By Tony Davis
his 28 years of working for the U.S. Forest Service, fish biologist
Jim Cooper never thought of himself as an idealist.
Even when he was starting out, he says, he
thought a rising human population would continually stress the
national forests, yet he hoped the agency's management could slow
the deterioration of forests, wildlife and the Southwest's precious
By this January, when he quit his job in
the Southwest regional forester's office in Albuquerque, he had
lost that hope.
"I don't think in the final
analysis we slowed anything down," Cooper said recently. "I'm not a
fatalist. I don't think we will automatically go downhill. But you
can't graze cows and cut timber the way we've done it and protect
the resource. It doesn't work."
Cooper is part
of a growing band of ex-Forest Service biologists and managers who
are adding their voices to the barrage of criticism from
environmentalists over the Southwest region's handling of timber
and grazing issues. Five agency officials in the region have quit
or taken early retirement in the past few years, in part out of
frustration with the agency's management.
dizzying series of internal memos, letters and interviews, they
have painted an image of an agency circling the wagons against
environmentalist "enemies' such as the Southwest Center for
Biological Diversity. The agency, the former employees say, would
rather win lawsuits than restore battered
Their revelations show that the
debates that rage throughout the Forest Service are distilled in
the arid Southwest. Here, cattle have more obvious impacts on
fragile desert soils, grasses and streamside vegetation. Logging
has also taken a heavy toll on the Southwest's upland
It's no surprise, they say, that the
Southwest is a hotbed for environmental lawsuits. Couple the
climate with an agency under pressure from both pro-industrial
senators like Pete Domenici and law-savvy environmentalists, and
you have a recipe for
Fire from the
Complaints that the Forest Service has put
timber and grazing before wildlife have been bouncing around the
agency for years. An example is a report put together in 1993 for
Jim Lloyd, the Southwest region's director of wildlife, fish and
rare plants. Intended to give agency staffers, state game and fish
departments and environmentalists an anonymous place to voice their
concerns, the report contained numerous
"In most meetings, wildlife is a
stepchild to the other resource areas," wrote one critic. "Only
thing that wildlife is getting done is timber sales and timber
support," wrote another. "What wildlife program?" asked a third.
"Biologists are so busy chasing timber sales and cattle
At the heart of the problem,
critics said, was an old-guard bureaucracy that had dug in its boot
heels and refused to change with the times. In 1996, Jim Cooper
joined five other agency biologists and wrote Lloyd a letter
complaining about what they saw as a militaristic, top-down
management style. "If we even so much as suggest that we have
different views, we are shunned," they wrote. "Management seems to
hold the opinion that the authority is not to be questioned about
decisions. Everyone on this staff is burned out."
The turmoil surfaced publicly last year, when a
team of Forest Service fish biologists, led by veteran Jerry
Stefferud of Phoenix, wrote a report saying the agency was letting
pro-ranching sentiments interfere with stream
"We will do anything to restore
riparian ecosystem health as long as it does not affect (the
rancher)," the fish team wrote.
In a separate
paper, Stefferud acknowledged managers had come up with
alternatives for keeping streams healthy, but they seldom worked,
because "cattle grazing is a core value of the agency and riparian
health and endangered species management is not."
Then Regional Forester Charles "Chip" Cartwright
wrote U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director Nancy
Kaufman in Albuquerque disowning the report's criticisms: "As much
as we respect the opinions of our employees, the team leader's
comments do in no way reflect the opinion of the Forest Service."
According to Cooper and others, Stefferud's
criticism earned him a "window job," in which his travel and
research are limited.
"He is on the outside now,"
Lloyd, Stefferud's director,
explained the treatment: "He was very critical of management and
that broke down communication and his ability to convey technical
The apparent consequences of speaking out
within the agency make the recent resignations all the more
Leon Fager, the agency's former
regional chief for endangered species, is a 31-year service
employee who retired last December. He wrote Forest Service Chief
Mike Dombeck in February asking him to fire Jim Lloyd and one other
top agency official "who demonstrate lack of leadership and
unwillingness to manage resources for the public good instead of
for the financial benefit of the livestock industry."
Fager also asked Dombeck to set up a panel of
independent scientists to assess the health of streams and wildlife
in the Southwest and recommend new restoration
Doug Barber, a former deputy supervisor
of Arizona's Apache Sitgreaves National Forest and an even harsher
critic, wrote Sen. Pete Domenici a letter contending that the
federal grazing-permit system was "a comatose patient on life
support, and it's time to turn the machine off."
As an example, he cited a recent case in which
the Arizona Game and Fish Department paid $100,000 to fence cattle
from eastern Arizona streams to protect the threatened Apache
trout. The 372 head of cattle, which run for 5 months a year, will
generate $2,500 a year in grazing fees.
solve the problem?" asked Barber. "Yes, but was it in the most
effective way? Did we build the fences to protect the streams or to
protect the cows?"
Forest Service officials admit the
Southwest has problems. About half of the 1,400 to 1,500 grazing
allotments in the Southwest don't meet the agency's environmental
standards for protecting forest health and endangered
But there are signs that the region is
changing. Regional Forester Cartwright took early retirement late
last year. In the fall he had taken a short administrative leave
after facing a sexual harassment charge from an employee. The
regional range and timber directors, Gerald Henke and Milo Larsen,
also retired recently. And agency managers insist they are moving
On the ground, the Forest Service
persuaded seven northern Arizona ranchers to voluntarily remove
their cattle from riparian areas along the Verde River in 1996.
Last fall, after years of prodding from environmentalists, the
agency removed all cows from its largest Southwestern allotment,
the 227 square-mile Diamond Bar near Silver City, N.M. (HCN,
11/10/97). And it has promised to bring grazing allotments into
line with environmental standards.
that current livestock management continues to cause problems.
We're addressing those as quickly as we can, given our various
processes, procedures and laws," said Jim Lloyd. "It's unfortunate
we didn't accelerate the efforts decades ago."
This year, he said, two interagency federal
teams are visiting numerous grazing allotments for an aggressive
review of grazing's effects on endangered species. At the same
time, an independent scientific panel is reviewing standards for
"I think changes are going to
happen out on the ground," he said. "What they are, I can't tell
Some agency staffers stand behind Lloyd.
Gary Schiff, a spokesman for the Carson National Forest in New
Mexico, calls Fager's stinging letter to Chief Dombeck "a gut shot
from a disgruntled employee."
Keith Menasco, a
Kaibab National Forest wildlife biologist in Williams, Ariz., said
he was surprised by people such as Fager lashing out against
management. The agency's grazing policy is on the "crossroads of
change," he said. "There will be more riparian exclusions and more
emphasis on livestock getting out (of such sensitive areas)."
The only real way to solve the grazing-riparian
disputes is to bring competing factions together to try to work
them out, he added. "The question for riparian areas is, what kind
of use does society want to put in them? Everyone wants to restore
the ecosystem, but should you have cows, camping, roads?"
Menasco acknowledges that the agency is behind
the times in terms of timber policy. "But it's changing, changing
big time," he said.
Still, critics like Sandy
Knight, who left her job as a biologist in January after almost 20
years with the agency, say it will take more than studies and
cooperation to solve the agency's problems.
think the Forest Service has a crisis of identity," Knight said.
"It has been an instrument of productivity so long, and Congress
has wanted it to be."
While some staffers are
trying to push the agency toward responsible, science-based
management, she says, the incentive system pulls them in the other
direction. "When people get performance appraisals, they are still
asked how many lawsuits do they win, how many timber sales do they
get out and how many AUMs (animal unit-months of livestock grazing)
do they get out," she says.
The writer works for the
Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.