SALT LAKE CITY — Mike Styler is a farm boy and a diplomat, a manager and coalition builder whose quiet humility is a common thread in all he does.
"That soft-spoken demeanor is what lured many people to work for him, to work with him over the years," said Sterling Brown, vice president of public policy for the Utah Farm Bureau.
"He is humble, and that endeared folks to work for him, and with him for a common cause."
Styler retired Friday as executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources after more than 14 years at the helm of an agency with 1,300-plus employees and seven divisions that include wildlife, water rights, state parks, forestry and fire, oil, gas and mining, and the geological survey.
He leaves as the longest-serving director in a post he said he never wanted, but now concedes if he could envision a dream job, this would have been it.
"We deal with all the issues that people are really passionate about. Even if they are angry, they're angry because they're passionate," said Styler, 66.
Pick the fight.
Over the years, Styler's mucked through such flashpoints as wolves, the Lake Powell Pipeline, the greater sage grouse, wild horses, the Bear Lake Development, wildfire management, groundwater pumping in the Snake Valley, the Utah prairie dog and one of the most contentious and complicated brawls — management of water resources in the nation's second-driest state.
Styler, who grew up on land that his grandfather established as a farm in 1907 in a little patch of ground called Oasis, Millard County — population about 100 — was a schoolteacher, county commissioner for eight years and Utah lawmaker for 12 years.
It was while he was in the Utah Legislature that then-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. approached Styler, asking if he would serve as head of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
Styler told him no because he didn't want to trade in his life on the farm for life in Utah's capital city.
Time passed and Huntsman asked Styler a second time to take the position. Styler refused again.
"I loved teaching school. I enjoyed being in the Legislature. I just was very comfortable with that. It allowed me to have summers off so I could farm, and I thought I was in the perfect situation," he said.
The third time, Huntsman didn't ask Styler, but told the lawmaker he was taking the position.
"When he just insisted, I said, 'Yes sir," Styler recalled. "You don't turn down a forceful leader like Gov. Huntsman. … I told my wife, 'I think we are going to take this job.'"
Efforts to interview Huntsman — now U.S. ambassador to Russia — were not successful but he did praise Styler in a voice mail message.
"Mike is one of my favorite human beings and someone who is probably the best Department of Natural Resources directors in recent history," he said.
"Mike deserves all the credit in the world for what he has done on land and water, two of the most important issues the state faces, certainly in its past, and faces going forward."
Under his watch, the department launched the Watershed Restoration Initiative, a collaborative effort with multiple partners, including federal agencies that since 2006 restored 1.6 million acres through nearly 2,000 projects.
One of those partners is the Bureau of Land Management, whose Utah director Ed Roberson praised Styler's vision on resource management.
"He is a problem-solver who brings diverse groups together to develop practical solutions to complex natural resource issues," Roberson said. "A shining example of this is Utah’s watershed restoration initiative. Mike has led this initiative from infancy to a premier program that is highly respected by states across the West.
Styler's parks division also weathered a 79 percent cut in general fund appropriations over a five-year period that could have led to closures of some of the 44 parks or other crippling action.
Instead, he and then-state parks Director Fred Hayes regrouped and developed a business plan to make the parks self-sustaining and succeeded in a few short years.
"Fred took that challenge and parlayed into changing the culture at state parks," Styler said. "Fred caught the vision."
Styler, when he spoke of Hayes, paused for a moment, tearing up.
The popular, affable parks director died suddenly March 2, 2018, at his home. Starvation State Park was renamed in his honor this year.
Styler's ascent to head caretaker of the state's natural resources meant delegating most of his farming responsibilities to family members and purchasing a condominium to spend most of his time in Salt Lake City with his wife, LuAnn.
Brown noted that leaving farming, even if a person knows it is temporary, is often tough.
"He (Styler) comes from agriculture as a boy and as an adult. His boots are dirty. He understands the mentality of a rancher and farmer, yet he is a polished diplomat," Brown said.
It is Styler's ability to bring people together and forge solutions on tough issues that a diversity of people he's worked with over the years say will be his legacy.
When he began leading the agency, its seven divisions operated quite independently and at times at odds with each other, he said.
It was Styler's task to break up the tribalism and set them on the course of commonality.
He also noticed problems within the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining that he knew needed correcting, so he asked for a legislative performance audit, stunning that office because few bureaucrats ask for such scrutiny.
Styler was publicly called out by the Utah Rivers Council and is repeatedly accused of being a water lobbyist for his support of two controversial water development projects mandated by the Utah Legislature — the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear Lake Development project.
Both multimillion-dollar projects are state-sponsored water infrastructure developments eyeing future water needs.
His agency's divisions were also soundly criticized for water resource management, particularly how they tracked water reporting from individual water companies. Reforms and stronger reporting requirements have since been implemented.
Styler said he knew parts of the system lacked sophistication and needed better oversight, with some tooth in the regulations to force better reporting. And since he's been at natural resources, there's been 90 fixes to Utah's water laws, and the department is taking on the massive task of adjudicating water rights — figuring out who owns what water where and if it is being used.
It is in this complicated arena of water that people who know Styler say he's made the most impact — an impact that is akin to a tsunami when it comes to changing Utah water law.
During the 2018 summer interim, he oversaw a task force and four subcommittees of dozens of policymakers, attorneys, water managers, state division leaders, advocates and others trying to arrive on compromise on surplus water contracts, a city's control of water outside its boundaries, private property rights as they relate to water and amending a 127-year-old water law.
"It was like the Hatfields and McCoys," Styler said, referencing the famous feuding family from the 1800s and some of disagreements among subcommittee members.
Paulina Flint, mayor of the White City metro township and chairwoman of the White City Improvement District, was on one of those committees.
"He tried very hard to bring a win for all the water users," she said.
In particular, she praised Styler and Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, for successfully eking out a compromise on the requirement that cities declare their service area and provide maps.
"They accomplished what we have been trying to do for 28 years in one year's time," she said. "That will be a legacy way into the future."
Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City's Department of Public Utilities, has worked closely with Styler over the years.
Salt Lake City, she added, was targeted by some of the 2018 Legislature measures due to its management of its watershed and water supply, which some critics say is excessive.
"Mike came in pretty open-minded," she said, adding even though there may have been areas of disagreement, conversations continued.
"Because of his civility it never escalated and we were able to work our way through it," she said. "I have been impressed with his civility and integrity."
Ted Wilson, former Salt Lake City mayor and former environmental adviser to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, also had areas of disagreement with Styler.
Wilson says he's not a "pipeline" guy, but he praised him for having a "workable core."
The two back go back more than 30 years to the late 1980s when Wilson was director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics and Styler was a young schoolteacher taking a refresher course on constitutional government.
A bunch of the teachers and Wilson went to the Navajo reservation on a field trip, but Wilson warned them all to be careful because of an outbreak of hantavirus, which can cause life-threatening breathing problems.
Wilson had to leave for a while and when he returned he was stunned.
"Mike had these teachers sweeping out a dusty garage because he felt sorry for this woman. He has this tender disposition and people appreciate that in him. And no one got the virus."1 comment on this story
Wilson, too, lauded Styler for his work on water law reform over 2018.
"The guy is a real able guy when it comes to solving difficulties, so I give Mike an A and I think I even gave Mike an A in the class, even though he almost killed us with the hantavirus."
On Friday, Styler was cleaning out his desk, preparing to close out a long and varied government career.
He was wistful to leave the job he never wanted.
"I have been sad for a month," he said. "But this summer I will be farming."