Being the edited transcript of an interview by
Issued as an extracanonical book of
Western Turf Wars: The Politics of Public Lands Ranching
1. Cooper’s early life, formal education, and career
2. Livestock grazing on the Inyo National Forest during Cooper’s tenure (1980–87)
3. Structural changes to the Forest Service during the Reagan administration
4. Threatened and endangered species litigation in the Southwest Region (1987–98)
5. Forest Service reluctance to change management practices in response to litigation
Cooper’s early life, formal education, and career
I grew up in a small
town, slightly more than nine hundred people. My parents acquired a lake cottage when I was five. So until I left Michigan for
I enjoyed the pleasures of living at a lake. I was interested in the
Copyright © Mike Hudak 2008–, All Rights Reserved
outdoors because of that experience. I liked to fish. Liked to hunt and walk in the woods. I remember saying to my dad, “Dad, I’d like to see what a virgin pine forest looks like.” And, although I wasn’t very old, I knew what a
was. At least I knew it’s one that hadn’t been cut, and I figured that it would have a lot of tall trees.
My dad told me there was no place in Michigan where you could find a virgin forest. Well, Michigan has an upper peninsula and a lower peninsula, and I said to myself, being twelve years old or thereabouts, “Surely there’s someplace in Michigan where there’s a forest of big trees.”
But we did not have big trees where I lived. If I saw a hundred-foot-tall white pine, for example, that was really big, and there might only be one in the whole region. Most of the trees were very small because the timber industry, at the beginning of the 20th century and later, had cut all the larger trees in Michigan from head to toe. I can remember driving through vast areas of countryside where for miles and miles all you saw were stumps of the trees that had been cut. And all the stumps were maybe thirty, forty years old when I saw them in the 1940s. The stumps were quite large—two, three, four feet in diameter. And I thought, “How interesting those forests must have been.” However, I always wanted to see the live trees. Not just all these thousands of acres of stumps.
In 1963, when I came out West for a summer job, I actually got to see some virgin forest with big trees just like there once were in Michigan. So I did get my desire fulfilled. That’s part of my history as to why I have certain sensitivities to resource management, and to what happens when riparian habitat is destroyed or damaged.
My decision to go into fisheries management actually resulted from my greater enjoyment of hunting. I felt that if I went into fisheries I’d eventually “burn out.” And I thought, that if I was going to burn out, I’d rather do so in fisheries than in hunting. And that actually came to pass. I still like to hunt more than I like to fish.
In 1966 I took my first permanent job in resources with the Montana Fish and Game Department.1
I worked as a fisheries research project biologist at
Fort Peck Reservoir
for four years—a paradise from my point of view. It was a large reservoir of 249,000 acres, I believe. Very remote at that time. And with tremendous big game and bird hunting possibilities in the area.
From there I took a position as a regional fisheries biologist with the Forest Service in 1970 at the regional office in Missoula, Montana. Working out of there I visited and advised districts throughout the
which at that time included eastern Washington, northern Idaho, Montana, and some of the grasslands in the Dakotas. I advised districts as to what impact their activities may have on the fisheries habitat and subsequently on fish.
The habitats were the concern of the Forest Service, and the fish were really the concern of the state game and fish departments. We had to work with them, because you really can’t separate the fish from the habitat. But there were a lot of “states rights.” So working with the states was very important from the standpoint of getting the proper management at the forest level.
Eventually, when we were able to work together more closely we were less impeded by a dichotomy of responsibility. It still existed on paper, but we were able to work it out so that we could avoid turf battles. Fish and Game biologists could talk about habitat management, and I could talk about fish requirements with ease. It worked out pretty well that way.
In 1980 I took a position as a staff officer on the
Inyo National Forest
in California where my responsibilities included watershed, wildlife, fish, range and a couple other smaller resources. My work now became mostly programmatic. I dealt more with budgets, and how to distribute and ask for them so that the districts could do on-the-ground work.
In 1987 I became a regional fisheries biologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I remained until January of 1998 when I retired. This position involved working with all the forests in the region on a consultation basis. I did a lot of program planning, reviewing of plans, environmental analyses, and those sort of things. Plus, I worked on the regional budget—asking for money, explaining how we were going to spend it, and whether or not we had spent it properly.
Livestock grazing on the Inyo National Forest during Cooper’s tenure (1980–87)
My history in range management actually began in 1970, because some of the activities we dealt with in the
Northern Region (R1)
were with livestock, not just timber. And, at that time, there were not a lot of biologists in the federal government.
