A Career Managing Public Lands: Q&A with Raul Morales

Think your love of the land and wildlife can only be fulfilled in your free time? Think again. Protecting wildlife habitats and our outdoor spaces can be your full-time job if you work at a place like the Bureau of Land Management. That's what Raul Morales did – and with time and hard work, he moved up the ladder of leadership and is now the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) State Deputy Director in Nevada. Read on to learn more about his story and why he thinks more Latinos should follow in his footsteps. 

Q: How did you get involved in public lands management?

Raul Morales: I always had an interest in animals and originally thought I might want to be a vet. When I was young, my dad went to work for Los Alamos National Laboratory, so we had to move to New Mexico. I was afraid of heights and New Mexico has a lot of high mountains and canyons, so at first I thought,  “I can’t believe my dad is making me move here.” Two years later, I visited my friends in Delaware and I realized I liked the open space.

As I grew older, we started to do a lot more camping and exploring caves and of the general region and I began to think, maybe I don’t want to be a vet. Still, I always watched Wild Kingdom and I wanted to do what those people were doing – so I became interested in the field of Wildlife Biology.

Raul Morales

Raul Morales

While I was working toward that degree at NM State University, folks from the Idaho BLM (Bureau of Land Management) came to the college to find students studying wildlife and related fields who wanted to go up to Idaho to work. I didn’t know what the BLM was prior to that but was hired as a student intern after my sophomore year in college. That was when I understood BLM was focused on the habitat rather than the animals, and I realized you have to manage the land if you want to help the animals. That solidified it.

When I graduated from college, I started off as a firefighter for BLM for one summer, then I did range management, then worked as a wildlife biologist in Boise.  While working in Boise I made a trip to Coeur D’Alene and was hiking in a beautiful old growth forest stand. That was when I knew I was ready to move on and try new adventures.  My next stop was in Eugene, Oregon as a wildlife biologist – right in the middle of the ‘spotted owl wars’ between conservationists and the timber industry. That definitely opened my eyes to the delicate balance between human needs and nature’s needs.

Q: How did you end up in leadership positions?

RM: Over time in Eugene, I started to move into a supervisory management position, and then I moved to Grand Junction, Colorado in another leadership position.  In Eugene I was focused on forestry, while in Grand Junction it was more about recreation – mountain biking and hiking, and oil and gas development and wildlife issues.

Working for the federal government definitely has its challenges, especially when 200 or 300 million taxpayers have the ability to weigh in on your decisions. That political process made me want to go to Washington D.C. and move up the ladder. And I did. I went to D.C. for two years as the Deputy Division Chief for the Fish, Wildlife and Plant Conservation programs.  It was interesting to be where policies and budgets are initiated, and to be networking with organizations like Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, and the National Cattleman’s Association.  It was good to network with those folks and see a different side of this work– as opposed to on the ground where the rubber hits the road.

Raul morales at a BLM meeting

Raul morales at a BLM meeting

Currently, I’m in Reno, Nevada working as the Deputy State Director for Resources Lands and Planning. I’m working on the resource policies and planning with diverse partners and perspectives. It’s very satisfying as we try to solve complex natural resource issues.

Q: In all your years of managing public lands, have you seen much Latino engagement?

RM: In all of these years working in different locations, the Latino presence was always missing. I was involved in recruiting students out of college – Hispanics, blacks and Native Americans, etc. – and one of the things I noticed with Latinos was their strong sense of family. Getting folks to move away from family was a challenge. I would tell them that being employed with the federal government gave you the opportunity to move around. I tried to show them the positives. Yes, you might work in Idaho today, but you need to get your foot in the door, and then you can move back to where your family is. Go where the job is first. It may not be your dream location right off the bat, but it’s not your last location either.

Q: How do you find the balance between oil and gas development and conservation?

