Brad Lathrop, range conservationist for the North Fork John Day Ranger District in Ukiah, is the U.S. Forest Service's range manager of the year.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimball presented Lathrop the national award for outstanding achievement in rangeland management earlier this year at the Society for Range Management's annual meeting.
"People know that when they want something done right, they can count on Brad Lathrop," Kimball said. "It makes me proud to know that we have range leaders like Brad in our agency."
Lathrop, 29, was surprised.
"In my experience, the award usually goes to people who have put in 30 years with the Forest Service and have done some pretty amazing things," he said. "I was really surprised that I got it, since I haven't been around that much."
Lathrop grew up in Condon and earned a bachelor's degree in rangeland management from Oregon State University's agricultural program at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. He lives outside Pilot Rock with his wife, Kacee, and their 1-year-old son, Aden.
The tall, lanky young man still looks like a rancher's kid, an impression belied by his years of experience in resource management with the Oregon Department of Forestry, the Washington Department of Natural Resources and, since 2003, the U.S. Forest Service. Lathrop has fought wildfires, sprayed weeds, searched for missing cows, built fences, developed springs and spent more than a few days with permittees on the North Fork John Day Ranger District hashing out the details of summer grazing.
And then there's the paperwork.
"We spend more time than we'd like on computers," he said. "Everything we do in the woods, there's a computer part back in the office."
Kimball cited Lathrop's work in streamlining the environmental analysis process for range allotments as a major accomplishment. His method has been adopted throughout the Forest Service. Lathrop has shared his expertise in this area through workshops and a Forest Service Web site.
At the ranger district, Lathrop emphasizes scientific range monitoring, including the resurrection of condition and trend data collection begun in the 1950s.
"Grazing on public lands is so complex, with all the demands for other values the Forest Service provides. We have to monitor to know if we are doing the right things and to show the public what we're doing," Lathrop said. "I can't imagine a successful public lands grazing program without a strong monitoring program."
By his own admission, he would rather stay in the background. However, that didn't stop his supervisor, Tom Thompson, from nominating him for the national award.
"Brad is the perfect range con: part cowboy, part scientist, part mechanic, part therapist and part computer geek. He's a good listener and is well-liked by people in and outside of the agency. Somehow, he maintains the role as 'good cop' when it comes to controversial permittee issues," Thompson wrote in his recommendation.
Lathrop said he enjoys his work with the permittees, perhaps because he grew up in a small agricultural town. His grandfather, Frank Johnson, who died a few months ago, worked on Gilliam County ranches his entire life.
"When I work with the permittees, I'm real comfortable visiting and talking about issues without making it into a bigger issue than it really is," he said. "When we sit down together we could be sitting in a coffee shop or at their kitchen table instead of in a Forest Service building."
Steve Currin, one of the North Fork permittees, has worked with Lathrop for a number of years.
"He's easy to get along with and does anything to help you. You usually think of government employees as strangers, but he's about my age, we both have kids, we have a lot in common," Currin said.
In spite of continuing controversies, Lathrop sees a future for grazing on public lands.
"Grazing is too important, especially to rural Eastern Oregon, to the people and their communities, not to be a part of it," he said. "For those reasons alone, I think grazing will be around forever, but maybe not in the same fashion as the last 30 to 40 years. Grazing is constantly changing, but it will always be part of public lands."