The education of Dr. Jane Lubchenco

 

When renowned zoologist Jane Lubchenco was sworn in as President Obama's director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2009, she declared: “Science will be respected at NOAA; science will not be muzzled." Lubchenco's doctrine signaled a new day.

Today, four years later, she would be the first to admit that her edict was a bit naïve.  Her foray into politics, which ends this month, has been a wild ride through a policy minefield.

The first big media test for the former Oregon State University professor came in April 2010, when BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and spilling over 4 million barrels of oil into the sea. Lubchenco was the administration's face in front of the cameras, stammering her way through convoluted explanations of what went wrong to a bewildered press and an outraged public.

The next big test came a year later in the Pacific Northwest. In August 2011, federal District Court Judge James Redden declared that the U.S. government's biological opinion –– meaning its plan for bringing endangered salmon runs back from the brink of extinction –– had once again failed to meet the scientific requirements of the Endangered Species Act.  For the fourth time in 10 years, NOAA, the agency responsible for designing and implementing salmon recovery efforts, was declared derelict in its duties.

In the first case, Lubchenco was bushwhacked by the magnitude of the calamity and an administration dealing with its first full-blown environmental catastrophe.  The second was manufactured by her boss, then-Secretary of Commerce and former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, and his ally, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. Locke and Murray earned their political bona fides through unwavering loyalty to their state's utility industries and aluminum producers.  Throughout the 20-year-long, $10 billion battle over salmon recovery, those loyalties have pitted them against fishermen and conservationists as well against their neighboring state of Oregon.

When the battle over salmon recovery began 20 years ago, NOAA made a serious error when it gave the Bonneville Power Administration  -- the agency that manages the Columbia and Snake river dams -- the upper hand in writing the recovery plans.  Oregon joined with Indian tribes and conservation groups to challenge the first Clinton biological opinion.  In all four trips to the federal bench, Oregon has prevailed. Yet somehow, thanks to Washington state politicians, the official loser in this game (the BPA) has always been allowed to keep the ball.

After Judge Redden threw out the last Bush administration bi-op in 2009, Locke came up with a new plan: Let's tinker with the Bush plan, reshuffle the deck, and resubmit it as the Obama plan.

To make certain they hit no unexpected bumps along the way, aides to Sens. Murray and Maria Cantwell presented Lubchenco with a script on what to say when she travelled to Portland, Ore., for a hearing in Judge Redden’s court. Despite these shenanigans, Locke's new biological opinion was dead on arrival in Redden's court.  The judge took NOAA back to the woodshed, and a shamefaced Lubchenco told close friends that she had been handcuffed by politicians.

Then she saw the light: While the BPA was suppressing "the best available recovery science" about salmon, politicians were playing the role of her ventriloquists. As a scientist, she knew the inevitable outcome of this contest would be extinction for the fish, so in May of 2012, she directed the Northwest office of NOAA to form a task force of stakeholders to break the deadlock.

The stakeholder approach would finally confront politicians and the BPA with the problem they have never been able to solve. Congress did not pass an Endangered Utilities Act or an Endangered Politicians Act.  It passed an Endangered Species Act, and aquatic scientists are virtually unanimous in agreeing that extinction of the salmonids would be catastrophic for the Pacific Northwest’s ecosystem.

The specter of such a calamity never stopped the BPA or Washington Republican Rep. Doc Hastings from gaming the process. Yet Lubchenco's swan song -- a stakeholder process on neutral ground controlled by the best available science -- brings her back to her opening declaration: "Science will not be muzzled."

While Murray has now signed on, Doc Hastings and the BPA remain opposed to the new approach because they know they can't win on science. More trustworthy heads are taking charge this time, and with all of the stakeholders finally at the table, salmon recovery may actually begin in earnest.

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of
High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Oregon and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire through Indian Territory.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -