As the new Southeast Region manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Brett Ackerman’s love of the outdoors is a foregone conclusion. But only a brief conversation is required to realize that he may love people even more.
“Nothing is harder for me than when somebody feels frustrated because of exclusion,” Ackerman said. “I think it’s important that people not just feel included, but are included.”
Assuming the regional manager role July 1 is the latest step for Ackerman in a nearly 20-year career with CPW. He joined the former Colorado Division of Wildlife — which merged in 2011 with Colorado State Parks — as a district wildlife manager patrolling the Rifle area. In 2004, he became CPW’s regulations manager, authoring the majority of the state’s new parks and wildlife law until taking over as deputy southeast regional manager in 2014.
Ackerman now heads up the Southeast Region, which spans the Arkansas River drainage from Lake County east to Kansas and south to New Mexico.
A Utah native, Ackerman has a bachelor’s degree in wildlife and range biology from Brigham Young University and a master’s of public administration in environmental management policy and law from the University of Colorado Denver. He and his wife, Tara, have five children and live in Monument.
Ackerman sat down with the Colorado Springs Business Journal this week to discuss his goals as CPW’s Southeast Region manager.
So it sounds like you were on a very early path to a career in wildlife and natural resources management.
I grew up in a rural area and spent most of my time outside hunting, fishing, hiking and enjoying the forest and public lands, so I always kind of had a propensity to head in that direction. When I first started college, I intended to go to dental school and fixed that pretty quick — I can’t be inside that long.
Like a lot of people who are in this field, from a young age you gain a love of the outdoors and natural resources and gravitate toward the field. You have this idea and vision of wanting to perpetuate that for your children, for the future, so that people can enjoy the same type of connection with the outdoors that I had as a kid.
What are your responsibilities as Southeast Region manager?
I’m generally responsible for all the operations of this region, which includes seven state parks and four administrative wildlife areas — people get that mixed up with geographical state wildlife areas. That’s not the case. We have a supervisor in each of these four locations in the Southeast Region and they have anywhere from nine to 13 people that work for them to manage our operations. Those folks work for me.
… I think the most concise way to say that is, [I am] responsible for essentially all wildlife management and state parks operation in the southeast part of the state. In addition to that, the regional managers sit on the statewide executive leadership team. … We have a statewide leadership role, besides me having exclusive management of the Southeast Region.
How did you make the transition from policymaking to field work?
It’s interesting, because I started in the field and then ended up on the policy side, and then back to the field again. I think I’ve always had a healthy respect for not being myopic about what we’re doing here. I think helping to set policy and to manage public input into those regulations for so many years has helped connect me with how a lot of people think about and appreciate wildlife. So moving back to the field, it’s intrinsic for me to be able to see, when somebody brings up an idea, how the public might react to that. I think from that perspective, it’s been pretty helpful.
What would you say is your favorite part of the job?
We get into this for a love of the outdoors, but honestly, it’s people. In everything that I do, I try to keep the idea of people in mind. It’s important to me that people are happy, and I think the outdoors makes people happy. … Sometimes when we have a passion for something, people get lost in that a little bit, and I think it’s important to make sure that we set that hierarchy properly, and that people are the reason that we manage things the way that we do. To me, it’s important that folks have a respect and a love for the outdoors, and we’re fortunate to be in Colorado where most people do.
… Our old [division] motto was, ‘For wildlife, for people,’ when we were two separate agencies. I think about that all the time. Our newest one is, ‘Live life outside.’ Both of those fall in line with my philosophy. … Our whole job is to provide people the opportunity to go out and experience the wonder of the outdoors.
What are the greatest challenges you face as Southeast Region manager?
One of the things I think that gets lost a lot [is] … one of the things that we do often is reach out to the public to get the public opinion, because it’s the public that we serve. One of the things I like to remind people of is, there, of course, is this biological management of natural resources, and we’re exceptionally expert at that here in Colorado. …
One of the things I used to say when I was working on the law creation side is, the great thing about what we’re doing here is, we’re all coming at this from one perspective — which is a love of natural resources. But within that, there falls a huge spectrum of what people think we should do about that love. One of the most challenging pieces of that is to … collaborate in a way that people feel good about the outcome, because we have, No. 1, so many people who have an interest in the outdoors, but No. 2, so many people who are really educated about that interest. That can lead to long and difficult discussions about policy and other directions as an agency to take. But even though that’s a difficult process, to me, that’s a great ride, because people matter.
What are some of your goals for the Southeast Region?
One of my broader-reaching goals is to help people recognize the expertise of this agency and have confidence in what we’re doing here. I think a lot of people do — and that’s expressed publicly all the time — but I think sometimes people who aren’t as familiar with our agency don’t understand the level of expertise that we have biologically and sociologically. So one of my goals is to help people understand the expertise of the division and build confidence in what we’re doing, but that kind of goes in tandem with another goal of making sure that we’re an open ear to the public — and not just an open ear, but an actual conduit for change.
I think people that are in the know, that get involved with our agency, really do see the difference that they can make in policy, but I think the folks who are just kind of on the periphery — that don’t get as engaged, but have an interest in what we’re doing — sometimes might feel a little bit futile. I want to make sure we bridge that gap between, ‘Yes, we’re experts and we know what we’re doing,’ but this is a partnership between us and the public. The public has just as much — well, more — say over the natural resources in the state than we do. We’re just the arm of the public that helps implement those. … I think one of my major goals is to help the members of the public feel a part of what we’re doing here.
Certainly another goal for me — and for the division as a whole — is that we’ve come to a period in our history where we have some dilapidated infrastructure associated with our parks and some of our wildlife areas. Again, this speaks to that partnership. We passed a bill last year, The Future Generations Act, which allowed for an increase in prices — unfortunately, at a time where everybody is experiencing an increase in prices for everything — and that’s allowing us to reinvest in those facilities and infrastructure for the public. So one of my goals in the upcoming years is to make sure that we put their money where our mouth is, and that they see the impact of their contributions. n CSBJ