The Smokey Bear hats were a nice touch. The cute plastic hats were modest but appropriate decorations on the long rows of tables set up in the Winthrop Barn for a Saturday evening gathering to sort of roast, sort of say goodbye to, and mostly appreciate the contributions that retiring Methow District Ranger Mike Liu has made to the community in his nine-year tenure.
The roasting — by friends, co-workers and family — was gentle, and featured many amusing stories about Liu, his leadership style and his personality (he is notoriously tight with money, he drives rattletrap clunkers, he wore his ranger uniform all the time because he doesn’t spend much on other clothes, he out-strides almost everyone else on hikes).
Liu endured it with grace and the dry wit he is also known for. “This is way better than a funeral,” Liu said when he welcomed the guests.
It was a touching coda to Liu’s U.S. Forest Service career, and there were lovely parting gifts, but it wasn’t quite a send-off. Liu intends to stay in the Methow Valley, so you can expect to encounter him where he was always likely to be found: out on the trails, at the lakesides, helping out on community projects.
Also on display were a dark green Forest Service coat decorated with name badges and other mementoes of Liu’s career, and an illustrated United States map that traced his many crisscrossing moves across the country before he settled in the Methow.
Everyone who spoke had their own tales to tell about their relationship with Liu — as a boss, a colleague, a hiking partner, a father — and it was often as emotional as it was charming.
Also, the food was great — roasted pig by the Whites, and tables laden with potluck contributions. Apparently, there was also dancing later on, but that’s not something I need other people to see me doing, so I made a discreet exit.
The Forest Service touches Methow Valley lives in many ways, some of them tangentially. For me, one was the big timber sale at the far end of and beyond Cub Creek Road. I live at the bottom of Cub Creek Road, right at its intersection with West Chewuch Road.
At the height of that harvest, big logging trucks heavily loaded with cut trees would come thundering down Cub Creek Road in the morning — always in the morning, often quite early — with brakes squealing in preparation for their roll through the intersection (I have never, ever seen one stop). And every time I heard one coming, I was awake and aware that if the truck and its load missed the curve just above my cabin, the whole rig would crash right over the top of me and my little house. Still, I knew why the sale was necessary.
I have a few things to say about Mike Liu as well. However, Saturday night didn’t seem the right time and place. But here we are in my column, where my thoughts are more appropriate.
I’ve spent most of my career working for much larger papers and magazines in big metropolitan markets. It’s not uncommon for the media toilers in those markets to have complicated relationships with sources in positions of power and influence. Political and organizational leaders may be wary and mistrustful of reporters and editors, who in turn may be suspicious of what the power players are trying to hide from, or sell to, the public.
In my time here, Mike Liu has always been approachable, responsive and patient with our questions about Forest Service activities and issues in the valley. He has also been comfortable with his knowledgeable subordinates talking to us, demonstrating confidence in their expertise and a willingness to delegate. There are lots of bosses who hog the limelight; Liu was not one of them. Nor did he hide from it when it was his job to be the face and voice of the Forest Service.
There were times when Liu’s own supervisors farther up the management food chain cautioned him not to deal directly with reporters on certain issues. Even then, he found ways to communicate or help us find out what we wanted to know. He understood, as we at the News do, that we are all serving the same constituency.
Given the complicated environmental issues of the American west, it’s not uncommon to find communities that are at odds with federal agencies including the Forest Service. I think that hasn’t happened here because, under Liu’s leadership, the Forest Service was never at odds with its community.