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The Biocrat 

Some say Phil Detrich was a sellout. Others, a savior. He says he was just doing his job.

Actually, it's probably safe to say that "Phil Detrich" isn't one those names bandied about when certain cronies gather around the campfire to talk about the good ol' days. You know, the heydays of blockading timber roads and sitting in old-growth redwoods to save spotted owls from the cuts of Pacific Lumber. Or the days of climbing hundreds of feet up to haul down treesitters. The days of storming PacifiCorp shareholder meetings in Scotland, or lately Omaha, to urge the demolition of the Klamath dams to save the salmon. Or the days of gathering the red-blooded forces from every Western resource battlefront, past and present, to haul symbolic buckets to Klamath Falls in support of water-starved farmers.

Indeed, Phil Detrich is no Julia Butterfly. Nor is he a Charles Hurwitz. He is a nerdy, good-humored guy with the words "bird" and "fish" in his e-mail address. And he is an agency man. A seasonal wildlife biologist turned full-time bureaucrat -- a "biocrat," as he puts it. Someone who's had to walk a narrow ledge of law and regulations amid a soupy storm of competing interests, and biological variability, and try to wring some balance out of the mess. And though you might not have heard of Detrich, the 62-year-old's 30-year career twined intimately through some of our mightiest North Coast battles -- including in his recent position, which he just retired from, as Field Supervisor for the Yreka Fish and Wildlife Office, which along with offices in Arcata and Klamath Falls primarily works on fish and wildlife protection and restoration in the Klamath River Basin.

Detrich led the development of state and federal regulations and management for Northern spotted owls in California after they were listed in 1990 as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

He advised Fish and Wildlife Service attorneys when it fell upon them to go before Bush the Elder's God Squad -- the Endangered Species Exemption Committee -- to defend the agency's ruling that a Bureau of Land Management logging plan would jeopardize the spotted owl.

He helped Simpson Timber Co. develop a habitat conservation plan for the owl in 1992 -- a controversial innovation that allows a non-federal entity to "take" an ESA-listed critter in the course of economic activity, and the first one ever done in forestry.

He was the Fish and Wildlife representative on the team that developed the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994, a major shift in species protection strategy.

He was a key player in the five-and-a-half-year negotiations that culminated in the 1999 Headwaters Forest Deal -- the public purchase of about 10,000 acres of Pacific Lumber Co. land and the preservation of about 4,000 acres of old-growth redwood stands, and the company's development of a multi-species habitat conservation plan for its remaining timberlands -- the first of its kind.

And, Detrich was the Fish and Wildlife representative in the years-long multi-party settlement talks that led to the two-part Klamath Basin deal, signed last month by the governors of Oregon and California and others, that aims to remove four dams on the Klamath River, restore the fishery and provide guaranteed water to farmers in the upper basin, in Oregon.

When a guy like this retires, you want to know: What was it like? Are endangered species really being protected? Are Klamath farmers and fishermen really BFF? Oh, and did Dick Cheney ever push you around?


In the beginning, he was just a kid on a tractor, watching hawks. Detrich's family had a farm in Chapman, Kan., where they grew wheat and raised cattle. His mom was a bird bander and an archeology technician. So perhaps this is how he first learned to study nature, and to appreciate the importance of detail, context and patience. How he eventually became "an endangered species jock," as he termed it in a recent interview.

In college, first he studied journalism. But he quit. "It was the time," he said, and left it at that. Then, in the early 1970s, he moved to California and entered the environmental studies program at Sonoma State. He got married, and they moved to Shasta County in 1976 -- Detrich to take his first wildlife job, as a fisheries technician trapping adult salmon at the Red Bluff diversion dam for the California Department of Fish and Game.

By 1977, he'd landed a seasonal job searching for bald eagles on Shasta Lake. The Endangered Species Act was five years old. The bald eagle was at the top of the list. Soon he became coordinator of the statewide winter bald eagle survey, "flying drainages and reservoirs all over the state every winter," he said.

