Thursday, April 1, 2010

A conversation with George Cooper

George Cooper is the former President and CEO the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. He spent 7 years at TRCP altogether – three as the President and prior to that he was managing TRCP’s communications and policy work. Having played a lead role in getting TRCP off the ground and flying, this past month, George moved on to a new position as Senior Vice President at the DC government affairs and communications firm CFW. George will continue to focus on natural resource and sportsmen’s issues at CFW. Today, we wanted to talk with him about his thoughts on some the key issues facing the conservation community.

Before we start, give us a little background on your past and how you ended up running TRCP?

I came to TRCP having been with CNN for 10 years. At CNN I held a number of jobs, mostly in the DC bureau covering politics. Having been a producer for several talk shows and on a couple of different beats, I found myself itching to get off the sidelines and into the game. I looked for opportunities to do advocacy work in DC around a set of issues I personally cared most about. I found myself focused on conservation issues and I started looking for work that would allow me to apply whatever communications skills I’d accumulated at CNN to mission work that I believed in personally.

I was very lucky to strike upon TRCP just as the organization was getting started and looking for a communications director. I absolutely loved the work right from the get-go and believed very strongly in the vision the founders of TRCP had laid out. As we built the organization from the ground up, I found myself getting more and more into the actual policy work and not just the communications support of that work. Eventually I became Vice President, managing our communications and policy work and from there it was into the CEO chair managing all of the organization’s operations.

Tell me about your relationship with the late Jim Range? What did he mean to the organization?

Well Jim and I were very close. I guess I have a hard time describing our relationship – he was the most important and influential mentor I’ve ever had in my life. When I left CNN and came on with TRCP, this was a big change and major pivot point in my life. Jim and I connected at several different levels right from the start and he took me under his wing. His was one of the very best wings I could have found in Washington when it came to being a fledgling in the natural resource conservation world. He took me down an accelerated course of learning that was both sophisticated in terms of the craft of policy making and legislating as well simple in terms of playing the various political games that one must play in DC to succeed. Jim did not speak in elegant terms but in any given meeting he made the best points and said the smartest things, all in a manner that would surely stick with you.

Jim was a brilliant strategist and extremely influential player in this town – I’ve met lots of folks who would meet the same description but the difference with Jim is that he also was extraordinarily passionate and utterly sincere in his convictions. Coupling that sort of heart to the brains the man had made for a formidable opponent or ally and it made him a great teacher. I became a much, much happier person when I started focusing on advocacy work affecting natural resource conservation and the future of hunting and fishing and Jim made that possible and brought me in to the conservation world in a manner I’ll forever be grateful for.

So he meant a lot to me – he meant a lot to TRCP as well. Jim was the heart and soul of TRCP. He was far more hands-on than you would typically find with a non-profit board chairman but to get us rolling with the kind of momentum we gained in a remarkably short period of time, we needed someone with his passion, knowledge and network keeping a hand on the rudder on a daily basis in the early years.

As we moved along we were able to move further away from day-to-day business with Jim and focus on big picture issues pertaining to TRCP’s future and on our policy work. Jim not only carried out his board chairmanship duties with great vigor and tirelessness, he was very much involved in our actual policy work. He was a key player in most of TRCP’s policy initiatives and would keep the working groups made up of TRCP’s partner organizations pointing down trails that would give us the best chance of reaching our desired outcomes.

In the early years, Jim meant everything to TRCP. We absolutely would not have come as far as we did as quickly as we did in terms of bringing about better federal natural resource policy making decisions in Washington focused on sportsmen’s interests had it not been for Jim.

In the later years of his seven year chairmanship, Jim took us to being a mature organization that could get past infancy and adolescence in part by moving us away from relying too heavily on him and a handful of other leaders.

By the time we lost Jim in January of 2009, TRCP was a well-established player with a proven track record worthy of support. TRCP was in many ways the culmination of Jim’s incredible conservation career and an army of us out in this conservation world intend to keep it going strong in part to honor his vision and his memory.

What was it like to watch that organization grow?

At times it was jolting. We found ourselves on a growth trajectory at times that was almost overwhelming. We would have periods of moderate growth where we could move somewhat deliberately to plot staffing and structure out in a very methodical fashion. At other times, issues jumped up, or opportunities or funding that demanded quick moves and growth. Grappling with those sorts of gyrations was extremely challenging. As a general matter I was very proud to watch how the organization grew but there were also times when I wished we could control things in a manner that would give us more moderate and predictable growth, but that’s not the nature of the beast!

