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If you find the Salmon reference in the State of the Union funny, the environmental field is replete with more comedy material

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picture of a wild coho salmon

In President Obama's State of the Union Address he used the oddity of Salmon being an issue covered by both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA as an area of obvious duplication and inefficiency in government. The President named just that one example, but the numbers of others are almost too many to list.

Tonight in the State of the Union address President Obama cited the fact that both NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service both consider salmon as a part of their jurisdiction as a favorite example of his when he thinks about government reform and the need for a more efficient government.

If one is enjoying the salmon humor, but are are looking for yet another area of multiple jurisdictions overlapping in the federal government, an easy topic to research is the field of wetlands – their protection and restoration.  In the second half of the Bush (43) Administration a group of agencies came together, under the leadership of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to determine who was working on President’s 3-million acre wetlands goal, to track their progress, and examine the budgets of those same agencies whose activities would be key to President Bush achieving his goal. After more than a little digging the authors of the report on the progress toward the goal had copious amounts of budget and performance data pouring in from seemingly everywhere, and even though it seemed that we’d turned over every rock, another multi-million dollar program would be found and have to be included in the calculations. This happened numerous times. I know because I was there – crunching the budget and performance numbers week after week as more information arrived in bits and pieces. An optimistic policy analyst might think that finding the money would be easy, especially since we agreed not to even consider funds of less than a few numbered thousand. And since OMB was a part of the workgroup, this would be especially easy given that OMB is the President’s accountant – right?  Wrong.  Really, really wrong.  Budget planning is a fairly stovepiped process, both on the Hill in the Legislature and in the Executive branch. Common theme items rarely get compared within a single budget block, and almost never get coordinated across multiple budget blocks. The work is too difficult and time consuming and administration after administration has shrugged their shoulders and allowed a somewhat chaotic budget planning process to continue.

President Bush's Conserving Americas Wetlands Report

In 2005 President Bush's wetlands report had the unintended consequence of unearthing the multitude of agencies who all work on the same topic - wetlands.

But wait – there’s the 2005 wetlands report now, and the reports like it that were produced for the next three years.  Surely once the information was readily available we’d start using that information to proactively plan a coordinated budget. That might seem likely to some, but in Washington, D.C. budget coordination is usually labeled as crosscut budget planning, and budget analysts, understanding the workload that comes with crosscut budgets, stay as far away from that sorts of analysis whenever possible. With no specific mandate to do crosscut budget planning, or even the lower bar of  “joint budget presentations,” status quo processes continue. It may seem odd to those outside of DC that even joint budget presentations, where no advance planning is performed, but there a document that connects the dots for the sake of the legislature, also fails to be produced.  The failure resides in two places:  The Administration, for not allocating the incremental additional staff who would be needed to produce a joint budget presentation, and also Congress, for not asking the Executive branch to produce a budget proposal that optimally helps Congress make informed decisions.

We have a  long way to go on government efficiency, but perhaps the President’s funny reference to Salmon will stick in people’s heads, and both the Administration and the Hill will both take the process of budget planning a good deal more seriously than their predecessors.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com


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Written by Will Nuckols

January 25, 2011 at 10:53 pm

musings following the President’s SOTU address

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For those of us who track coastal issues it is notable, but not surprising, that not one mention was made to the oceans, with the exception of opening new areas of the OCS to devlopment.  Specifically, President Obama said “It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development.”

Any mention of other ocean or coastal issues?  Nope.  Nothing.  Not a peep.

Nothing about the continued downward spiral of many of our estuarine and ocean species which when they go, they take a piece of the national economy with them.

Nothing about the demise of corals – “the rain forests of the sea,” the link of an acidifying ocean to their continued demise, or the fact that this same ocean acidification is already harming parts of our shellfish industries.

Nothing about fixing the impediments to the blue-green industries who want to develop new ways to create power from wind and currents, but who spend their technology development money in other countries because there are so many impediments to ocean technology development here.

Is President Obama out of touch with public and the cry of millions to address the needs of our oceans and coasts?

He is not.  Not because there are no problems that need fixing, but rather because there are not millions of people calling for significant attention to be paid to this topic area.  The ocean community is far too quiet for political representatives to pay these topics the attention they deserve based on the substance of the issues and their importance to the health of our nation.

We are to blame for our lack of political relevance. Granted, some of us are in disagreement on what to do, thereby canceling out each others voices. But more importantly far too many are simply silent. Examine the public input into the work of the Ocean Policy Task Force.  Where are the multitude of voices of the many business interests whose viability requires that we do a better job of managing our oceans and coasts?  Far too few are even aware that the President called for policy recommendations so that he can issue our nation’s first national ocean policy.  We need to get significantly more engaged in our government.  Businesses, environmentalists, academics – all of us need to get back into the process of developing, and more importantly executing, effective coastal and ocean policies.

The broader community seems to have already given up on the idea of significant reform.  For example, the calls for an ocean czar, an accountable representative of the President who would be the focal point for ocean issues, are lately all but silent.  Senator Cantwell and a few of her colleagues have shown their annoyance at the lack of an accountable leader being established within the Administration, but more disturbingly, those of us who our government is supposed to represent – the public – have all but rolled over and decided that yet another matrixed approach to governing, which few in DC will understand or participate in, and yet fewer yet outside of DC will interact with as decisions are made, is just fine.

Perhaps we have gone into winter hibernation and with the warmth of spring we will wake up, once again attend one environmental event or another on a beach or along a river, and get inspired enough to get involved in the process.

But at that time it will likely be too late.  The President’s staff will have already set up the new org charts, determined their priorities, and be far to vested in their own ideas to revisit the idea of significant change. This is what happens when there is a vacuum of public input.

It is time for a broad community to get involved, speak directly to the President and call for more attention to be paid to oceans, coasts and the issues surrounding them.  We need a bigger tent if we are to make the headway we need.  So if you are in the ocean and coastal field, do what you can to invite others into the discussion.  Invite those with whom you agree.  Invite your opponents.  Invite as many people as you can so that when we get to the end of the process of setting a national policy that the process is both informed and has legitimacy.

And lets not wait until the next State of the Union to take stock of how we are doing.

Written by Will Nuckols

January 27, 2010 at 10:33 pm