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.” Today, she would be the first to admit that her edict was a bit naïve. Her foray into politics, which ended last 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. The next big test came a year later in the Northwest. In August 2011, federal District Court Judge James Redden declared that the government’s plan for bringing endangered salmon runs back from the brink of extinction had once again failed to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
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 many 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 politicians like Sen. Patty Murray and former Gov. Gary Locke, 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 (then Secretary of Commerce) came up with a new plan: Let’s tinker with the Bush plan, reshuffle the deck and resubmit it. But Locke’s new biological opinion was dead on arrival in Redden’s court. Lubchenco told close friends that she had been handcuffed by politicians.
Then she saw the light: As a scientist, she knew the inevitable outcome would be extinction for the fish, so in May of 2012 she directed the Northwest office of NOAA to form a task force 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 science — brings her back to her opening declaration: “Science will not be muzzled.”
While Murray has now signed on, Hastings and the BPA remain opposed because they know they can’t win on science. More trustworthy heads are taking charge this time, and with all of the stakeholders at the table, salmon recovery may actually begin in earnest.
Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to High Country News (hcn.org), where a version of this first appeared. He lives in Oregon.