Summit County Commissioners, District 3: Karn Stiegelmeier speaks for trees, rivers
October 6, 2016
Editor's note: This is the final installment in a five-part series on candidates entered in two Summit County commissioner races.
Karn Stiegelmeier is in the midst of an ongoing family quarrel generations in the making.
No, it's not your typical feud originating over a forlorn Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, the Silverthorne resident and Democratic incumbent for District 3 county commissioner has been focusing her work in Summit on righting the wrongs of her ancestors. She hopes to continue those local efforts if voters elect her to a final term against Independent opponent Garry Horine this November.
"I have deep roots in Colorado going back to my great-great grandfather," she said. "He came out here and was a miner in Clear Creek. (We've been) dealing with our mining legacy that we still are living with and will pretty much forever, but we've made major headway. We're providing cleaner water, better habitat, and maybe someday fish will actually live in Peru Creek."
Stiegelmeier, 63, is a native of the state, spending her upbringing in the Denver suburbs before earning a degree in environmental conservation at the University of Colorado Boulder. While there, she helped establish the nation's first student-led recycling program at the school. She smirks, recalling her involvement in what she believes was the state's initial National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process on the Tenmile Canyon a few years after the federal environmental law was enacted.
"I had a special love for it because it was this meandering river," Stiegelmeier said. "We got a recpath out of it, but they just moved the river like that. Today, there's no way you'd get away with that. Now, I think it was good to have an interstate go through there, but they certainly could have done better river restoration and wetlands and all that, but that was barely being considered at that point in time."
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Those hours spent as a student volunteering to write letters speaking out against the project inspired her to chase a life of land protection and preservation. But first, following years of developing a skiing habit, she headed to Summit upon graduation to become an instructor at Copper Mountain. That became her home peak while staying at the family condo — one of the first built at the resort.
From there, Stiegelmeier embarked on a career with both the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, getting her start in 1977 as a firefighter on the forest at Oregon's Mount Hood. Not long into the tenure — one allowing women to battle blazes, as well as wear pants, for only the second year — she was teaching fire basics to the new recruits.
Stiegelmeier's role as somewhat of a pioneer for women isn't lost on her, but she also doesn't necessarily mark it as a distinguishing factor of her identity. She's pleased to be part of a community that's been more progressive — she is the seventh female to sit as commissioner in the county's 155-year history — than other parts of the state and country, lending that distinct viewpoint.
"I do think that it's important to have a women's perspective, just like any diversity," she said. "There are many, many counties (in Colorado) that have never, ever had a women commissioner. It's just an example of: we've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go."
Some years bouncing around to national parks, from the Everglades to Grand Teton, from Crater Lake to Yosemite, bolstered her passion for the environment before settling in the Bay Area to pursue graduate studies in education. She spent almost the next two decades teaching kids K-12 the virtues of biology, chemistry and physics, while also working with the Keystone Science School sister program, the Yosemite Institute.
"I had my kind of dream job," she said, "teaching science and doing all the outdoor education programs."
A return to Summit in 1994 was christened after she met her now-husband of 22 years, Frank Lilly. He founded and owns Copy Copy in Frisco, as well as locations in Avon, Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction. The couple just sent their only child, daughter Kaylin, off to follow in mom's footsteps at CU-Boulder after graduating from Summit High this past spring.
After briefly teaching and then leading the Alpine Charter School in Dillon that folded in 2000, Stiegelmeier spent eight years as a stay-at-home mother. During that time, helping at the print shop as needed, she also began early water work as director of the Friends of Lower Blue River and the volunteer chair of Blue River group of Sierra Club. That's since led to serving on a number of committees today, including the Colorado Basin Roundtable, Northwest Council of Government's Quantity and Quality council, and Summit's Water Quality board after first taking the commissioner seat in 2008.
"We talk about our beautiful mountains and trails," Stiegelmeier said, "but we need water for everything to thrive, and a lot of recreation really is on water, whether on the river or on river water that's in the form of snow. I see it as the lifeblood of our environment and our economy."
The conservation-based projects she's most proud of during her eight-year tenure as commissioner include: clean-up of the Pennsylvania Mine, Sts. John Creek and Tenmile River restorations, and the progressing refurbishment of the Swan River. During her third term, Stiegelmeier continued work on the housing crisis through building, maintaining childcare funding and options she didn't herself have in the county some 20 years back, and finding health care solutions — including addressing mental health deficiencies — through additional collaboration with state legislators and neighboring counties. As always, she said, it's about preserving a healthy balance of environmental and financial values, as well as the socio-economic needs of the community, that will keep Summit County on the right path — even if blood relatives, no matter how historical, stand in the way.
"Absolutely," Stiegelmeier said. "It's essential to maintain a real community of people who can live here, work here, play here and raise their children here. That's the bottom line of what we want to see in the future."
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