Tom Stokely

Doing Good Within the System

Recorded: August 22, 2013

Tom Stokely, a former Trinity County Planner, explains how he was an effective agent in support of the Trinity River by choosing to leverage his contacts and environmental knowledge to help activists.

Tom Stokely is water policy analyst and director with the California Water Impact Network.  He retired as Principal Planner with the Natural Resources Division of Trinity County in 2008. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1979 with a degree in Biology and Environmental Studies, with honors in Biology. He worked for Trinity County for over 23 years as a natural resources planner in various capacities, but worked on Trinity River and Central Valley Project and salmon and steelhead issues for Trinity County for most of his time there.

Mr. Stokely has been a member of the California Advisory Committee on Salmon and Steelhead Trout since 1990, and is a past chairman and past vice-chairman.   He is vice-chairman of the federal advisory committee for the Trinity River Restoration Program- the Trinity Adaptive Management Working Group.  Tom is a recipient of California Trout’s Roderick Haig-Brown award.

Tom lives and works in Mt. Shasta, Siskiyou County, California, but prior to November 2008 he was a Trinity County resident for over 27 years.


Tom Stokely:    Well, you know the key to a lot of the success in my career is actually that I was a guy on the inside working for the government, but I had contacts on the outside, or on the inside and the outside, so I had a lot of friends and associates in Fishery Agencies and various government organizations.  And yet at the same time, I knew people like Byron Lydecker [Sp?].  Byron who’s now deceased, was chairman of Friends of Trinity River.  And when I first met Byron, it was quite an interesting time, it was the summer of 1993 and the Trinity River Restoration Program was doing these main stem restoration projects.  Basically what they were doing was taking a bulldozer along the edge of a wild and scenic river, removing the vegetation, muddying the river til it literally ran like chocolate milk.  In the month of August 1993, I had one couple come up to have a wedding anniversary and float the river and fish and they turned around and went home they were so disgusted.

Tom Stokely:    So Byron was a wealthy businessman from Marin County, you probably knew him.

Huey Johnson:    I knew him, yeah, a fine guy.

Tom Stokely:    And he was a bank president, he was a county supervisor, he was not the kind of man to be pushed around.  So Byron loved to fish the Trinity River and he was fishing it with his favorite fishing guide, Herb Burton, and they stopped to fish this one spot below one of these so called restoration projects.  And Byron had a problem with his leg and his foot, and he got stuck in the mud.  And Byron was not happy about being stuck in the mud, and I think Herb had to take a couple of oars and literally kind of hoist him out of the water and he was just furious.  And he called me up at the Planning Department, and he must have yelled at me for a half an hour and then he finally, you know I tried to calm him down and I said “Well you know I’m trying to work on this too and I’m concerned and trying to work through other channels.”  And at the end of the conversation, he kind of calmed down and he said “Well I’ve got a lot of money and I could hire a lawyer.  If you could hire a lawyer, what would you do?”  And I said “Oh, as a matter of fact there’s this water quality standard that says that they cannot increase the turbidity or the muddiness of the water more than 5% above background levels and they’re probably at 5,000% above background levels.  So if you have an attorney, what I would do is I’d have him write a letter to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and ask that they shut down this project because it’s violating the turbidity standard.”  Well by golly, Byron got a lawyer.  He wrote the letter, I got a chance to review it, he sent it in and I have never in my life seen a project shut down so fast without going to court, it was just phenomenal.

Tom Stokely:    And it was amazing because I had to sit in all the meetings with all the, the state and federal officials who were supporting these projects, and they were just badmouthing the heck out of Byron and nobody knew that I was involved at that time so I just kind of sat there with, trying not to break a grin on my face.  And that basically spawned Friends of the Trinity River.  Subsequently Byron formed the nonprofit, which really became a huge motivating force.  They got thousands of letters to the Interior Secretary on the environmental document for the record of decision, he did a letter of the press and it was just a wonderful relationship that I had with Bryon.

Huey Johnson:    You had kind of a very quiet inside/outside opportunity.

Tom Stokely:    Yes.

Huey Johnson:    What would you call that technically?  I know one; you’re as good as your contacts was one term we used to use.

Tom Stokely:    I call it Guerilla Warfare.

Huey Johnson:    Oh very good.

Tom Stokely:    I was the covert guy behind the enemy lines so to speak, passing information to the outside.  And it was just wonderful because I’d get information from people in the Fish and Wildlife Service or Department of Fish and Game and I’d give it to Byron and he’d go to the newspapers.  Sometimes I’d draft letters for Byron.  Sometimes I’d even draft letters for Byron to send to the county so I could write the letter in response.

Huey Johnson:    That’s very good.

Tom Stokely:    So it was really a great relationship with Byron, and as a result of it, I got to know a lot of press people and media people and developed good contacts with them over the years.  So that was really a big key to my success.