Longtime Bandelier National Monument employee receives federal service award

·5 min read

Oct. 24—BANDELIER NATIONAL MONUMENT — Craig Allen fell in love with the trees along the roads of rural Wisconsin as his parents drove him to and from his grandparents' house.

Because of his experiences planting, trimming and tending to trees in and around that home, he developed a talent for identifying trees and other vegetation.

"Oh, look, that's white pine growing on this cliffy side [of the hill]," he observes, reliving those traveling moments during an interview in his former office at the national monument, about 12 miles from Los Alamos. "And then hemlock and white cedar along the river there."

In telling the story, he is once again riding in that vehicle with his parents — viewing the vivid details of the landscape around him, unaware he'll someday carve out a career as not just a tree expert but an ecological scientist. For more than four decades, Allen has worked in an array of capacities at Bandelier, studying the long-term consequences of forest fires, climate change and drought on the landscape around him.

His research and dedication earned him the Department of the Interior's Distinguished Service Award, its highest honor. According to the agency's website, the award is given to people who have made an "outstanding contribution to science, outstanding skill or ability in the performance of duty, outstanding contribution made during an eminent career in the Department, or any other exceptional contribution to the public service."

Allen received the honor this month — eight months after his retirement — at the age of 63.

He still shows up at his old office, housed in a 1930s-era building constructed by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, as a volunteer. The digs remain full of his books and papers, including a mammoth 1980s dissertation he wrote on Bandelier's history and landscape qualities within the context of the broader Jemez Mountain range.

Allen sports a perpetual smile and talks with the animated energy of a performer, his hands always in motion, his voice suddenly switching to imitate someone as he includes them in his stories.

His persona fits his role as a man who describes himself as a narrator or interpreter of the natural world around him.

"These landscapes are stories," he says, gesturing to the hilly, rocky, tree-dominated terrain around him.

He can read tree rings to determine past changes in the climate, how many fires the trees have endured and even precipitation data for different periods.

He argues, both in person and in published articles, that years of fire suppression, drought and other factors have reorganized many forest lands into new ecosystem patterns, which could result in transitions to grasslands or new forests full of different and new tree species.

His research can determine when trees and other vegetation began growing in a particular area of the Southwest, as well as how they have survived historical challenges like wildfire, drought and other phenomena.

In discussing these issues, Allen launches into a tale of a mesa on the property where there is no evidence of tree growth predating the Spanish arrival in the late 1500s. The Pueblo people who lived on that mesa somehow managed for a while despite the need for wood to create fires for cooking and warmth.

"It's almost not possible for there to have been wood up there," he says, pointing in the direction of the setting of the story. "It might be one of the main reasons they moved to the valley."

The trees, he says, don't lie. And they can help inform policy decisions regarding public lands — something his own research has done over the years. He says such information can help "support high-quality conversations within the public. ... We don't dictate what the management strategy is, but we try to inform it with the best technological information we can in terms of how that [ecological] system works and has changed through time."

And yet, as focused and precise as he is, according to colleagues, Allen pretty much stumbled into the field he grew to love, a field that allows him to continually explore, investigate, and ask and answer questions.

He ended up in the Santa Fe area almost by chance in the late 1970s, after swinging through the region and landing a job as a running coach for McCurdy School in Española.

Allen fell in love with and married a teacher there who remains his wife, and they had a child and adopted two more children — twin boys. Armed with degrees in geology, forest ecology and forest biology from the University of Wisconsin and Berkeley College, he began volunteering and doing contract work for Bandelier around Labor Day in 1981.

Allen was hired in his most recent job as an employee of the U.S. Geological Survey station at the monument in 1989. His work has supported the Jemez Mountain Field Station and fueled efforts to establish Valles Caldera as a national preserve, according to the citation.

He has come to know the Bandelier area so well that even when he gets lost, he knows where he is, says Ella Kasten, an intern working at the monument. She says she has learned what it is like to "know where you are and getting attached to a place" through Allen.

Kay Beeley, a cartographic technician who worked alongside Allen for nearly 30 years at Bandelier, says she and Allen are a perfect work fit because she's good with logistics, while he's good with ideas and turning them into action.

"She keeps somebody like me on track," Allen says of Beeley, adding that between them, they have so much institutional knowledge that their fellow workers have joked they don't want the two sharing a ride around the mountain roads for fear that one accident could put all that knowledge out of reach.

Allen says the award is not his alone. His colleagues and the interns who have long worked with him on various projects over the years deserve the honor too, he says.

He says the job has kept him interested all these decades because it "affects how we manage huge areas of public land in New Mexico."

His personal fascination, he says, lies in "trying to understand how the world works and how it has worked in the past. And to understand the patterns of the landscape we see today, history matters. History matters a lot."

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