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An Interview with California’s Secretary of Natural Resources – John Laird


http://www.bilingualweekly.com Special to bw by Deanna Lynn Wulff

John Laird

CALIFORNIA- John Laird has a pivotal and powerful position. As the new California Secretary of Natural Resources, he is at the center of controversial issues such as Delta water management and park and wildlife protection. He must find solutions for more than two dozen state agencies and twenty-six conservancies and commissions, from the Department of Fish and Game to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. And it is a tough balancing act with the state’s tightening budget.

But Laird has the skills to do it. As a three-term assemblyman and a two-term Santa Cruz mayor, he has more than 35 years of experience. While an assemblyman, he wrote and authored 82 bills that were signed into law, including five nondiscrimination bills, one that required agricultural water districts to meter water for the first time, and the landmark Sierra Nevada Conservancy Bill, which promotes healthy forests and watersheds, while sustaining economic activity.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” said Peter Drekmeier, Tuolumne River Trust Program Director and former mayor of Palo Alto. “When he was an assemblyman, he was great. He’s in a position now where he has to come up with solutions to complex problems, rather than just being an advocate for the issues he feels most strongly about. That’s different. Being the leader of an agency takes more compromise. It must be incredibly challenging.”

When asked how he handles it, Laird jokes, “Sometimes, I go home and yell at the cat.” The agency’s departments occasionally work at cross purposes and managing them can be problematic. For example, the state invested $128 million in the restoration of the Battle Creek Watershed, including dam removal, but CalFire approved clear-cutting on private land in the same watershed, which may put the restoration project at risk. Laird’s staff is meeting with stakeholders and reviewing the situation, but there is no timeline on changes to the timber harvest plan.

Even more divisive is the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which has focused on a project that routes water away from the Delta, but is supposed to take part in the restoration of its ecosystem. According to a National Academy of Sciences Report, the BDCP draft plan has critical missing components, including clearly defined goals and a scientific analysis of the proposed project’s potential impacts on Delta species.

“You can’t restore the Delta and use it as a hub to create water supply reliability,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Campaign Director for Restore the Delta. “It’s not that we can’t share the water. We should just come up with a way to protect the estuary first.”

Laird insists that there can be no consideration of a tunnel, canal or a conveyance system, unless the habitat is restored, and notably, he’s opened up the BDCP planning process to the public. “The Delta is the Rubik’s Cube of public policy,” he said. “There are so many different interests, and 65 percent of the state gets its water from there.” The BDCP is funded by water agencies whose supplies represent about 17 percent of the water that would normally flow through the Delta. The remainder flows out to the ocean or is used by water agencies upstream of the Delta.

To be an effective arbiter of change, Laird will have to bring a diverse set of stakeholders together, including his own departments, more than 100 water districts and a bevy of state and federal agencies.

“Still, I am excited about the challenge,” he said. “I like coming to work every day.”

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About Deanna Lynn Wulff

Deanna is an activist, an editor and a writer. She is the Director of the Sierra National Monument Project (www.unitetheparks.org) and the author of the award-winning book, "The Girl's Guide to Getting Lost: Hard Hikes for Wild Women." Follow her blog, Minerva's Moxie, at deannalynnwulff.wordpress.com/.

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