I do think the organization is now at a point where we’re looking toward growth that will be easier to handle given the cumulative experience of the staff and board. I think it kind of had to be a wild ride in the early years if we were going to shake things up like we wanted to, but you don’t want to keep going like that perpetually. The organization is now settling into a groove and pace that will be more sustainable and predictable.

What is it like for the conservation community in Washington?

Well I think things have changed a lot since I first came on the scene about seven years ago. For one thing, you have a much more active and steady dialogue between the so-called green groups that operate in this town and groups from the conservation/sporting community. I think both camps have seen benefits from finding common ground on some specific issues, acknowledging that are many issues we simply will not agree on.

I guess to me the most important change we’ve seen which is playing out now in the conservation community in Washington is something I’d like to think TRCP contributed directly to – the sportsmen-conservation community has become much more influential in Washington in recent years carrying a weight more in line with the size of the constituency we represent – about 40 million people. That’s as it should be. The nation’s hunters and anglers have a unique and intimate connection to our natural resources that set us apart from other user groups or special interests.

Harnessing that credibility and doing a better job of communicating from the grassroots and grasstops has helped us redefine our community. Both political parties see the need to deal with us and the benefits that can come from bringing us into policy making discussions on the front end.

People in Washington have also gotten a better sense in recent years of what can happen when they don’t engage with us. We’ve redefined ourselves as a constituency that not only must be dealt with but that will come to the negotiating table with substantive, science-based solutions that are more workable and centrist than what policymakers might typically get form interest groups that are more preservationist, or at the other end exploitive than we are in the conservation community.

From your perspective, what are some of the key conservation issues that are out there?

Well there are a bunch coming at us simultaneously but I’ll tick off my current top three in no particular order:

1. Climate Change – not looking real likely that a bill will get out of the Senate this year but we must continue to operate under the assumption that something could move. It will look pretty different than the House bill passed last year but putting all of that aside, we must keep a very tight focus on getting funding into a senate bill that would dedicate adequate resources to dealing with fish and wildlife impacts from climate change. A good chunk of this adaptive management money was in the House bill – we have to make sure it is in a Senate bill and that it survives reconciliation should we get that far. It is the single best shot we’ll have at getting the long-needed fish and wildlife management funding state and federal agencies have needed for many years to come and it just so happens it will directed at the greatest threat before us when it comes to the fish and game we sportsmen care most about and the habitat on which they depend.

2. Marine Fisheries – we have three waves coming at us right now that will or are already changing the rules for saltwater recreational fishing. The White House Council on Environmental Quality is poised to move forward with an Executive Order that will point toward new ocean resource management defined by “marine spatial planning.” If this new system very clearly differentiates recreational and public interests from commercial and industrial interests we could head in a positive direction, but this a big “if” right now. We also have closures of entire fisheries being made tied to deadlines included in the last update of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006. These closures should not be happening without more timely and accurate fishery and economic data but they are – the stakes are particularly high in this wave (red snapper South Atlantic closure being best example to date) with jobs and livelihoods at stake along with fishing access. This issue demands major action this year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency NOAA) and/or Congress. The third wave is the new system of catch shares being implemented by NOAA. If this new system does not use better data and look at how mixed use fisheries are allocated than it could have very negative and lasting consequences for recreational fishing. I’ll give you one thought that runs through all of this: we have a federal agency in NOAA that has never managed our federal waters with even remotely adequate attention to the specific interests of recreational fishing. The focus at NOAA, which is housed in the Commerce Department, has always been commercial fishing. We need NOAA to make a major shift toward gathering and using the kind of data they’ve gathered for years on commercial fishing for recreational fishing and then use that data in a timely, in-season manner. If you like to fish in the ocean, you need to make it a point this year of getting engaged on this stuff through groups including the Coastal Conservation Association and the American Sportfishing Asssociation.

3. Ag Policy – we’re already starting to have hearings on the Hill for the next Farm Bill and now is the time for the sportsmen-conservation community to get together and figure out what our priorities are going to be. The administration this year has made some very welcome moves on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) which is truly our holy grail when it comes to the various programs captured in the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill. However, those moves do not remove the overriding threat to this program which has been in steady decline every since corn prices in particular when up and stayed up starting back in 2005 or so. I believe we are a point where we must reinvent CRP which is the single most important private lands conservation program in this country. If we are to stop the slide in acreage enrolled we need to fundamentally alter how CRP is structured and give farmers and ranchers new incentives for conserving habitat on their land. We must move toward having multiple opportunities in a given CRP contract for incentives and the next most obvious incentive to add is carbon based climate change credits. If we do not save CRP now it is in danger of going the way of the old Soil Bank program. With emerging carbon markets, this administration’s interest in climate change, and interest in Congress in providing incentives to farmers and ranchers that will provide a greater public good, let’s put ideas on the table now that take advantage of this interest.

