Deb Mucklow Starling, Spotted Bear’s longest-serving district ranger, leaves behind a 37-year Forest Service career and a towering legacy of service

Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
Allison Linville was expecting Deb Mucklow Starling’s arrival. It was summer 2013, and Linville was overseeing the U.S. Forest Service Spotted Bear Ranger District’s Big Prairie station, which is 30 miles deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. The visit seemed unusual; in other forests where Linville had worked, she rarely, if ever, saw the district ranger in the field.

Mucklow rode in on a horse and stayed for days at the outpost, checking in on everybody’s projects. She pitched in, one day diving “elbow deep” in a deep freezer that had been full of meat. Somebody had to clean the freezer, and Mucklow figured it might as well be her. Later that evening, she spent hours in the kitchen cooking up a feast of barbecued chicken.

“At the end of that day, I remember thinking, ‘This is a very, very unique district ranger,’” Linville says.

Of her decision to return to Spotted Bear the following season, Linville adds, “I was there because of Deb.”

Deb Mucklow Starling

Mucklow retired this spring not only as the longest-tenured ranger of the remote Spotted Bear district, but as one of the most impactful. She leaves behind a legacy of stewardship, in which her influence extends in equal parts to local workers, the forest’s constituency and the wilderness itself. To describe her methods, the word she comes back to again and again is “service” — to employees, volunteers, partners, contractors, outfitters, and public-land users.

She’s quick to deflect attention or recognition for successes to her hard-working employees, which highlights her supportive leadership style. In her eyes, she simply did her best to be a faithful public servant.

“I hope my legacy is that I contributed enough,” the understated Mucklow says.

Mucklow grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado and attended Colorado State University as a student in forest management. The day that Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, she began her first post in Montana, a “dream job,” she said, as a junior forester at the Tally Lake Ranger District. She worked on the Hungry Horse and Glacier View Ranger Districts before being assigned to Spotted Bear in 1999. The 1.3 million-acre district, part of Flathead National Forest, contains 849,126 acres of wilderness-designated land, which is the highest form of protection for federal government land.

Mucklow’s accomplishments there range from the concrete — like wrangling the logistics of accommodating hundreds of volunteers each season and finding a place to winter 100 livestock — to the abstract, like fostering a more sensitive culture of community in the backcountry. Because the Spotted Bear ranger station is located 55 miles up a bumpy gravel road east of Hungry Horse Reservoir, employees remain at the compound all summer long, unlike at the ranger districts of Tally Lake, Hungry Horse and Glacier View. The district is their entire world. That can work like a pressure cooker, and camaraderie is tied to leadership.

“I think she was the culture,” Linville said. “She established it very clearly by how she treated everyone.”

Mucklow was “a supreme advocate of the resource and not bureaucracy,” says Gordon Ash, of Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, who is serving as Spotted Bear’s interim district ranger.

Another way to put it is that she dealt with bureaucracy well, never getting so submerged in Spotted Bear’s remoteness that she forgot its place as a piece of Flathead National Forest. Though she fought for resources for her own district, she says she tried to be graceful in recognizing other needs in other districts, or in town, like on the Whitefish Trail.

For Forest Service employees, getting funding increasingly “feels like we are trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip,” Ash said. Mucklow acquired Flathead National Forest Resource Advisory Council grants to support trail work and scrounged up money to restore dilapidated cabins. Her work helped put the Spotted Bear and Schafer Meadows ranger stations on the National Register of Historic Places. She also realized the importance of strong partnerships with the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation and the Back Country Horsemen of Montana.

The district has always relied on partnerships, but Mucklow grew relationships with those programs from the ground up, personally encouraging volunteers. She shared their values, and connected on that level.

“She had a passion for the wilderness,” said Fred Flint, president of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation. “She put her heart and soul into the idea of wilderness.”

In her nearly 18 years as Spotted Bear’s district ranger, Mucklow navigated thorny politics, including her embrace of multiple uses for the district’s non-wilderness portion. Some of her timber-harvesting decisions were “divisive,” she said, but she always aimed to balance economic value with forest health. She was also a strong advocate of a natural fire program, as opposed to active suppression, which had a century-long legacy in the Forest Service.

“She took some pretty serious risks with her career by letting fires do their thing,” Flint said.

But when she recognized benefits for the forest, she took a stand. She was recognized in 2016 by the Society of American Foresters as Field Forester of the Year, one of many awards she received in her career. Seth Carbonari, Spotted Bear’s fire management officer since 2007, called her a “terrific mentor” who undertook a number of endeavors “that aren’t really written into any service manual” but were, in her mind, the right thing to do for the people and the land. She was known for holding herself accountable, especially regarding decisions about fire or timber management.

On December 10, Scott Snelson, deputy forest supervisor for the 3.4 million-acre Beaverhead-Deerlodge National forest, will begin following Mucklow’s service manual as the new Spotted Bear District Ranger. Snelson has a lengthy background in working on Montana public lands, including a stint early in his career as a trail crew foreman out of Spotted Bear and Big Prairie stations.

“Deb provided some incredible leadership over such a long period on a real complex district,” Snelson said. “I am in awe of her.”

Snelson says he will continue Mucklow’s devotion to service.

“Public service is core to the way I think,” he said. “It’s in my bones. It’s the way I chose to operate.”

“I don’t expect to fill her shoes,” he added, “but I will do my best.”