There are 3,065,800 civilian jobs in the federal service, including some whose prestige and perks make them the plums of public life. But Jim Hackett may have the best federal job of all.

It's quarter past eight on a crisp winter morning, and Hackett, like federal workers everywhere, is dressed for the job and about to start his ride to work. Unlike most bureaucrats setting off for the office, though, Hackett is wearing a shiny pair of Rossignol Equipe S3G skis, and he's traveling to the job site aboard the Vista Bahn chairlift here at the base of Vail Mountain.

Hackett, a GS-9 with seven years' government service, will spend his work day cruising the slopes and riding the lifts of this famous ski resort. Nice work if you can get it, but it's all part of the job description for one of the bureaucracy's more exotic specialities: the U.S. Forest Service snow ranger.

As a designated snow ranger for the White River National Forest, a spectacularly scenic two-million-acre chunk of Colorado mountains at the crest of the Continental Divide, Hackett spends two or three work days each week schussing the slopes at Vail and another nearby resort, Beaver Creek.

"It's basically a monitoring job," he says, patting the thick notebook in the pocket of his forest-green government-issue ski parka. "I'm always looking, noticing, putting things in my notebook, keeping track of how the [ski area] operator is complying with the management plan, with our regulations."

Why does the federal government regulate ski resorts? The answer lies in the history and geography of the western United States.

Throughout the 19th century, the nation did its best to give away much of its vast land holdings in the West: military veterans, railroads, homesteaders and others got millions of acres. But these claimants took mainly flat land in the valleys and basins; the high mountain country, the land nobody wanted, remained a federal preserve.

As a result, nearly all the prime skiing terrain west of the Mississippi is owned by the people of the United States. From New Mexico to Alaska, the major ski areas -- Aspen to Alyeska, Taos to Telluride -- are in national forests. (In the East, most skiing is on state or private land.)

The arrangement here at Vail is typical. The lodge area at the base of the mountain is a narrow strip of private land, owned mainly by the resort operator, Vail Associates Inc. The ski runs sprawl over 5,000 acres of national forest on which Vail has a "ski area operating permit."

Vail pays the Forest Service an annual permit fee, the amount determined by a formula that is abstruse even by the government's arcane standards. "Let's see," Hackett says. "It takes in the number of skiers, the permit acreage, the lineal footage of lift lines -- they got everything but the kitchen sink in there."

However it works, the formula brought the government something over $500,000 last year.

In addition to this payment, Vail Associates agrees in its contract with the government to abide by an extensive list of rules and guidelines dealing with skier safety, plant and animal life, water and soil concerns, and forest aesthetics. The person who makes sure the resort lives up to all these regulations is Uncle Sam's bureaucrat-on-boards -- the snow ranger.

Good skiing is a prerequisite for this federal job, and 35-year-old Jim Hackett is a marvelous skier, at once aggressive and graceful. He mastered the sport during three winters as a ski patrolman at Alyeska Resort in Alaska -- in Chugach National Forest -- and then signed on as snow ranger at Chugach. He's had the Vail/Beaver Creek ranger job for three years.

"A lot of people say to me, 'Where does a snow ranger go in the summer?' " Hackett says. "The answer is, I'm right here on the ski slopes. That's when they're cutting trees and moving earth and reshaping the runs. Well, it's important that the Forest Service is here to watch out for vegetation management, for erosion problems, for wildlife impacts."

And the Forest Service is also here, of course, throughout the winter, when Hackett -- joined occasionally by his boss, District Ranger Dave Stark -- cruises swiftly over the ski runs, keeping an eye out for a fallen tree, a potential avalanche buildup, even overcrowding in the mid-slope restaurants.

Hackett is extremely serious about the work -- but he's also willing to admit that he has landed in an occupational catbird seat.

"My dad was a park ranger, so I grew up with a love for the outdoors and a real feeling for public land," Hackett says. "And I've been skiing all my life. So this is the kind of job I've always wanted."