Honoring Nations: Jon Cooley: Building Capable Institutions of Self-Governance: White Mountain Apache Wildlife and Recreation Program

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Jon Cooley, former director of the White Mountain Apache Tribe's Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation division, discusses how their program went about building capable institutions of self-governance in order to manage the Tribe's natural resources -- specifically wildlife -- in a sustainable manner.

Resource Type

Cooley, Jon. "Building Capable Institutions of Self-Governance: White Mountain Apache Wildlife and Recreation Program." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Sante Fe, New Mexico. February 7, 2002. Presentation.

Andrew Lee:

"Let's now turn our attention to the next theme, which is 'How to Build Capable Institutions of Self-Governance.' Here with us today is John Cooley, who's the director of Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, which won High Honors in 2000, last year, for their Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation program. [I] had a chance to visit the reservation; it's simply fantastic, whether you know it or not. I guess it was last year you got $38,000 for a single elk tag. It's a wonderful blend of conservation and profit-making activities. Welcome, Jon."

Jon Cooley:

"Thanks, Andrew. Thanks also for the invitation and the hospitality. It's been great. It is an honor for me as well to be here.

As Andrew said, my talk is on 'Building Capable Institutions of Self-Governance' and being the kind of analytical-type person that I am, I'll break that into two big pieces. Keep in mind now that I'm here today, in 2002, not because of what's really happened in the last few years or so. Our program today is a reflection of a lot of progress and a lot of hard work that has really gone on for decades at White Mountain. Basically, just to give you some really quick background on the program, our Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation division is a blend of two different things happening at the same time. On the regulatory side, of course, we're responsible for the sustainable management of tribal resources, wildlife resources and the conservation of those resources through our law enforcement branch. But on the other hand, we also serve as one of the most profitable, actually, of the tribal enterprises in terms of building a recreation and tourism economy for the tribe, which is really an important part of its entire business approach on the reservation there. So in terms of the building capable institutions part, as far as the White Mountain example is concerned, I think that really started with just building a tribal regulatory framework of, consisting of tribal codes, laws and regulations that regulate not only tribal member activities, as it relates to wildlife, but also non-tribal members coming on to the reservation, which clearly is an important first step. And then the other piece of that of course is building an organization and through the years we've gone through a lot of different changes. Today I'm happy to say that we have our professional branch of biologists consists...all but two people consist of tribal members, college-educated degree tribal members who act as our biologists both in terms of fisheries management and wildlife management. We started early on though, of course, bringing in skilled people from the outside using 638 [Public Law 93-638] contracts and whatever was available to us, working with the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] or the Fish and Wildlife Service to help build the capacity to manage our resources. But the vision all along was for us to do it and to do it the way we felt was appropriate.

Now in terms of... self-governance, to me, implies empowerment and independence. And in the case of White Mountain, I think it also meant just the idea of controlling its own destiny as it related to, again, both running businesses and managing its resources. And when you control your own destiny, I think that goes further in implying that you're incorporating tribal values into the way that you do that. So we try to remain and always have, I think, remained cooperative and we try to collaborate as much as possible with key players like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Fish and Wildlife Service. But there's times when you run into a conflict between what may be national priorities or policies and what the tribe feels is important. So I think that's...when you get into those situations where you have conflicting goals and ideas of what the future should be is when you have to assert and in our case we've asserted this notion of self-governance.

And just, again in terms of background, two critical points I think in our development as an agency, the first was with the State of Arizona, this was back in I believe the '70s, early '80s when the state had jurisdiction over non-member hunting activities on the reservation where they were required to purchase state permits in addition to our tribal permit. So there was kind of a double-permitting system going on there. Plus the tribe -- because they were subject to the state regulations -- wasn't able to develop its recreation and tourism businesses the way it felt it should be able to. So we filed suit and through a series of different cases ultimately prevailed. That, in and of itself, allowed the tribe then to develop its trophy elk-hunting program that Andrew referred to earlier. I think the first hunt the tribe had they probably brought in like 20 clients at $700 apiece, which at that time was pretty outrageous. We since have built it into a million-dollar operation and in the process we're employing tribal members and returning revenues back to the tribe, so again it's a good thing for the tribe economically and it's reflective of their desire to advance their business in the way they feel is appropriate, while also providing for the sustainable management of its resources.

Another example is with Fish and Wildlife Service, recently. The conflict was endangered species and the way endangered species issue should be handled on tribal lands. And with the Endangered Species Act and the way it was being applied at the time, it was creating a lot of havoc as was some of your experience as well. And again, it got to a point where we felt that okay, we have this conflict in vision and goals here. And there's this approach sometimes from Washington that a one-size-fits-all [approach] can work, and it just didn't in our case and we challenged it. And the result of that was a cooperative agreement with Fish and Wildlife where they basically recognized our institutional capacity to manage. Now, of course, we had to build upon that because with that self-governance, of course, comes a lot of responsibility. Recent examples of that collaboration with Fish and Wildlife, is the Apache Tribe Recovery Program. It's one of...I think it's the only fish right now being considered for de-listing. We played an active role in that. We've also just recently completed the development of a Mexican Gray Wolf plan. It's a tribal plan though. It's not a Fish and Wildlife Service plan handed to the tribe. We developed it.

