Hyde Memorial State Park manager Stefan Conkle didn't find the vocation of forest ranger so much as it found him—or, more accurately, rescued him.
Conkle first became a park ranger when he was attending college in Las Vegas, NM.
"I had gone boating one day on a little rubber raft, and it blew away. Some park rangers at Storrie Lake State Park rescued me and a friend," Conkle says. "That was the first time I'd ever had contact with a ranger, but I thought, 'Man, that seems like a fun thing to do.'"
Later that year, while still in school, Conkle needed a job. Storrie Lake was the first place he looked. Despite his questionable water safety record, he was hired.
"I was pursuing a business degree, but I liked park rangering so much I became [a ranger]," Conkle says.
At Storrie Lake, Conkle's primary responsibilities included cleaning and general park maintenance. As occupational thrills go, his tasks were uninspiring but, for Conkle, they were enough to hook him on fresh air and open spaces.
Conkle went on to work a number of park ranger jobs throughout New Mexico as he developed a range of skills. He spent approximately a year as a law enforcement ranger at Ute Lake State Park outside of Logan before boning up on his boating prowess and taking his own turn rescuing reckless rafters. At Brantley Lake State Park just north of Carlsbad, Conkle patrolled the lake by boat, making sure the rules and regulations of New Mexico waterways were followed.
Currently, his workplace is surrounded by tens of thousands of pine, Douglas fir and aspen trees in the Santa Fe National Forest where Conkle is both park manager and forest ranger for Hyde Memorial State Park. Lodging is part of the deal, and Conkle lives amid what he characterizes as unparalleled beauty.
"This is the first time I've been in a park that is surrounded by tall pines, and the serenity of it is just unimaginable," he says. Conkle himself comes off as somewhat serene—he's easy-going, with strong legs that support a jovial, patriarch's belly—although the juxtaposition between his comfortable, well-worn shorts and the pistol holstered at his hip is at first startling.
As one of four rangers on staff at Hyde Memorial State Park, Conkle's duties include assisting campers and hikers, helping to organize and run park activities, ensuring that the area remains clean and well-maintained, and enforcing laws—and not just park laws.
"A lot of people don't realize it, but park rangers can enforce the entire gamut of New Mexico state statutes," Conkle says. "We work to provide a safe venue for the public to come out and recreate in."
Fortunately, he very rarely has to unholster his gun to do so.
"[Incidents are] few and far between. Most people are just here to have a good time," Conkle says.
He notes with good humor that the main issue the rangers of Hyde Memorial State Park face on a regular basis is overcrowding, as the park's 50 camp sites tend to fill up quickly and frequently between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
"I don't want to scare people off—just come early," Conkle says with a laugh.
This year New Mexico forest rangers are particularly wary of fire dangers, owing to ongoing dry conditions.
"The park is currently in stage two fire restriction," Conkle says, referring to New Mexico State Parks' three-tiered fire-warning scale. "Last year had heavy growth and this year is dead, which has created a lot of fuel [lying] on the forest floor."
Hyde Memorial State Park has not seen any fires yet this year, and the current restrictions on charcoal fires, smoking and fireworks are dedicated to keeping it that way.
Though safety measures are a large part of Conkle's job, he particularly enjoys sharing his admiration of the natural world with others, especially youth groups.
"I like the months of April and May, because those are the months that we start to see a lot more school groups come out," Conkle says. "We're very interested in leading them on nature hikes and doing education programming to help them understand the natural world."
Conkle speaks with infectious enthusiasm about the hikes, nighttime stargazing activities, botany, biology, geology and various projects organized by New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors, a group that works to improve trails and outdoor facilities throughout the state. Conkle is able to generate some excitement for the man-made world as well: He's a big fan of the park's annual July Corvette show. But the fancy cars have to come and visit him—he won't be coming down the hill anytime soon.
"I love the fact that, when I wake up in the morning, I live in a place that people wait all week to come to on the weekends," Conkle says. "I love the fresh air and I love that I have animals come and visit—bears that climb apple trees and deer that eat out of my front yard."
Hyde Memorial State Park
New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors
Stage One: Fire restrictions limit fires and smoking to developed areas and infrastructure
Stage Two: Fire restrictions prohibit fires, smoking, chainsaws, off-roading and using off-
highway vehicle trails without a spark arrestor
Stage Three: Fire restrictions close off access to the area