In R1 of the Forest Service, the region administered out of
I was the third fisheries biologist. And, I think, in the Forest Service overall, I was the twenty-seventh fisheries biologist to have been hired since the Forest Service was established. We did not have critical mass. There were a lot of Forest Service people (foresters and wildlife biologists) who understood there were adverse impacts from livestock grazing on riparian areas. The fisheries biologists, though, and the hydrologists seemed to be much more aware of this because that’s where we worked. We worked in the riparian habitats—in the streams primarily.
I also was aware of the situation throughout the United States so far as livestock grazing was concerned, because, not only did I work on those forests in range management, but I also traveled throughout much of the West and even in some parts of the East to look at and discuss range management as it relates to fisheries habitat.
Inyo National Forest
had its share of livestock grazing. We had, as I recall, in the neighborhood of 12,000 or so cow-calf pairs and 25,000 sheep on sixty-seven allotments. A lot of the Inyo National Forest is wilderness or roadless and so some areas weren’t hit very hard by livestock. We also had a good number of permittees who realized that livestock management and riparian habitat aren’t
necessarily compatible, particularly if one looks at it just from the viewpoint of raising livestock.
Another thing about the Inyo National Forest—it was a little bit ahead of many other areas from the viewpoint of the public. I mean, the public recreated there in large numbers. And a lot of them did not like livestock in the riparian areas. They may not have recognized the damage caused by the livestock; they just didn’t like stepping in cow pies. And they didn’t like cows in their campgrounds either. So the Inyo National Forest was a great place to work in range management because it was somewhat progressive with cooperative permittees. But yet it had a large number of problems as most forests did.
The main problem with mature cattle was that when they’d get into the
they would like to spend most of their time there. They’d go off and maybe chew some grasses, then come back and kind of camp out. But the first thing they’d do is eat everything around the riparian area and trample the stream bank. That was a major problem since it often had negative impacts on riparian dependent resources—soils, water quality, and stream stability.
There are various ways of mitigating negative impacts—fencing out riparian areas; having somebody move the cattle quite often; trying different grazing systems. The cows would have to be moved at a certain time, and, of course, it was up to the rancher to move them. It was up to the Forest Service to check, but most of the time the cattle were moved.
If an area was overgrazed, and there were riparian areas that were hit too hard, it was a matter of working with the rancher, and trying to lighten the load on the riparian area. While I was there I actually saw areas that were improving because a rancher was changing the distribution, and the timing, and the cattle numbers, and even the grazing system.
I don’t recall having any really obstinate permittees. Basically, once you had an understanding and you got rid of some of the turf concerns and so forth, you could work with a lot of them. That’s not always the case everywhere. But the Inyo, I thought, was fairly good.
No lawsuits over management of livestock grazing on the Inyo National Forest
During my time on the Inyo National Forest we didn’t have lawsuits concerning grazing. And I don’t know if they have them now or not.3 But from 1980 to ’87 we didn’t have any. What early complaints we did have were primarily public concerns and responses to stepping into cow pies at the campgrounds and that sort of thing.
The Inyo National Forest, I believe, had something like eighty-seven destination campgrounds where people camped overnight. And even there, that in itself is a conflict, because many of those campgrounds were in riparian areas. However, the Inyo National Forest had an active program of moving campgrounds out of them.
So the Inyo National Forest, at that time, was quite aware of impacts on riparian. And the public was becoming quite concerned about these impacts. Initially, most of the public was concerned from the standpoint of what the cattle impacts would do to big game wildlife, and camping esthetics (convenience and smell). The concern grew more slowly about what the cattle were doing to the resources, such as causing erosion, and causing the loss of fish spawning and rearing habitat.
We didn’t necessarily give the cattlemen big headaches, because most of the time they could work with us. But there were occasions where they probably didn’t like it. And probably they were getting squeezed over time. They probably realized this, but the squeezing was increasingly coming from public pressure on the Forest Service to manage riparian resources for riparian dependent resources and for water quality.
Some of the ranchers, especially those that are marginal, can only be squeezed so much. Then they’ll go out of business, or they’ll have to alter their ranching objectives, or even sell their ranch.
Giving up a permit itself became an issue, because there were ranchers who wouldn’t have minded selling out if their permit had been worth something. But the structure of the Forest Service regulations and politics at that time were such that if a rancher wanted to rid himself of his permit, we were forced to issue a permit to somebody else for the same piece of property even though we knew that the area would be better off without cattle.
I felt that if ranchers could be compensated for their permits it would give us more flexibility.4 And if you have flexibility in your management that means you also have more options. And sometimes options can solve problems. Sometimes even to a win-win, instead of butting heads, lawsuits, and that sort of thing, which takes up everybody’s time.
Structural changes to the Forest Service during the Reagan administration
Budgets have always been a problem in the Forest Service. Nobody ever has enough money. So you want to make it go as far as you can, and do the best you can with the money you get.
