November 16th, 1998
Politics and the Professional

by Ted Williams

Note: This article is an expanded, updated version of a piece that appeared in the September-October 1998 Audubon.
We thank Ted Williams for use permission!


In November 1995 Washington State voters overwhelmingly endorsed a ballot initiative by which their Fish and Wildlife Department director would be named by an independent, policy-setting commission rather than the governor. The state's once-rich salmon and steelhead stocks were extinct or headed for endangered-species status. The public wanted a professional resource manager--not another political appointee. The idea, revolutionary for Washington, was to put resources first.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission's search ended in July 1996 with the appointment of Dr. Bernard Shanks, an experienced biologist and manager with a well-earned national reputation for toughness, intelligence and integrity. The new director had worked as a Forest Service smokejumper, national park ranger, environmental journalist, outdoor survival instructor, environmental advisor to Bruce Babbitt when he was governor of Arizona, director of environmental health and safety at the University of California at Davis, and professor of natural resource management at two western universities.

Shanks quickly proved himself a superb choice. He stood by his biologists, consistently supporting their recommendations regardless of political fallout. He reached out to sportsmen and nonsportsmen. He spent a year and a half designing a wild-salmon policy based on his conviction--and, indeed, the fact--that too many wild fish were being taken by commercial fishermen and that hatcheries (which spread defective genes) are part of the problem rather than the solution. In Washington--which has 96 hatcheries, more than any other state or even the federal government--adult salmonids originating from artificially reared smolts can cost $300 each. Shanks suggested that if saturating the Pacific Ocean with domestic salmon and steelhead worked, there wouldn't be a salmonid crisis in the Northwest, especially in Washington State which pumps out 300 million fish a year.

The hatchery bureaucracy--which included a quarter of his employees--was scandalized. So were politicians, commercial fishermen and some anglers. In the summer of 1997 false rumors circulated that he was about to close 15 hatcheries. Commercial fishermen, politicians, hatchery workers and even local chapters of Trout Unlimited shrieked like gulls at a shut-down cannery. "Generally hatcheries are measured by production out the front door, not what comes back," remarks Shanks. "They are very much entrenched in our culture. And the situation is complicated by Indian tribes and commercial fishermen that are dependent on hatchery fish. The science on the genetics is so new it's not understood or accepted even among fisheries biologists. If you cross a sacred cow with a military base in Washington State, you get a fish hatchery."

Last summer, when he briefly closed sockeye salmon fishing around the San Juan Islands, he was unsuccessfully sued by 100 commercial fishermen for violation of their civil rights. Sockeyes tend to swim on the surface, while chinooks run deep. But when Shanks reopened the sockeye season the "accidental" catch of critically depressed chinooks was 35,000--more than the total return on allget Sound rivers projected for the summer of 1998. When he publicly referred to the slaughter as "obscene" commercial fishermen railed against him in the media, called him a "zealot," a "loose canon," a "Greenpeace environmentalist." Their lobbyist, Ed Owens demanded in writing that the commission restrain him.

But Shanks wouldn't shut up. "Our one client is fish," he declared. "My job is to take care of the fish, not the commercial or sports fisher.... You simply cannot look at the salmon crisis here in the Northwest and not be concerned about overharvest. We have met escapement goals for chinook for only two of the last twelve years. Commercial fishermen do not want to talk about overharvest; they want to talk about habitat. And they're right; we do have a habitat problem. We need to take down some of the dams. But we have an overharvest problem, too."

Soon four of the six commissioners were clamoring for Shanks' ouster, although they refused to say why. Chair Lisa Pelly declined to answer any of my questions other than to assert that she and other commission members had "lost confidence in the director." Repeatedly Shanks was hauled before the commission and raked over the coals. Never did he cower or equivocate. Always, he stood his ground, defending his decisions and those of the trained biologists who worked for him, acting like what he was--a professional resource manager. "I've experienced crude supervision," he told me. "I've been in the Marine Corps. I've worked as a farm laborer, as a janitor; I've fought forest fires. And these were the most abusive personnel sessions I've ever had."

When the department found itself with a $12 million shortfall in its $250 million budget, commission members and politicians representing commercial salmon fishermen accused Shanks of mismanagement. But the budget had been prepared by the previous administration, approved by the commission; and it had been submitted to governor three weeks after Shanks had taken office. The reason for the shortfall (which turned out to be only $1.5 million after Shanks took emergency actions) was a sharp decline in license revenue caused by such necessary management as shortening the season on endangered salmonids.

Shanks survived as long as he did because each time the commission met to fire him his supporters would walk out or not show up, nixing the quorum. But last summer, when the governor appointed three new members, the commission had the votes to get rid of him. Because Shanks feared that his firing, now inevitable, would bring on another ballot initiative and possibly a return to the spoils system, he agreed to resign on September 11.[1998]

"There are worse things than being unemployed," Bernard Shanks told me in July. But he was unemployed only for three weeks. Now he's planning wildlife research for the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia and making more money than he had been in Washington. "It's nice to be working with professionals," he says.
~ Ted Williams"


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