Center Stage Employee - Allison Baker Cochroan

April 2014

Allison Baker Cochroan surveying endangered bats in a caveMore than Just a Job

Public service is the key to understanding Allison Baker Cochran, district wildlife biologist on the Bankhead National Forest.  A conversation with her is laced with references to the general public and shines through the execution of her technical duties, as well.

Much of Cochran’s time is spent in the field where wildlife is central to her focus. But she never loses sight of the habitat, the environment, the big picture. People are part of that picture in a number of ways including public access and awareness. “If the public does not understand something about the management of their forests,” she says, “they will not support the helpful programs of the Forest Service.” 

Working with the Forest Service brought the importance of the public to bear on Cochran’s perspective and keeps it in focus. She is ever mindful of the public and the many visitors she encounters on the Bankhead.

Taking her responsibilities beyond the bounds of the national forest, Cochran “thinks outside the forest world,” as she so aptly describes her viewpoint, and takes every opportunity to become involved with the public. She periodically addresses civic groups such as the Lion’s Club and delights in talking to public school students about the national forests, wildlife and conservation. “Educating the public,” Cochran says, “is important. To realize conservation goals, the general public must understand the value of conservation efforts, not only on the national forests, but on private lands.”

Cochran wants to increase the public awareness of the importance of work being done by the Forest Service. That is why she takes the message of conservation to community leaders, increasing their understanding of the issues and making the conservation of natural resources relevant to everyone. “It’s helpful,” she observes, “to reach students early for the best influence.”

By extending the reach of her commitment into private conservation organizations in her off duty time, Cochran remains attentive to the goal of public education in the belief that an informed body of citizens will sustain the important work being done by the Forest Service. Besides fulfilling her duties to the public, Cochran also sees these opportunities as a means of implementing vital conservation activities.

Heart on the Bankhead

“We are doing great things with wildlife management on the Bankhead,” Allison says. She is proud of the Forest Service activities there and boasts that the Bankhead is among the most beautiful of all national forests. But she understands that the natural beauty that has such wide appeal is maintained by the concerted effort of conservation.

Cochran notes that the Forest Service has a research division that provides very helpful information for conservation purposes. “We’re still learning about animals,” she notes while stressing the importance of habitat development. Restoration of the longleaf pine tree, an important project for the Forest Service and many partner agencies and organizations, immediately comes to her mind as an important example of how wildlife benefits from solid conservation work.

Acknowledging that conservation issues involve context and the larger environment, Cochran is dedicated to continuing that emphasis. One of the new projects being addressed on the Bankhead is restoration of the native shortleaf pine, which, like the longleaf, had been mostly eliminated in Alabama and which, like the longleaf, provides habitat to an abundance of varied wildlife. A public demonstration area for the shortleaf is being planned for the Bankhead.

The Bankhead success of restoring native forests would not be possible without teamwork, Cochran cautions, and she is proud of the high level of teamwork that has been achieved on the Bankhead. “It is a matter of successful people working together toward success,” she says, a matter of “helping others work together toward a common goal.”

Reaching goals, Cochran says, is partly a matter of persistence, trying new things until success is attained. She is glad to be part of a great team and observes that no one can be successful alone and no single program can claim preeminence. The Forest Service is doing good work, she notes, because of effective partnerships with people working together and reaching out to others.

Focus on Preparation

It was an interesting process that led Allison Cochran to a perspective combining appreciation for both a rigorous scientific foundation and a commitment to public service. With an interest in wildlife and natural resources, Allison enrolled at Auburn University and gradually found her career path. Without predetermination on an exact course, she found herself guided toward the Forest Service beginning with laboratory exercises performed on the Tuskegee National Forest near Auburn. That led to a coop program at Auburn with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a national wildlife refuge.

With alternating quarters of academic courses and work, she attained the scientific foundation essential to specific duties and exposure to numerous people visiting the wildlife refuge. She saw first-hand what was involved in the management of public lands for the public benefit. She had ground level experience working in the forest and with people and determined that she wanted a career in forest management.

Not long after graduation, Allison joined the Forest Service in 2001 as a wildlife technician and biological scientist, finding the experience extremely valuable. “I learned the job from the bottom all the way through implementation,” she observes, and values the experience as the best way to learn. Having been exposed to the big picture, Cochran acquired the specific knowledge and skills to be successful. 

She also found mentors and readily acknowledges their importance and influence. One of the first was Forest Service employee Joy Malone who spoke to her class at Auburn University regarding careers and management, guiding her to see the impact on public lands that active work could achieve. 

After joining the Forest Service, she was fortunate to find Tom Counts, now retired, whose “old school” Natural Resource Conservation Service perspective helped instill respect and attention to detail as well as impressing her with the public aspect of her responsibility. “We work for the resource first and foremost,” he told her on her first day of work, “regardless of the agency that employs us.” Then, Allison relates, “he handed me a copy of Gifford Pinchot’s “Precepts for Foresters in Public Office”. It’s still on my desk and I look at them every day,” she adds. 

Allison also credits Dagmar Thurmond, staff officer for the National Forests in Alabama, as someone she has learned from. Although she cites the element of luck in locating mentors, Allison has given real thought to the nature of mentors and their important role in the development of others, believing that they are conscious of the instruction they provide and the personal development that occurs under their leadership. Strong mentors, she contends, can be a key for success.

But Cochran also believes that people accepting mentorship should be conscious of their own role and responsibility in the process. It helps tremendously, she suggests, to develop relationships with people who demonstrate leadership and management characteristics that can be respected.

Cochran sees, as part of her public duty, the responsibility to offer effective advice to others who are beginning their own careers. She encourages them to be conscious of mentorship but also to take logical active steps to help them determine a reasonable path. They should volunteer, she says, serve as interns, participate in job shadowing and seek coop programs to find the direction that is compatible with their interests and abilities.

Young people should heed what Allison Cochran advises. She has experienced the value of her words and offers them to the public. It is who she is and why she serves through the Forest Service.