Steven Chihak
Steven Chihak
Steven Chihak may not be grizzly, but he had mountain dreams.

"I had the childhood dreams of living the 'mountain man' life," said Chihak, Spring Valley's new Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) conservation officer. He grew up on a farm about six miles east of Elma, Iowa.

"I've always been active in the outdoors," said Chihak. "From the time I was very young, my father and grandfather always took my brothers and I fishing. That's where it began for me. Whether it was hunting, fishing, or trapping, I was always finding enjoyment being outdoors. I am fortunate to have a family that encouraged me to pursue those activities, while also appreciating and respecting the natural resources we have."

He chose to become a conservation officer because "very simply, I want to make a difference. Minnesota is one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world. We have access to the largest Great Lake, major river systems, thousands of lakes, prairies, grasslands, deciduous forests, coniferous forests, and an incredible array of plant and wildlife species, all of which are under assault like never before. From the introduction of invasive species to the ever-increasing loss of critical habitat, we face an important time in our history. I am committed to the mission of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 'To work with citizens to conserve and manage the state's natural resources, to provide outdoor recreation opportunities, and to provide for commercial uses of natural resources in a way that creates a sustainable quality of life'."

Chihak graduated from Vermilion Community College in Ely, Minn., in May 2007 with an associate's degree in wildland and wildlife law enforcement and a seasonal park law enforcement ranger certification. He worked three seasons as a law enforcement park ranger for the National Park Service at Isle Royale National Park. Prior to that, he worked as an emergency medical technician in Ely. An Army veteran, he also worked 14 years for Hewlett-Packard in Chicago.

His training with the DNR is ongoing. As a licensed police officer in the state of Minnesota, he is required to maintain his license through approximately 50 hours of continuing education. The MNDNR Division of Enforcement provides this training, which consists of firearms training, defensive tactics and use of force, boating, snowmobile, ATV, legal updates, natural resources, CPR and first aid.

"Old skills are honed and new skills are developed. It's an ongoing process, and it never stops," he explained. "We work alone, and that is an inherently dangerous situation. We receive some of the most advanced and progressive training in the country."

Spring Valley first choice

When the DNR sent new officers into the field, they were given their choice of where they wanted to locate to begin their missions. Spring Valley was his first choice.

"For me, this is home," he related. "The people in this area are cut from a special type of cloth, where community still means something. You know your neighbors and your neighbors know you. It's funny to think about this, but my first day on the job, I was driving out on a gravel road northeast of Spring Valley. Everyone I passed gave that little wave 'hello' over the steering wheel. It's as unique as a fingerprint. I knew I had made the right choice."

His major responsibilities include law enforcement, public safety, and education in the following areas: hunting and fishing seasons, methods of taking animals and fish, bag and possession limits, public safety - especially where it concerns alcohol use while hunting or operating recreational vehicles and watercraft, commercial use and possession of natural resources and products, the protection of the state's land, air, and water, and youth and adult safety training and hunter education classes.

Challenges he faces "remain to be seen. This station has been vacant for some time. It will take some time to identify problem areas that need attention. My initial goal is to become part of this community and begin building that trust that is necessary to foster a good working relationship." He continued, "You never know what you'll encounter on any given day. One day you may be out on the river in a canoe checking fishermen, the next day you could be on an ATV responding to a TIP call. You have to be flexible with your time and decisive in your actions."

Given that the area has not had a conservation officer, it gives Chihak a chance to establish himself without numerous obstacles. "I think I have a fresh start, to make my own way. I hope to provide an immediate impact that the people in this area can see and appreciate, and hopefully dispel any misconceptions people may have about the DNR. The goal is very simply to preserve, protect, and provide opportunity for people to enjoy our natural resources."

He anticipates working with the people of the Spring Valley and its rural corners. "I like the people, the feeling of community, and the recreational opportunities. In general, I believe the people in this area are appreciative of the natural resources we have. In most farming communities, you learn early on never to take anything for granted - not the weather, not corn or bean prices, not even the cost of a gallon of milk. Unfortunately, some people forget that, and I hope to serve as an advocate for those natural resources that might be exploited."

He added, "I serve the people of Minnesota. I hope to provide answers to their questions and solutions for their concerns. We've all felt that frustration of seeing something we know is wrong, but not having anyone to turn to and see it addressed or corrected. I want the people in this area to know that I will work extremely hard to earn their trust and will ensure they have someone to contact if they see our natural resources being abused."

Chihak reminded outdoor enthusiasts that "small acts can have lasting effects. Someone forgetting to remove the drain plug from their boat or aquatic vegetation from their boat trailer can introduce an invasive species to an otherwise un-infested body of water. On the flip side, someone becomes a volunteer and teaches safety classes, organizes a lake or stream clean-up day, practices catch and release, or introduces a young person to a new outdoor activity. Small acts can have lasting effects."

Chihak enjoys "a variety of hobbies" when he's not at work. "Cross-country skiing has become a passion of mine over the past several years, so you might possibly see me out next winter laying down a track or two. I still hunt and fish. I plan on getting back into trapping and waterfowl hunting, activities I hadn't had much opportunity to enjoy in past years. I couldn't possibly list all the things I like to do. I will say, I'm not one to sit around on my days off."