Summers, he'd search for nests on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, a core bald eagle nesting area. By the 1980s, to research the impact of pesticides, he and other biologists were climbing into bald eagles' nests to recover broken eggs. "And we were moving juvenile bald eagles from British Columbia and Northern California to reintroduce them into Southern California."

Bald eagles began to recover in the early 1980s, following President Nixon's ban on DDT use, and the efforts of Detrich and others. And in retrospect, protecting bald eagles was easy. They didn't nest in trees people wanted for shingles and fences. Nobody's jobs were at stake.

When the Northern spotted owl hit the scene, everything changed. Detrich did some of the early studies of the distribution of spotted owls on the Shasta-Trinity, in the early 1980s. It was clear, he said, that old-growth logging was affecting owl populations. In 1990, the year the owl finally got listed, Detrich took his first full-time wildlife job, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Working from Sacramento, he helped the state fish and game, forestry and fire agencies add spotted owl protections to the Forest Practice Rules. And he helped lay out owl management areas on U.S. Forest Service and other federal lands, under the Northwest Forest Plan. He also began helping private timber companies develop owl protection measures in their timber harvest plans. In 1996, he moved to the FWS's office in Yreka, from which he supervised staff, including in the Arcata office, working on timber issues all over Northwestern California.

Working with the Arcata office, he negotiated the first-ever forestry habitat conservation plan, for Simpson Timber Co. It was for spotted owls. He also did a couple for Pacific Lumber Co. -- one for the owl, and one for the little-understood marbled murrelet.

By fall 1996, the negotiations over the Headwaters Forest had begun. The Fish and Wildlife Service had stopped Pacific Lumber Co. from logging in a place called Owl Creek, considered habitat for the recently listed marbled murreled, and PL had filed two uncompenstated takings lawsuits, saying the land was useless to them now because it was zoned only for timber harvest. That led to the negotiations, and the deal in 1999; Detrich played the lead role for the Fish and Wildlife Service in the settlement, and in helping the company craft the multi-species habitat conservation plan that was part of the agreement.

Detrich considers these timber HCPs highlights of his career, and real markers of the successful evolution in species protection from single-species management, nest by nest, to sweeping landscape measures designed to protect numerous critters. They heralded an era of "adaptive management," in which management of HCP lands could be altered as scientific knowledge of the protected species, and their habitats, developed over time.

Frank Bacik, an environmental lawyer who represented numerous timber companies over the years, including PL, and often found himself hashing out details with Detrich, said landowners were wary of HCPs. He said Detrich's honesty won them over.

"No landowner is ever required by law to obtain an incidental take permit or dedicate part of his land to conservation," Bacik said. "The government can deny [timber harvest] permits and stop activity, and you can go to war and litigate. But with a cooperative approach, a reasonably flexible approach invoking adaptive management, Phil was able to persuade people to agree to conserve vast acreages of land with the understanding that [new scientific] information might allow different kinds of management later. And it's a hard pill for a landowner to swallow."

Critics, on the other hand, complain conversely that HCPs weight things in favor of the landowner.

"I think the first HCP that Green Diamond got, when they were still Simpson, really underscores the concerns that the conservation community has with these things," said Scott Greacen, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, in a recent interview. "We cut a deal that may have looked good then, but 20 years later, where is the habitat conservation? We've got a landscape that's converted by clearcuts into timber plantations. Yes, there's some riparian corridors, but couldn't we have done more by actually enforcing the Endangered Species Act rather than cutting this lame deal that sticks another generation and a half with whatever we decided in the late ’80s was as much as we were going to get out of them?"


In 2001, Detrich switched from timber to fish and water. The Yreka office had been set up in 1986 to administer the Klamath River Basin Fishery Resources Restoration Act, which appropriated $21 million to undertake a 20-year project. Late in that game, Detrich became the executive officer for the Klamath Task Force, which advised the government on restoration actions, and the Department of Interior's representative on the Klamath Fishery Management Council, which advised the Pacific Fishery Management Council on harvest regulations relative to Klamath stocks, so they could determine what harvest could be allowed each year.

