NMFS Head, Will Stelle, Steps Down
by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
The Northwest's most powerful salmon official is leaving the National Marine Fisheries Service on Friday for a post at the prestigious law firm Preston Gates & Ellis.
And he leaves maintaining his stance that breaching the four lower Snake River dams is "far too simplistic a solution" for reversing the vast regional salmon decline.
Since 1994, few people have influenced the direction of Columbia Basin salmon recovery as much as Will Stelle, 49, the agency's regional administrator in Seattle.
He's been misconstrued, pilloried and praised -- and at times the object of much anger in Eastern Washington, as he's wielded the Endangered Species Act for the Clinton administration.
"The greatest difficulty in this job has not been the pulling and tugging from lots of different sectors, but the challenge of searching for and defining good durable solutions," he said. "The tug-of-wars and the finger pointing and the rhetoric really has been secondary to that."
Stelle, a political appointee, leaves his post proud of the salmon plan his agency has created and eager to enter private practice.
"I think he's gotten tired of the hot seat," Tim Stearns of the National Wildlife Federation's Seattle office told The Associated Press.
"We are not surprised Will is leaving. It was a question of when. But there is a real disappointment on our part that we still don't have a clear direction on salmon," Stearns said.
Stelle said a big part of the reason he's leaving now is that NMFS has completed the first stage of salmon recovery and there's a natural break at the front end of putting plans in action.
"We have managed to put in place the basic features of salmon recovery," he said Saturday from his suburban Seattle home. "We have put in place the basic protective rules and ... (provided) an opportunity for state and local entities to implement local conservation efforts on behalf of salmon."
He also said the coming presidential election wasn't a major factor in his decision.
"Regardless of the outcome of the election, I would be doing what I am doing. It's a good time for me to move to the private sector and ... from an institutional perspective, new leadership is always good from time to time."
When Stelle began his NMFS job, the Northwest was just starting to shift focus from the spotted owl controversy -- another politically charged issue he worked on -- to the multiple failing runs of wild salmon from British Columbia to California.
Since then, the agency has officially listed about a dozen salmon and steelhead species, a time-consuming legal process that has drawn criticism from multiple interest groups.
Stelle said the most surprising difficulty of his regime has been trying to connect with American Indian tribes.
"One would have thought ... there would have been a natural affinity between these endangered species efforts and the ... tribes of the Columbia Basin," he said.
For a variety of historical, political and practical reasons, however, "it's proven to be more of a challenge."
Another huge challenge has been determining the future of the four lower Snake River dams, targeted for potential removal to help wild salmon runs survive.
NMFS's plan now is to continue studying the dams to see if their removal is necessary. It's proposing a set of "triggers" that would automatically send the dam breaching option to Congress for debate, depending on the success of less drastic recovery efforts.
Stelle said NMFS hasn't ducked the question.
"That is absolutely a decision," he said. "That decision represents the judgment that jumping to a conclusion that we should be putting the Snake River dam issue on the top of the list of things to do immediately is premature.
"It represents the judgment that taking off the table the issue of the Snake River dams forever is also premature," he said. "And it represents the judgment that ... we should continue to do our homework as we ... pursue higher priorities first."
Stelle, a marine lawyer by education, will stay in Seattle and expects to continue working on endangered species issues. His new employer is one of the oldest and most respected law firms on the West Coast, and is especially active in environmental law.
Donna Darm, Stelle's longtime assistant and key player in most recovery issues, will become acting administrator. Stelle doesn't predict any "significant diversions" from the NMFS plan.
The key now, said Stelle, is public education about "what is necessary" and providing opportunities for actions that "make sense to the person on the street."
Said Stelle: "The greatest impediments to salmon recovery is a lack of understanding and the resistance that comes from it.
"Attitudes are changing and that change is inexorable. The barriers are less a problem of attitude and more a problem of clarity."
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs