdoor recreation-related? Play or watch hockey. Spend time with my wife, hang out with friends, and play with our dogs. Watching my step-kids Avery and Trevor grow up and turn into good humans.
What is something about the Backcountry Wilderness Area's land/programs/etc. that you wish people knew? I wish people knew how important and valuable it is right now, but how if properly taken care of, how important it will be in the future. Think Central Park of New York City (I have to credit Dr. Marvin Beeman, who grew up on the property, with that analogy). It's like the last little part of conservation surrounded by development.