When the act expired, it wasn't reauthorized.

"I think the act was effective in that it carried out a valuable restoration program," Detrich said. "I think when we look at trends in salmon over time, we have to wonder whether it was effective. We spent money on restoration, we spent money on staff, we spent money on meetings for people to get to know each other and talk, but salmon populations continued to decline."

Plus, the political environment was on boil. In 2001, in a drought, farmers in the upper Klamath Basin had been cut off from most of their irrigation water after the FWS had ruled that protected salmon needed that water in the river. Farmers drummed up a clanging revolt of bucket-yielding supporters, cut a fence and opened a headgate on a dam. The next year, though the drought persisted, farmers got their water. Tens of thousands of adult Chinook salmon, and some protected coho, died from a disease fostered by low flows, crowded conditions (it was a big run that year), and overly warm water. Political heavies, like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, were accused of having injected themselves into the scene to get the farmers their water. And a biologist with the FWS's sister agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, Michael Kelly, claimed he'd been told to change his biological opinion, which said the fish needed the water.

Detrich wasn't involved in the decisions that led to the rotating farm-fish crises of 2001 and 2002. He was administering the restoration work on the Klamath, he said, but the regional office in Klamath Falls was handling the ESA regulations governing fish flows, and making the decisions. But, he added, people tend to oversimplify the biological impact of the fish kill.

"People turn it into a disaster, but I don't think the data demonstrate it was," he said. "It was certainly a political turning point. It was an emotional disaster that I will not minimize. But there was still a fairly decent salmon harvest that year and we made the spawning objective."

But in the big picture, Detrich said, there was no doubt that salmon were in trouble. And finally everyone decided to make a deal.

"A rancher in Shasta Valley, when I got moved into the Klamath arena, stated it to me pretty clearly," he said. "And this is perhaps an oversimplification, but he said, 'For the last hundred years we've been transfering water from fish to ag, and that has been an economic transfer. Now there is an effort to return some of that water back to fish; that too is an economic transfer. So, whatever your economic and religious and cultural values are, those things govern how you feel about that transfer.'"

The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and a dam removal plan were signed this February by a couple of dozen stakeholders -- several tribes, fishermen and farmer and environmental groups, agencies and politicians. Craig Tucker, who represented the Karuk Tribe in the negotiations, said Detrich was the one who really enabled frank discussions to flourish.

"At times we just caucused, the tribes and the irrigators, and we just threw the feds out of the room," said Tucker. "I think there were some people from the other agencies that didn't really like that. But Phil was one who would say, we need to give them space. ... Phil had that certain kind of humility, where he was helping to build the bridges."

Detrich calls the deal a success only on paper, for now. The future will determine if it saves salmon.

"I think it will make things a lot better for fish," he said. "Will it give all the water to the fish? No. Will there still be difficulty for both farmers and fish in the driest of years? Yeah, there will. What happens then is that the relationships that have been built over the last several years in negotiating this agreement will get together and try to work things out instead of suing each other."

Some walked out on the deal. A couple of environmental groups were mad it didn't require thousands of privately farmed acres in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge to be repatriated into the refuge.

Detrich reponds that the FWS was required by law to set aside some of the refuge land for farming. And, he said, a new agriculture/wetlands rotation scheme was improving the landscape -- and now they're beginning to encourage organic farming on some of those lands.

Other critics say the deal should have included removal of the Keno dam, whose reservoir they say is a major source of the pollution making fish sick in the river. Detrich says no doubt it is a pollution problem.

"But that reservoir provides irrigation water for the National Wildlife Refuges," he said. "There would be a big tradeoff to taking out the dam. There were a number of tradeoffs made, no question. Was that one worth falling on a sword about? Not to us."

Detrich calls some of these critics, the ones who walk out on otherwise overwhelmingly supported deals, fundamentalists who will risk losing more than they are trying to save.


Detrich said he loved the balancing act of all of these deals. And he was endlessly intrigued by the interplay of value systems. And by "outliers."