So again, this notion of self-governance, there's times when you -- in our case at least -- we've just had to assert this idea of wanting to do it ourselves and the reason is because we felt it was necessary to control our destiny and to make sure that the tribe's values were being reflected. I mentioned this idea of with self-governance comes a lot of responsibility. And I think in doing that it's not this idea of necessarily you're out there on your own, because it is important to still network and we do that as much as we can to utilize other agencies that are involved, whether it's Fish and Wildlife Service or the BIA or what have you. So the point is that we still try to foster those relationships as much as possible, because funding is usually a limiting factor, at least in our case, and it's important to maintain those ties. But in doing so you have to be loyal to your community and to their interests and to those values that should be guiding our vision and our focus as an agency. So we try, when we work with these outside agencies, I think it's important to maintain that community connection and being loyal to your vision basically, your mission. Throughout, whether it's on the business side for us or on the resource management side, sustainability of both is really critical and I think it's important when talking about sustainable, how do you do that, what does that mean?Well, I think setting goals and setting benchmarks for yourself and your staff and in our case as an agency that's really important. This gets back to the responsibility point as well and accountability and having as much of a focus on results is I think important because, again, if we can't show a return -- and I'm not just talking about a financial return -- if we can't show a return, in terms of sustainably managing the resources for the tribe, that's a return as well, then we're really not being effective I feel.

So stepping back, in closing, going outside of just our agency and I guess what's needed is to grow and be successful. There's also the tribal, macro-tribal organization that's involved as well and I think it's always a struggle for us, as I'm sure it is for every tribe, but consistency -- we were talking earlier. I think consistency is really important and I'm talking about just having the support, the community support and the political support, to allow agencies to thrive and to innovate is really important. And in the case of White Mountain, I think that's been there to allow us to move forward. Because obviously, without some kind of degree of reliability, it's difficult for I think any program to really build a foundation, number one, and to move beyond that foundation. And in terms of sustaining self-governance through time, economic viability is important and just in general vision and leadership is critical, a strong judicial system I think is really important. There needs to be that sense of fairness and just in general creating an environment as much as possible to allow organizations to be innovative and creative in how they do what they do because ultimately that's what drives people to do good things at the end of the day. So with that I'll close and take any questions you might have."

Audience member:

"This is a two-part question. I would imagine your agency has many staples. You've got tribal leaders, you've got clients who are citizens of your nation, clients who are not citizens of the nation, you've got probably citizens of the nation who aren't your clients but have some viewpoints of what it is that you do. The first part of the question is how do you as an agency take all of that information in, figure out what the harvest is going to be or what the yield is going to be, and where the hunting is going to take place and not take place? The second part of the question picks up on your closing remarks on what is it that the tribe or the council has done or that you've done that allows this innovation to take place?"

Jon Cooley:

"As far as the first question is concerned, the process that we go through, we do have separate and distinct regulations. I'll talk about hunting; for non-tribal members and for tribal members, deference is absolutely given to tribal members because if they're not happy, we're not running a business. That's the bottom line. When we do the regulations for tribal members, we do public meetings. They're not necessarily always well attended, but the point is that we do make an effort to try to get public input. That's a fine line though, because that public input is absolutely necessary, I think, to fine-tune regulations and that make you feel like we're being responsible and responsive. But at the same time, I'm always worried about management by public referendum if you will. In other words, there's skilled technicians that need to have as much influence and input I think on those, especially the critical game management issues. So that is a fine line that we walk, but whenever we take those regulations to the council who ultimately approves them before they're adopted, they'll always ask and want to know that there's been some level of public input. So I think that's important. Now as far as non-members are concerned, like I said, once we've done tribal...we have an idea of what our overall management objectives are, then we'll deal with the business side after we have a pretty good idea of how we're dealing with the tribal members. And we try to balance the two as much as possible because, again, we are running a business. That's how we fund our resource management is by these urban revenues that are generated. [I] hope that answered your question. You're going to have to remind me of the second."

Audience Member:

"It was talking about allowing your institution to thrive and innovate. What is it that's, at White Mountain Apache, whether it's on the council side or your side, that's allowed this to happen, to thrive and innovate as an institution? What has the tribe done well?"

Jon Cooley:

"Well, I think first of all there's a built in incentive. The economic incentive is the better we can do managing the resource, the more funds we can generate to do our management, and to hire good people and to hold them, and hopefully motivate them in whatever fashion we can. Now we don't pay big bonuses like Enron does, but we still...the point is that I take the opportunity, I can't speak for my predecessors, but to show them that, 'Hey, you guys can build your management programs if we can do well managing the resources that have the quality there that will attract this demand.' But the bottom line is we have to...our mission statement, the way it's written, it talks about the two major functions of our division. One is manage the resource in a sustainable fashion. Then, after we've done number one, but only after we've done number one, then we can talk about commercial success of the enterprise. So I think that's one thing. But the other thing is just be bold and...I'm bashful when, whether it's economic or political influences start to try to erode away at the morale or what have you is just hold tight and beat the drum and just remind people of what we're trying to do. This gets back into goals and vision and what we're trying to do and how successful we've been up to now and let's try to maintain the course as much as possible. I don't know about other places, but there is temptation sometimes for politics to kind of...to get into the organization. We try to fight that as much as possible, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Any other questions? Thank you."

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