After almost 37 years, Kurt Olsen is retiring from his position as forestry manager at the Avon Park Air Force Range on Tuesday.
Olsen supervises forest management and outdoor recreation at the 106,000- acre military training facility in Highlands and Polk counties.
"The bombing range has been a great place to work," said Olsen, who was hired as a forestry technician by the U. S. Air Force on Feb. 28, 1976, right after he graduated from the University of Florida.
On Nov. 21, during his retirement party, Olsen was presented with a service medal and the Air Force Outstanding Civilian Career Award by Lt. Col Paul Neidhert as his wife of 32 years, Darla, watched with pride.
He also received a Guy Harvey print and a handmade picnic bench from coworkers and members of the Avon Park Air Force Recreation Volunteer program.
"I grew up with such a deep passion for the outdoors," said Olsen, who spent much of his youth exploring the lakes and woods around Winter Park.
The base's outdoor recreational program makes nearly 80,000 acres available to the public for hiking, fishing, camping, horseback riding and hunting.
There are seasons for archery, muzzle loaders and general guns, as well as small game and spring turkey seasons.
"I do quite a bit of hunting and fishing on the range," said the avid outdoorsman, as he proudly showed off a cooler full of deer meat he had just finished butchering.
"The pristine, natural areas out there are so unique," he added.
Olsen also helps with guided hunts done for the "Outdoor Dream Foundation," an organization that gives children with life-threatening illnesses the opportunity to fulfill their wish for an outdoor adventure.
"On Dec. 8, Dr. (Clifton) Crews will be bringing a kid down to go hunting. Doc brings kids out about twice a year," Olsen said. "A lot of it is done just to put a smile on these kids' faces."
In March, Olsen was thrilled when he was asked to guide conservationist and filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus and his team through the southeast corner of the base while they filmed a section of the documentary, "Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition."
The visually stunning motion picture explains the environmental importance of a 1,000-mile strip of public and private land and waterways that spans Florida from the Everglades to Okefenokee Swamp.
Olsen has always been enthusiastic about his work. He is a member of the Florida Forestry Association, the Florida Urban Forestry Council and the Society of American Foresters, and has been invited to speak at schools, conferences, the Kiwanis Club, the Rotary and events like the Highlands County Ag-Venture.
Held every October, Ag-Venture has given Olsen the opportunity to teach Highlands County third-graders about the importance of wildfires in maintaining a balanced, healthy environment for both plants and wildlife.
"For thousands of years, Mother Nature has been starting fires in Florida. The flora and fauna need that fire to survive," explained Olsen, who managed prescribed burns at the base.
Olsen's home workshop is filled with animal skulls, turkey feather pens and hog teeth necklaces that he makes to share during his interpretive talks.
Another of Olsen's duties as forestry manager is to oversee the planting, harvesting and sale of timber on the Avon Park base. Since 1991, the profitable sale of that timber has not only financed the forestry program, it has also provided a considerable amount of state entitlement funds to the host counties.
"Forty percent of our net receipts go back to the counties," said Olsen. He added that in 2011 alone, $87,881 was presented to commissioners in Polk and Highlands counties.
A part of the University of Florida Forest Stewardship program, Olsen has always worked with private landowners to develop and maintain management plans that ensure environmental integrity while increasing the economic value of their forestland.
After retirement, he will be operating his own consulting service, "Florida Forestry and Environmental Services," offering help with timber management, environmental and wetland permitting, inventories, listed species surveys, management plans, wildlife management and gopher tortoise relocation.
"I'll also be signing up as a volunteer at the range. I'll help with the youth gator hunts and things of that nature," said Olsen. With a smile he added, "This has been a very unique and extraordinary job."