Tom Stokely

Being a Good Government Employee

Recorded: August 22, 2013

Why aren't our government employees more respected and valued for their service? Tom Stokely explains the challenges of being a government employee and the choices that are available to one who makes a decision to serve the public. A planner, biologist, and dedicated friend of the Trinity River, Tom tells us what motivates him to protect salmon and trout habitat in Northern California.

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.


Huey Johnson:    Did you grow up in Northern California?

Tom Stokely:    No, I grew up in Southern California, La Quinta, Sherman Oaks, Orange County.  So every since I was a kid, the air was really dirty in Los Angeles back then and I remember playing on the playground and my lungs would just ache and I just yearned for beautiful places.  And so I got to go to Yosemite when I was 8, and was pretty much hooked on the mountains and the pine trees and being outdoors.

Tom Stokely:    My career actually got started in a funny way, it was 1983 and I had moved to Hayfork with my ex-wife and in 1981 we bought a piece of raw land and basically built a house from scratch, and it was on a small stream tributary to Hayfork Creek.  And people kept telling me that Parker Creek used to be just the best steelhead fishing stream ever, but there was a dam downstream.  So one moonlit night I went, walked downstream, and indeed found a 6-foot high dam down there, and being young and somewhat uncontrolled, I tried to dig out the side of the dam and it was unsuccessful.  So then I got a grant from the Department of Fish and Game actually 30 years ago in 1983, and to basically build fish passage through the culvert under the Highway 3, and eventually we got a grant to take out the dam.  And we actually brought the steelhead back to Parker Creek, which was pretty exciting.

So that was sort of my first experience with fisheries and the environment and for about a year and a half, I was just an over the counter planner doing use permits and rezones, but at that time, congress had passed a law in 1984 -‘85, the Trinity River Basin Fish and Wildlife Management Act, and they had allocated about 60 million dollars towards restoration of the Trinity River.  And had an opportunity to get some of those funds for the county, taking minutes at meetings, running a small grant program to do things like take out dams and build fish ladders, and so I managed to tap into that money, and things  kind of took off from there.

I think when we’re all younger we’re very enthusiastic about our work, and things that we feel passionate about, and it’s very easy to just completely immerse yourself in whatever it is you’re working on, but the problem with that is that things don’t always go right.  There are always problems, there are always setbacks and if you place your entire self into that project then when you have the setbacks, it’s personally devastating and I certainly experienced that for a number of years.  There was one entity that I was working with on the Trinity River, and I thought that they were very much into the same kinds of things as me and then when I realized that they weren’t, that they had other motives, I became very disillusioned, and very, very disappointed.

Similar for the 2002 fish kill on the Lower Klamath River when 65,000 adult salmon died, most of them from the Trinity River where I had been spending almost 20 years trying to bring those fish back, I was personally very, very upset about the death of those fish.  So you know it’s just important to have a life outside of your work, to have other interests.  I don’t remember that quote from Edward Abby, but there’s one about, you know how if you, you do things to save the environment, you still need to get out there and enjoy it.

Huey Johnson:    You project, as a public employee, a dedicated public servant as it were, a sense of integrity and dedication and joy in your work.

Tom Stokely:    Uh huh.

Huey Johnson:    I think lots of times people are very harsh about government, young professionals and so on, would you reflect on that?

Tom Stokely:    Yes, I would.  I was just talking to a friend of mine this morning who worked for a nonprofit for over 20 years as an advocate on behalf of the salmon, and he met recently with a couple of individuals who worked for a nonprofit environmental organization, and they basically told him that he was scum because he worked for the government.  And he said, “Do you know who I am and do you know what I’ve done for the last twenty years?”  And they basically said, “we don’t care.”  These same individuals have been very nice to me, you know, and we’ve worked very well together, but that’s because I work for a nonprofit.  There’s a lot of people who think because you work for the government, that you must just be a scumbag and it’s just not the truth.

There are a lot of different kinds of public employees, I would have to say that I was probably somewhat of an unusual public employee, although not, certainly not the only one, but I constantly stuck my neck out.  I constantly did things that I did not ask for permission, and I sometimes got my wrist slapped.  I got in trouble a lot of times for doing the things that I did, but I’m glad that I did it.  But yeah, there are government employees who will stick their neck out, government employees who will go the extra mile to make sure the right thing is done but the reality is that the system does not encourage that.  The system discourages that, similar to our political system, where if you have republicans and democrats who might want to get together and compromise on something, they’ll be penalized by their respective parties and they’ll lose the next primary election in their district because they turned their back on the party.  It’s the same thing with government employees; they are not encouraged to stick their neck out.  They’re not encouraged to make waves.  They’re not encouraged to take risks.  And I think it’s getting more and more difficult in this litigious society for government employees to do the right thing because it’s just not encouraged.

You know that’s the funny thing about my career is initially, I was just this junior planner and nobody knew who I was, but I was really an activist disguised as a bureaucrat and I was able to do all these things behind the scenes, and then people started catching onto me.  And then I started getting blamed for things that I didn’t do.

Huey Johnson:    That’s a measure of success.

Tom Stokely:    Yeah.