April 30, 2004 - From the April, 2004 issue

Whither Governor Davis' Cabinet Officials? Nichols Joins UCLA's Center For The Environment

TPR is pleased to present this interview with Mary Nichols, Resources Secretary under Governor Davis and now the Director of the Institute of the Environment at UCLA, in which she assesses the environmental accomplishments of the Davis administration and the challenges ahead for the Schwarzenegger administration.

Mary Nichols

Mary, it's six months now since the new administration of Governor Schwarzenegger replaced Gray Davis' administration and you retired from the cabinet. Remind our readers what you had hoped to accomplish as Natural Resources Secretary and of the legacy you left behind.

There were two major projects I was working on when the recall interrupted my stay in Sacramento. The first project was completing some major land purchases, transactions that we were able to start because of money brought into the state Resources Agency through Propositions 12, 13, 40 and 50. The second project was the final resolution of California's obligation to reduce its share of Colorado River water down to the levels that are allowed under federal law. So, although I can't say that I was looking forward to leaving after only five years as secretary, I was very happy to have concluded both of these tasks successfully.

In those five years, what were you trying to accomplish by way of changes in bureacratic culture and agency programs that you believe will have lasting value for the state and for natural resources in California?

First and foremost, a shift in focus towards urban natural resources-places where people actually live-was the most important thing that wewere able to accomplish during that five-year period. The fact that we went to the public and got support for spending money on land acquisition gave us the moral, as well as financial, clout to go out and start to aggressively pursue some big land projects that had needed to be done for many years. Although not all land use ought to be driven by government purchases, clearly without some public funding, it is nearly impossible to be able to implement agreements like the San Diego Natural Communities Conservation Plan.

The shift in emphasis to Southern California also made a huge difference. I was the first Resources Secretary ever to come from this part of the state, and certainly the only person who came from a background not only of being an environmental activist, but having worked on pollution issues, as opposed to traditional land and water conservation issues. The choice was a very deliberate one by Gray Davis. I brought to the job experience and a network that might have been harder for somebody else to establish quickly. At the end of our five years, we now have people who live and work in Sacramento, but who know how to get to the Cornfield, who know how to participate in a community meeting downtown or in East L.A., who know who the members of the City Council are-and, not only in the City of Los Angeles, but in a lot of the smaller cities in the region. That was not the case five years ago.

With the passing of just six months, how much of that legacy and agency orientation is being maintained, in your opinion?

In spite of a horrendous budget situation, the new administration is showing a commitment to maintain, expand on, and even surpass our efforts in some areas. Terry Tamminen is a bold choice for Cal EPA Secretary. He's a person who can't be confined to any single box on issues, and certainly he is not a partisan person. He is a passionate environmentalist, but he is somebody who also is willing to try all kinds of unconventional means to get to results. And, he seems to have hit the ground running.

Mike Chrisman was on the Fish and Game Commission when I arrived in Sacramento, and I saw him in action. Since he's been appointed, I've talked to him several times. He's got a tougher challenge because of the size of the budget caps that he has to deal with, and the need to deal with some real reductions in work force. Overall, he's a solid choice for the position.

Former Governor Gray Davis appointed you to the Coastal Commission as he was leaving office, and your gubernatorial appointment is unprotected by law. Nevertheless, you remain today on the commission. Tell us about your new responsibilities and the challenges.

The Coastal Commission is a demanding commission to serve on. In order to do the job, you really have to spend at least a full week out of the month between the meetings-which are three days long-doing the preparation. Unless you absolutely refuse to talk to anybody who appears before the commission, you end up not only having some meetings but actually going out and looking at some sites so you have a better sense of what they're talking about when they come before you.

It's also just an awesome responsibility because the Coastal Commission is the court of last resort, with many cases and decisions that are going to have very long lasting and widespread impacts. We cover everything from the future of LNG or desalination to the border fence, which was an issue at the last meeting that I attended.

Let's turn to your role at UCLA's Institute of the Environment. Describe for our readers your position and responsibilities.

I am the new director of the Institute of the Environment at UCLA, which is a unique entity on campus. It's a freestanding academic unit that conducts inter-disciplinary research, organizes classes and conducts programs in the community on the environment. It was formed back in the early 90s by a group of faculty from around the campus-public health, science, law, public policy, and even people from art and architecture. It's been very much an activity that was driven by interest on the part of the students and the faculty.

The Chancellor and Vice Chancellor at the time blessed the Institute during a period when the University was richer than it is right now. Over the years, the Institute has sponsored a lot of different projects and programs. A combination of Rich Turcot's decision to step down as director, the onset of the budget crisis, and the sense that maybe the Institute needed to step back and do some strategic planning made this an interesting opportunity for me. After all of the work I've done over the last 20 years in various venues on environmental issues, it was a golden moment to come into an institution that has the potential to bring the best science and the best in policy together to make a difference in this region.