The Reagan administration,5 like many administrations, had run on the premise that they would reduce the size of the federal government and give the money back to the taxpayer. That seems to be a favorite way to get votes and be elected. I don’t know if, in fact, that actually happened during the Reagan administration from the standpoint of actually cutting funds. But it had an impact
on not getting increases to meet the continued demands on resources that are being more and more used by the American public.6
About the same time, the Reagan administration was also telling us that we needed a 40 percent increase in the number of animal unit months of grazing in the Forest Service. Forty percent can be regarded as applying across the whole Forest Service. But not every forest has a grazing program. And some forests are more capable than others of producing forage. Having a 40 percent increase, along with a concerned public that’s catching onto the problems associated with management of livestock on the national forests are sort of incompatible.
At the same time we were suppose to increase the number of units of livestock grazing, we also had a reduction of approximately 50 percent in the number of range conservationists and biologists on the Inyo National Forest, in part because of budget cutting goals being encouraged by the Reagan administration and Congress.
I don’t remember if we accomplished the 40 percent increase. I suspect we didn’t, because you just don’t turn on the faucet and say you’re going to graze 40 percent more. If somebody tries that, a few years hence you’re not going to be grazing much at all, because the cattle and wildlife will be eating everything up, and less will grow back. That’s an oversimplification. But declaring to do something doesn’t mean you’re going to do it. Yet it does set the tone for what you’re supposed to be doing, where you’re supposed to be putting your energy, and where you’re supposed to be putting your planning.
At that same time we also had another situation arise—workforce diversity. When I joined the Forest Service in 1970 we were primarily a white male “can do” organization. Then in the ’80s, throughout the Forest Service, workforce diversity became an issue. Well, you don’t automatically have workforce diversity either. That takes funding. So therefore you’ve got to take what funding you do get and start putting it into personnel, management type activities—sensitivity training—so that people can be aware of workforce diversity, and how you should behave, or shouldn’t behave.
You need to have people developing programs, doing training sessions and so forth. And all this takes money besides taking the time of the workforce. In the end, it impacts everybody who works for the Forest Service. And, initially, this coupled with the budget cuts during the Reagan administration, created low morale in the workforce. I saw this low morale in the four white males I supervised. They were highly motivated and had a strong desire for getting things done on the ground. They tried to keep up, but were stressed as budgets were cut and resource staff reduced.
The low morale wasn’t limited to white males. Everyone was hurting as the agency changed from a resource management atmosphere into that of a socialized, political entity.
At that time I felt that things weren’t going quite so well in the government and in the Forest Service. And on top of that we started getting into the computer age. Computers also cost money. It’s not like some school systems where somebody donates them. The government pays for them. And that too, even if we received a special budgetary item in Congress, still wouldn’t be enough to get everything we wanted.
Then, on top of that, we needed people to maintain the computers. Programs have to be set up on how to maintain them. They have to be secured, for example. And we all know about computer security today. Well, we had to do those things back then too. And that also took money. And that took people again, because we were reducing our workforce in theory, but were adding in two other areas. As a result, our resource specialists (male and female) continued to be squeezed and their workforce reduced.
So from where will the additional people come? They are not coming from personnel management, because we will need more of them to meet goals of workforce diversity. They are going to come from our clerical people, from our resource people, our engineering people. And the engineers are concerned with the resource management, because they’re the ones that do a lot of the work. Consequently, it was a large area of concern in that we were losing people to these other areas because of changed emphasis within the federal government. And as we were taking part in that changed emphasis, it reduced the amount of time we were out in the field in resource management. And this is continuing today.
In the era of the ’70s when I started, we had many, many people working out in the forest—people working at the district level who checked and worked with the various resources. People could see solutions because they worked with things that either worked or didn’t work.
As we moved into these other priority areas—the workforce diversity and social type area—the people spent less time on the ground. And this in itself started compounding the problem because solutions were no longer as easily seen.
Then you start throwing in the litigations from environmental organizations, which started coming in the ’80s with the spotted owl.7 And they’ve moved now into the livestock arena. That also takes people off the ground, which actually causes some people to become less knowledgeable, and therefore less able to handle the litigation because they haven’t had the experience or the time in the field to see what really works or doesn’t work.
It became quite demoralizing to many people. And in the meantime, management’s focus also continued on the “hot button” items, such as a safe work environment, discrimination, political correctness, and workforce diversity. Hopefully, some of this will subside over time. However, in the meantime, issues were continuing as far as livestock management was concerned.