RM: When I was in Colorado, my eyes were opened with how the oil and gas community invested in research and development. When I was made aware of their developments in technology – when they companies explained how they drill, how they minimize their footprint – I was impressed with how they’re working in doing their part in  trying to have a minimal input on the landscape. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still conflict of course, but I give the industry kudos for trying to prevent the aquifers from getting polluted, or minimizing impacts to big game corridors, controlling dust on the road, etc.

Raul Morales at a solar plant in Southern California at the Nevada state line

Raul Morales at a solar plant in Southern California at the Nevada state line

The BLM is a multiple use agency and our goal is to provide for the multiple uses out there in an environmentally responsible way in order to ensure that these multiple uses can continue into the future. To me, that bar is always changing because the public’s demands and interests of how public lands are to be managed are always changing.

Q: How do you think we can get more Latinos involved?

RM: There are many organizations for Latinos to join or be a part of, but how do we make agency personnel not just aware of them, but how best to engage them.  By the same token, how can these Latino organizations take the initiative to be engaged in public lands in general? I see families of Latinos going out together on public lands, but besides having a picnic, do they understand where they are and what the surroundings are telling them? How do we get them to say, “I want to be aware and understand my surroundings? I want to understand how the snow melts and how the creek floods and what that means for the vegetation and how that affects wildlife and what that means for humankind,” because we’re tied into this process, not separate from it.  I still hear people say salmon comes from the grocery store, but the Pacific salmon’s life cycle begins in the creek and then moves to the oceans and is completed back in the same creek they were born in. If you like to eat salmon, we have to take care of the streams and the oceans.

We need more pioneers like myself and Juan Palma to help Latinos make this connection and embrace our nation’s public lands.

Q: How can engaged Latinos have their voices be heard?

RM: They can join organizations like HECHO, or vote for candidates that support their views. They can participate in public meetings and the planning process. We’re seeing more of that engagement from our stakeholders in particular with social media – BLM has more opportunities to interact with our stakeholders who tell us what they like or don’t like.

Q: Do you feel like you’ve made a difference?

RM: I believe so. When I started in the early 1980s, the BLM was completely different than it is today. I was happy to be a part of that growth. When I look at the 1980s compared to today, there are extremes on both sides that have polarizing positions on how to manage public lands, but there are far more people who want to work collaboratively so that we all get what we want at the end of the day. The polarization piece always makes the news, but there are more people who want to figure out how do we work together collaboratively to come out with something that works for everybody. There is a saying that you can go further together than alone.  For much of my career I have always worked collaboratively both internally and externally to have needs met. 

Raul Morales at an Anasazi site in Utah

Raul Morales at an Anasazi site in Utah

Also, I ‘d like to believe I am a role model for Latinos since they can see me with a good job in the federal government. I hope that rubs off on the younger Latinos in HECHO. Hopefully they see there’s someone that is successful because he is enjoying what he does and is having a positive impact with what he is doing.

Q: Do you have any advice for younger Latinos?

RM: It sounds corny, but follow your dream. When I was growing up I knew I wanted to do something with animals, but my dad said it would be tough to find a job in wildlife and I was discouraged.  He was being up front with me but I still went for it and look where I am today.

Follow your dream because you don’t know where it’s going to take you. Even if it doesn’t take you to the natural resources field, being aware of natural resources is important no matter what job you have. For example, if you’re an engineer and you are designing a bridge and you have an appreciation of the area, you can minimize the bridge’s impact on the natural surroundings.

Don’t lose appreciation for nature if it’s already in you. Keep at it and use it as you grow. If natural resources is not your career path we still need people who have careers that are outside of natural resources management who value and support what we in the natural resource fields are trying to accomplish. Remembering those outdoor experiences and values will hopefully carry over with you, no matter what your careers is.

Q: Any final thoughts?

RM: If there’s anyone out there that feels like they’re not good enough, don’t let that be a hurdle – figure out how to get over it. We all bring our own unique skills and values and strengths to the table and we need that diversity of skills to figure out how to move forward.