"I was thinking recently about redwood summer and Julia Butterfly and about civil disobedience by farmers in Klamath Falls," Detrich said. "And I was thinking about the parties who decided not to sign onto the Klamath settlement. And there's just been in the course of my career such amazing examples of these outliers -- outliers of philosophy and behavior, versus the more central tendency -- and I've just been wondering about the influence of these people on the process. I've never met Julia Butterfly, but we were working on the same issue in different ways for many years, and I had climbed into trees to eagle nests in the old days. I've been in a lot of big trees, and I've been up there when the wind was blowing, and her experience, the months and months she spent up there through the winters, it is just incredible for me to contemplate.

"But what did she really accomplish? Well, she called attention to the issue. Did her feelings have any impact on what I decided or tried to negotiate at the table? No. I tried to carry out my role within the confines of the science and the law and regulation. And I hope those have always been my bounds."

He said he was moved by the tragedies, and the theater, of the time. But he was glad to be part of settlements intended to bring peace in the forest and peace on the river.

"I do think that without the environmental movement as a whole, our environment would be in real big trouble," he said. "But I do think that some of the fundamentalists have maneuvered themselves into a position where they have no credibility. That's true for any human endeavor. On the environmental side. On the property rights side. On the religious side."

Meanwhile, people outside the FWS like to ponder what sort of non-scientific or non-legal influences do have an effect on the Service's employees. There was the Julie MacDonald affair -- a high-level appointee in the Interior Department reaching down to yank the ear of staff-level biologists to influence ESA decisions. Detrich said that was an extreme, an unusual, example, and one he found as unacceptable as anyone, although it didn't happen in his office. But did he ever feel pressure from the White House, or from Congress? Cheney?

"I've heard of the allegations about Cheney," he said. "But I don't have the facts...."

He says one time a congressman tried to cut his Klamath Fishery Management Council budget because of something the council had written. Detrich and he talked about it, and Detrich said he "tried in subsequent proceedings of the KFMC to make sure that we stayed within the boundaries of our direction under the law."

So he agreed with the congressman? "Mmm. Well, let's just say I took his advice." He said it didn't affect the council's mission directly. "And to some degree or another, those kinds of subtle pressures exist all the time. Politics is not a dirty thing; it's just the process by which we work out competing interests. The question is how political pressures are dealt with, and whether it's done in a way that's aboveboard and ethical or not." And, he noted, political pressure comes from both directions.

He said he's often had to remind young biologists that their mission under the ESA is not, in fact, to "advocate for wildlife."

"Congress delegated the enforcement of the ESA to the Secretary of Interior and to the Secretary of Commerce, and that's delegated down to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service," Detrich said. "So we work for the Executive Branch, and we have to administer the law as it is written. It's the junction between law and science and politics. It's really challenging and it's really interesting, and there almost always is somebody who is unhappy."

That said, Detrich worries over how the FWS's staffing and budget are not near enough to keep pace with species protection needs, especially in fast-growing Central and Southern California. Even up here, species are in danger. The marbled murrelet, for whom all of the habitat that can be protected has been, is being pecked out of existence by nest-robbing ravens and crows who go wherever people go. And perhaps they're being impacted at sea. Salmon, who need cold water, will continue to suffer if the climate keeps getting warmer.

"I go back to a precept that was proposed to me in college by a professor of environmental economics, and that was that population size times standard of living equals environmental impact," he said.

People need to practice more diligent conservation, he said. And that doesn't include just shifting the environmental costs of timber cutting from California to another state, for instance.

"The only thing we can really do about species decline is to reduce consumption of resources on an individual basis," he said. "It's choices that society makes that we are trying to compensate for. Recycling has increased. In general we're driving cars that get better mileage than 30 years ago. But we're building huge houses, we're still using a lot of water, at least in this culture. It may well be that in the future the Julia Butterflies of the world will be scaling smokestacks in China. I mean, I guess we all pick battles that are of the scale we can handle personally. But the real need is to carry out our conservation ethic in a much broader scale than just a redwood grove."

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About The Author

Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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