There are lots of solutions to livestock management. Livestock don’t have to all be taken off the range, although some people advocate that. It probably would be easier if there were no livestock at all. That’s one area we wouldn’t have to deal with. But I’m sure we’d have to deal with something else that would take its place such as increased fire management.
Some people say wildfire, for example, is less in some areas because of livestock grazing. And then we turn right around and say, maybe in an adjacent area, that livestock grazing set the stage for wildfire.8 So the resource issues will still be complex.
You can graze livestock and you will hardly know they’re there. Sometimes you can graze a different class of livestock. You can graze yearlings, for example. They run all over the place. They aren’t quite so apt to camp out in a riparian area as will a mother cow and her calf.
You can move the livestock often.
You can change length of season, and on-and-off dates.
You can offer more pasture rest. However, it still may be necessary to initially reduce livestock numbers on many allotments.
So there are lots of different strategies, but again that takes people who are knowledgeable, who know these strategies. They have to know where they will work and where they won’t work. You can’t rely on a politician to just come in and say, “Increase your number of AUMs by 40 percent.” Or, “Fix the forest fire situation by cutting down trees.” Good management really doesn’t work that way, but that’s the way politicians work.
And so, if you don’t have the people around who understand these things, or who have the experience to counter political pressure diplomatically in a knowledgeable way, where will you end up? You’re going to end up in a political morass that makes it difficult for everybody, and makes it uncomfortable to work in a resource agency such as the Forest Service unless your values have to do with something other than resources.
Threatened and endangered species litigation in the Southwest Region (1987–98)
Arizona and New Mexico are a hotbed for threatened and endangered species. All regions have them. But in the Southwest we have many types of habitat. We have Sonoran Desert, and sub-alpine forest, and everything in between. And we have areas with virtually no water at all, other than a few natural springs and ephemeral streams.
So threatened and endangered species really became the dominant theme from a resource management standpoint in the ’90s. And it was brought out mainly because of litigation. People who were knowledgeable, who had the passion and the interest, became sufficiently organized to bring suit against the Forest Service and against the Fish and Wildlife Service over management of these animals and their habitats on federal lands.9 And so we were named in quite a few suits—ones involving the willow flycatcher,10 for example, and others involving fishes—Gila trout11 would be one.
There were also dozens of plants that were listed as sensitive, some as threatened, maybe even endangered. And they were all coming to the forefront in the litigative process. Eventually, some of these lawsuits were more like a “blanket litigation” that forced us to come up with all the endangered and threatened species that were in the area. Many times we didn’t even know if they were in there. So we had to do surveys. And hire people to do the surveys. That in itself would slow the process. But that was part of the routine, because if you’re out there doing resource management, you should know what you’re impacting. And in a lot of cases, because we had limited personnel, we didn’t know. So we had to contract out to determine what was there. That part was good.
But the part that wasn’t so good was that in association with this litigation, we had Freedom of Information Act requests—FOIAs they’re called. And these FOIAs demand that you provide the requestor, within a certain time frame (like ten days), the material that they want, or you need to explain why you can’t provide it.
In the meantime, you’re looking for data, you’re looking for information, you’re looking for letters. You’ve got to go through the files. And the people doing that primarily are going to be your foresters, biologists, hydrologists, and soil scientists. But your wildlife biologists are the ones that are doing much of it. And so that means they aren’t in the field either. They’re behind a desk or going through files trying to find what information is available. And some of these documents might go back many years—even before the biologist was in the region, let alone on that particular forest from which the information is being asked.
Forest Service reluctance to change management practices in response to litigation
In New Mexico there’s a cultural tradition of public use of the public lands. So when somebody says we’re going to change your tradition of use, they’re going to defend their turf. The Forest Service is also going to defend its turf—what it views as its professionalism and a history of commodity management. If somebody starts telling the managers that they’re cutting too many trees or grazing too many cows and that they’re going to sue them, the first response is going to be, “Oh, you’re going to sue me? I’m going to put up my defenses and defend my actions.”
I would say that when you’re being sued by somebody, though, that means they felt they were up against the wall and they had no other choice. And that was probably the motivation for many lawsuits that we had from the environmental community. Action speaks louder than words and the Forest Service might respond to action more than words.
The agency basically was “circling the wagons” instead of opening up the wagons and having a pow wow (or whatever you want to call it). Maybe it would have been better if we had tried to talk with the people who were litigating us. But then, by the same token, we were sometimes told by the commodity side, typically the livestock interests, that if we did this or that, they were going to sue us. We basically were dealing with situations of “damned if we do, damned if we don’t!”
Entrenchment of our leadership seemed to be part of the deal, but I doubt if entrenchment was because we wanted to do poor resource management. Part of the entrenchment was because we were being attacked and felt compelled to defend our turf.
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