Staffers say their agency betrayed the land

  • Jerry Stefferud

    Nancy Engebretson photo
  • Leon Fager

    Jodi Newton photo

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

In 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 streams.

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.

In a 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 ecosystems.

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 forests.

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 contention.

Fire from the inside

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 complaints.

"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 allotments."

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 recovery.

"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," Cooper said.

Lloyd, Stefferud's director, explained the treatment: "He was very critical of management and that broke down communication and his ability to convey technical information."

Critics speak out

The apparent consequences of speaking out within the agency make the recent resignations all the more significant.

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 policies.

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.

"Did we 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?"

Change isn't easy

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 species.

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 ahead.

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.

"We recognize 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 riparian areas.

"I think changes are going to happen out on the ground," he said. "What they are, I can't tell you."

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.

"I 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.

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