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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes
KLAMATH FALLS FWO: Curt Mullis: A Career Working With Others
Region 8, August 1, 2008
Curt Mullis capped off his career in the federal service as Field Supervisor for the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office. Curt retired in August. (photo: USFWS)
Curt Mullis capped off his career in the federal service as Field Supervisor for the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office. Curt retired in August. (photo: USFWS) - Photo Credit: n/a

Matt Baun, Klamath Falls FWO
He has been called many things over the years -- field supervisor, state director, assistant state director, and district supervisor. But for Curt Mullis and his family, the best title is the one he got on Aug. 1, 2008: Retiree.

“Life is good,” Mullis said recently in a relaxed and cheerful voice when asked to assess his first full month of retirement.  “I hope everyone can aspire to it.” 

To be sure, Mullis would be the first to object to this type of career-retrospective because it would undoubtedly not sit right with him as he is not the type to wax poetic about his own achievements.  But people like Curt Mullis – who can never truly be replaced – can provide some unique and valuable insights upon their retirement that may help the rest of the working world. 

An intrepid reporter once described Mullis years ago as a “fit-looking, hazel-eyed man who could be a model for a Marlboro ad.”  A pretty apt description on the surface.  But the best words to describe him come from his colleagues both in and out of government who choose words like: genuine, gentle, dedicated, easy-going, generous, down-to-earth, productive, pragmatic and laconic in describing him.

Mullis grew up in Mariposa, Calif., and it was there where he developed a strong interest in the outdoors.  After high school, Mullis managed to negotiate a good deal on 1954 Willy’s Jeep pick-up truck from a used car salesman in Sacramento, which enabled him to find his way to Humboldt State University and beyond.

After college, he returned to Mariposa and embarked on what would be a 31-year career in the federal service.  After that, it was off to Yosemite where he worked for the National Park Service.  Mullis then worked in a variety of capacities for USDA’s Animal Damage Control program in various California towns and later in New Mexico. Since 1994, Mullis worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Klamath Falls, and in 2003, he served as the Field Supervisor for that office.                                                     

When it comes to the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office two fish dominate the time and resources of the staff – the Lost River and short nose suckers, which are indigenous to Upper Klamath Lake. 

To understand Mullis’ career with the Fish and Wildlife Service, it is important to know some of the details surrounding the listing of these fish.  There was little reaction from the community in 1988 when these fish were first listed.  It was sort of a non-event in the Upper Basin and nobody at the time was thinking that the Endangered Species Act would impact the irrigators, who rely on these waters during the growing season.  

In 1992 there was a drought in the Upper Klamath Basin, and for the first time it signaled to irrigators that the ESA and the “suckerfish” may end up limiting water deliveries to area fields. 

When Mullis arrived in Klamath Falls in 1994 to head up the Service’s restoration program, it represented a new way of doing things. The office wasn’t there to regulate; it was there to identify restoration projects that landowners could participate in. It was a new idea for the Klamath Falls community and it would require a lot of hard work and effort to get a restoration program established.

Mullis had to sell this idea to the community. The job wouldn’t be easy.  For one, he had to build relationships in a community that was new to him (he had just moved from New Mexico). There was no network of landowners that he could call on and tap into.  But that did not prevent him from acting fast to taking the steps necessary to build those ties from scratch.  

“We did not want to be fish-cops,” Mullis recalled.  “Rather than regulate with the heavy hand of the federal government using the ESA, the restoration program would identify projects that over the long run would benefit the fish.”

Under Mullis’ direction, the new restoration program was coming to life and enjoying success.  Riparian work was being completed, fences were built to keep cattle out of fish habitat, and wetlands were beginning to be recovered.

Even in the summer of 2001, when it appeared that a long-term water conflict between fish-interests and irrigator interests would ensue, Mullis was able to persist with restoration efforts with local landowners, proving that he had a knack for quietly going about his business to get things done.  

“After 2001, the atmosphere in Klamath Falls was really tense,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, a group the advocates on behalf of rural communities. “Curt played a key role in changing that dynamic.”

Keppen, who after 2001 became executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, recalls a series of informal get-togethers over breakfast with Mullis and others, which allowed some key stakeholders in the Upper Basin to move forward.   

“It all comes down to relationships and Curt really understood how to make that work,” said Keppen.

In 2003, the position of Field Supervisor for the Klamath Falls FWO came open.  Most everyone knew that Mullis was the obvious choice to take the reins.  At this time, he had nearly a decade of experience working in the community and had demonstrated that he could work effectively with landowners and complete restoration projects despite some difficult challenges. But there was one hang up.  He did not want the job.  He didn’t apply.

Not satisfied with the initial pool of applicants, managers in Sacramento floated the job opening again. This time around Mullis, hesitant still, nonetheless applied for the job and was hired shortly thereafter.

“The Service could not have chosen a better ambassador to patch up the relationships in the Upper Basin,” said Phil Detrich, a Field Supervisor in Yreka. “Curt is a quintessential westerner.  He speaks the language of the West, he understands the issues and he knows how to get things done.”

After he was selected Field Supervisor, he made it a point to improve communications not only among the agriculture community, but also among the different federal agencies in the Upper Basin such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Mullis began a tradition of bringing people over to the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife office from other agencies so the Fish and Wildlife Service would be in a better position to become collaborators with sister agencies.  The arrangement was such the Klamath Falls FWO would pay a part or, in some cases, most of someone’s salary. 

“It was a good strategy and it gave people in these agencies a broader understanding of how other agencies work in the basin,” said Kent Russell, an employee of the U.S. Forest Service who worked out of the Klamath Falls FWO on sucker recovery issues.

In the last couple of years, the climate in the Upper Basin has been good thanks to the work of many different people from many different communities. Stakeholders have been engaged in productive negotiations to bring about long term resolutions to past conflicts.  Mullis and his team at the Klamath Falls FWO played a significant role in improving relationships with many of the local landowners.  People definitely have a greater understanding of the ESA and they have a strong appreciation for the hundreds of restoration projects that the Klamath Falls office helped to bring about.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to work with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.  Curt Mullis devoted his career to doing just that and has done it as well as anyone.   

Contact Info: Matt Baun, 530-842-5763, matt_baun@fws.gov