What are some of the challenges facing the conservation community?

The single biggest problem I see for the sportsmen-conservation community here in Washington is just lack of resources and representation. We are constantly going up against competing interests that have much more funding and staff than the groups in our community have.

We have the opportunity to provide input through some important federal advisory groups and the current administration is re-launching an advisory group on hunting and wildlife management that will give us a potentially valuable interface with USDA and DOI, but generally speaking we don’t register a voice in this town that is commensurate with the size of our constituency.

We’ve gotten louder in recent years and more strategically effective but we have a long way to go before we are engaging in policy making to our full potential. We need more funding and we need more players here in DC on a daily basis. With that in mind, it becomes even more critical for groups in the hunting and fishing community to be working together and that is where TRCP comes in. Generally speaking we have some strong advocates and professionals here in Washington and a good physical presence with groups including Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, TRCP, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, ASA and a few others but it is not enough.

We’ve made excellent progress in recent years in redefining our community and in increasing our profile but to win the day to day battles that are fought in the bureaucratic and political trenches here in DC, we need more soldiers. Did I carry the military thing a bit far? Hard to resist…

Break some of that down for me a little bit more. Let talk about stakeholders – the everyday people who enjoy the outdoors? Do you think the conservation community is doing enough to connect, to engage that audience?

As someone who has mostly focused on inside-the-beltway policy making and communications I don’t have the best personal feel for that but I learned a lot about this from some very good people I worked with at TRCP who managed our field operations. I would say there is one thing the community could be doing better to connect with stakeholders – take the time to more effectively convey to them what is going on in DC that will effect their hunting and fishing and what they can do about it and THEN (we forget this step a lot) follow up with them to know about outcomes and the effect their voices did or didn’t have. And don’t make it all happy talk – if lawmakers heard from us and it didn’t work let’s be frank and open about why it didn’t work.

I don’t want to make this sound like it’s easy – it’s not. Communicating to the average person about some Byzantine process in Washington that may affect their outdoor pursuit in some sort of technical sounding way is challenging. But we have to do better on that. We have to make sure people know that the decisions made here on a daily basis will effect the kind of outdoor experiences we will have and future generations will have and that if they are not involved, we’ll only have ourselves to blame. Then we need to make it easy for them to weigh in and be heard and feel like they are not just making noise, but taking part in something inspiring and strategically sophisticated.

What about the anglers and hunters and anyone who is using these resources. What should they be doing?

Joining groups TU, CCA, DU and TRCP and committing to reading about what these groups are wrestling with on their behalf or trying to create. Having gotten educated to the point of feeling conversant on a given issue, then individuals must set aside some time each year to make a few calls, write a few letters and emails, send in a letter-to-the-editor and show up for things like forums with Congressmen in their district. We must keep up a steady drumbeat and that only comes with people committed to adding their voice. People in this town pay attention to what their constituents say – they really do.

Now in the new job, do you think you will have more time to go bird hunting?

We’ll see – most folks I talked to assumed I was hunting all the time when I was CEO of TRCP but the fact is I gradually watched my days afield decline as I took that job on. That wasn’t just because of the heavy workload that comes with that kind of job but because my wife Caroline and I have two little ones at home. I do think that if I want to continue to do my part in Washington to speak up for sportsmen’s interests that it is critically important that I am out doing the kind of hunting and fishing (particularly upland bird hunting) necessary to give my words credibility and weight. That’s what I’ve told my new partners and they seem to be buying it.

I’ll never forget the beautiful spring day I spent with Jim Range down around Fletcher’s Cove fishing for smallmouth. The shad had come and gone. Jim poked his head in my office and said “come on boy, we’re going fishing.” I protested that I had some pressing work to get done and he said “that work is going to be there every day. This other stuff ain’t.” That “other stuff” was the opportunity to be outside with or without a rod or shotgun in hand.
Part of what made Jim one of the greatest champions our community will ever have in this town was the fact that he refueled constantly with incredible outdoor experiences. We should all remember to fuel up like that whenever we can.

Thanks George and best of luck.

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