New Look for the Fish and Wildlife Commission?

By Ben Miller of Eugene, Oregon. Ben describes himself as a "former biologist/current law student with a focus on state fisheries and wildlife law and policy." He also disclaims: "My views are my own, and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer or co-workers."

Sunday, the Medford Mail Tribune reported that the Gov is going to nominate systems analyst Dr. Gretchen Oosterhout of Eagle Point to replace Jacksonville lawyer Don Denman on the Fish and Wildlife Commission. The good doctor has an impressive technical background: an MS in Mechanical Engineering and a PhD in Systems Sciences, both from Portland State. However, her policy credentials appear to be lacking.

Dr. Oosterhout was part of a duo in 2001 who crafted the computer model predicting wild Snake River chinook salmon would become functionally extinct by 2017 under current Columbia River Basin management. She also recently co-authored a paper in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences that concludes altering fish-hatchery practices shows no long-term benefits for helping recover Oregon’s wild coastal coho.

Her nomination comes as at a critical time for the Department. ODFW failed during the legislative session to secure crucial elements of their wolf plan, recently published a bleak native fish status report and is embarking on a controversial update to their cougar plan.

Agriculture, timber and “rural” interests are already ramping up to oppose her nomination. Dr. Oosterhout would represent the Second Congressional District, encompassing eastern and parts of southern Oregon. Powerful Senators are likely to oppose her nomination on the grounds that she doesn’t represent rural Oregon.

The Governor’s office would do well to learn from the past. It was only a few years ago that Jim Greer, a seasoned ODFW staff member, scientist and former Director, was forced out due to his poor dealings with the key Senators. His lack of political sense left ODFW as the whipping boy for several years and necessitated a reigning in of the “rogue agency” in a HQ move from Portland down to Salem in 2001. Already Dr. Dan Edge, the fisheries and wildlife department head from Oregon State University, provides a level of technical expertise on the Commission. However, Commissioners aren’t called to be experts on the science; that is the role staff play. Commissioners, particularly in controversial and polarizing fields, need to make difficult policy decisions and be responsive to elected officials in order to effectively serve.

No one is disputing Dr. Oosterhout’s strong resume. She has proven herself an objective professional in her field. However, the political reality is that more than objective professionalism is needed to represent the Second District. I remain undecided myself as to whether I support or oppose her nomination. While a fantastic scientist, her nomination is to a policy position. And while amply qualified for the technical side of those decisions, history shows us that the fallout from having people who are not politically savvy on agency boards and commissions can be severe. Here we have someone who may be a great scientist, but bad for ODFW politically. Look for an ugly confirmation fight if she gets the ultimate nomination.

  • coho (unverified)

    I'm not sure what the author's objection to Oosterhout is. Is she too strongly pro-conservation? Too much of an advocate for fish and wildlife? Not experienced enough in natural resource conflicts? On all these counts, Oosterhout is extremely well qualified.

    With the Board of Forestry, Kulongoski tried to have it both ways. In Les AuCoin he tried to nominate someone who was nominally an advocate for conservation while at the same time having a strong political background (and past ties with the logging industry). It blew up in his face. The AuCoin's reception from the conservation community was tepid at best, while the logging industry went ballistic at having anyone on the board that didn't march in lockstep with their desires.

    Hopefully, the lesson Kulongoski learned from this experience is that people voted him into office to represent Oregon values. Conservation is at the core of those values. It would seem to me that Democratic Governor who professes strong environmental convictions should be nominating people to serve on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, Board of Forestry, Water Resources Commission, etc... who represent those values.

    Sure, it would make the logging industry happier if instead of Oosterhout the Governor were to nominate a logging company executive. The Farm Bureau would be vastly happier if he nominated a rancher. The real estate developers would love to see one of their own. A former legislator with strong ties to any of these industries would be a very safe and easy nomination.

    But this is the Fish and Wildlife Commission, not the logging, cattle, real estate development, or political horse-trading commission. It is high time an advocate for fish and wildlife, with an honest to goodness background in science and natural resource conflicts, served on that body.

    Kudos to Kulongoski for finally taking a few strong pro-environment stands. If he expects conservation-minded voters to get excited about his re-election bid, and to turn, write checks, and volunteer for him, he needs to do this and more.

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