You've long addressed the environment through the prism of regions, whether it be river basins, water basins or watersheds. Yet, as we've often conversed, there's very little in the way of a governance structure to support, lead, guide and envision our regions as a place to integrate our programs, our investments and our workforce. Will this constitutional deficiency be a focus of your work at UCLA?


It is already a focus. One of our newest faculty members at the Institute is Stephanie Pincetl, who most recently was at USC. Stephanie is a planner with a very strong history and background in doing regional planning and modeling and assessments, and who is looking to build a program around issues of regional sustainability-helping to define what that means, developing metrics for it as well as actually getting out and working with people on how to implement some of the ideas they have.

My background and my continuing involvement in political/policy and community activity are primarily around watershed and coastal watershed issues. The legal mandates and potential penalties for failure to enforce the Clean Water Act and TMDL program represent one of the driving forces for better regional integration and regional planning.

Respond to the critics of one of the priorities that you were so effective in advancing-the urbanization of the state's parks agenda. There are critics who say that the Cornfields project is an example of a failure in the sense that there is little citizen engagement in its planning. Critics also suggest that there's an inability by the state to function as a regional planning body to make its parks come to life in an urban political setting. Help set the record straight.

I can't deny that the State Parks Department is not the catalyst that we are all looking for to bring together all of the regional actors to develop a vision for the Confield and beyond. We made a valiant effort by putting staff into the region, people who had political experience and savvy and who want to do the right thing. But, there is nobody I found who has the ability to force cooperation among agencies that don't want to work together. The only incentive we have in our favor is money, which could be an enticement.

Actually, you could say that the money that we were able to put into the Cornfield, and even more so into Taylor Yard, did produce a level of collaboration unlike anything I've ever seen before. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, State Parks, the City of L.A., and legislators from the L.A. area all collaborated to put together a vision for accommodating the various needs of the stakeholders in these projects-the people who wanted soccer fields, the needs of the city for control and for revenue to allow for the continued operation of the soccer field, and the need of the State to protect the riparian area and to try to get at the long-term and very difficult problem of restoring the Los Angeles River as a functioning water body.

One of the things that makes me optimistic that it can still happen is the presence of people on the City Council who have been at the state level and who understand how to work with the state. Also, there are people on the Council who have had the experience of seeing what you could get if you ask the right questions and bring state agencies in and let them help you, as Ed Reyes has with the L.A. River restoration.

Cal-Fed and water policy-what is your legacy?

Cal-Fed is doing an amazing job of making the transition from a plan to an operating program. Cal-Fed became a department within the Resources Agency. It has a governing board, an authority of appointees at the state level, including people from Southern California. And, Cal-Fed continues to have active involvement from environmental organizations, water agencies and legislative.

Cal-Fed is doing projects. They are sponsoring research, they're doing restoration work, and they are moving towards coming out with some actual water storage and conveyance facilities to help fix the plumbing system as well. Nothing in water seems to happen very quickly. But, I think we've gone from hearing, "Cal-Fed is on the verge of failure, Cal-Fed is about to blow up," which was practically a weekly story during the time that I was there, to almost quiet on that front. Most of what Cal-Fed is doing now is involved with implementing the plan. It doesn't mean the various historically warring interest groups necessarily have agreed to see eye-to-eye. But, at least they've laid some of their weapons aside while they try to make this thing work.

Lastly, Mary, how well does California's regional and state environmental resources agenda presently mesh with the federal resources stewardship agenda?

That's a difficult question. I noticed when I looked at Terry Tamminen's last interview with MIR that he was making the point that a moderate Republican could work better with the Bush Administration because there wouldn't be the partisan bickering that there was between the Davis Administration and the Bush Administration. I hope that's true, because we did have a very difficult time getting Washington not to view everything that happened in California as a threat and a problem.

On the other hand, I've also seen Governor Schwarzenegger quoted recently as saying that he intends fulfill his obligations as a Republican in good standing to support the President for reelection. I don't know how active he plans to be during the re-election campaign, but on a whole host of environmental issues, the Bush Administration has been the historic low point in the last decade, and certainly in the last four years, in a whole host of different regulatory and legislative areas.

It's going to be very tough for Terry and for the Governor. If they can succeed, for example, where we were unable to get even a friendly Democratic administration to recognize that California's interest in air quality and its economic well being would be better served by not enforcing a mandate that requires us to dump ethanol into our gasoline supply, that would be a truly remarkable and wonderful feat. But, I suspect that's not going to happen.


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