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David Helvarg

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Obama, Nixon and NOAA

Posted: 01/23/2012 5:39 pm

In his recent announcement about reorganizing government, President Obama gave an example right out of my book Blue Frontier. "As it turns out, the Interior Department is in charge of salmon in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in saltwater. Apparently, this all had something to do with President Nixon being unhappy with his Interior Secretary for criticizing the Vietnam War," the President explained.

He's right, which is why I titled that chapter 'Drowning in Red Tape.'

Let's take that multi-jurisdictional salmon that almost everyone has. A not untypical fish going up the Columbia River to spawn may pass through some three dozen different governmental jurisdictions, all of them influenced by the votes and money salmon lack -- by ranchers, loggers, fishermen, hydroelectric dam operators and their beer-and soda-can-producing customers in the aluminum industry, by shore side developers and the International Association of Shopping Centers -- all wanting a piece of that fish or its watershed.

Today, despite calls for reform by two major ocean commissions in 2003 and 2004 (one led by now Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta) strong national leadership for our public seas has only begun to emerge.

In July 2010 President Obama signed an Executive Order to create a first ever U.S. National Ocean Policy aimed at coordinating the uses of our ocean among the 27 federal agencies presently trying to regulate its stakeholders including the Navy, shipping industry, fishermen, energy producers and recreational users under 140 separate laws, with little or no communication among them.

Unfortunately, even if the President's commonsense ocean policy is implemented, (despite resistance from the offshore oil industry) NOAA, as the main civilian agency for the ocean, is not well situated to take on a leadership role, given its placement in the business and trade oriented Department of Commerce.

Among the sins of Richard Nixon few historians count the more than 40 years of failed U.S. ocean policy that has resulted from that placement. On July 9, 1970, the same day he established the Environmental Protection Agency as an independent arm of government, Nixon created and sank NOAA by assigning it to the Department of Commerce, then being run by his campaign fundraiser and future Watergate bagman Maurice Stans.

Representative John Dingell of Michigan blasted the president's action, describing the newly established NOAA as the handmaiden of a Department of Commerce so dominated by industrial interests "as to be incapable of objectivity on issues of the marine environment."

Logically, an agency designed to study the weather and protect the nation's public seas might have found a home in the Department of the Interior, whose job is to manage and protect America's public lands and wilderness. The smart money in the marine community of that time certainly believed that if NOAA was not going to be an independent agency, then the Department of the Interior was where it was headed. What the smart money failed to realize is how personal spite and vindictiveness can have hugely disproportionate effects on public policy inside the Washington Beltway.

A few months earlier, on April 30, 1970, Nixon had ordered U.S. troops in Vietnam to invade neighboring Cambodia, which set off mass campus protests and National Guard and police killings of eight students including four at Kent State in Ohio. Deeply disturbed by this turn of events, Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel wrote a personal letter to the president. In it he expressed his growing reservations about Nixon's refusal to listen to the antiwar sentiments of the nation's young. Hickel's letter, dated May 6, 1970, read in part, "About 200 years ago there was emerging a great nation in the British Empire, and it found itself with a colony in violent protest by its youth... The outcome is history. My point is, if we read history, it clearly shows that youth in its protest must be heard."

Before reaching the White House, a copy of the letter (which had been circulated at Interior) was obtained by the Associated Press and published in the Washington Evening Star. The President and his aides went ballistic. Nixon told Hickel that he now considered him an "adversary." Hickel was blacklisted from White House events and became the target of a well-orchestrated campaign of press smears. Less than two months later NOAA was placed with Nixon loyalist Maurice Stans at Commerce. On Thanksgiving eve, Hickel was fired.

Today President Obama is offering a responsible plan to consolidate half a dozen economic offices within the Department of Commerce into a single business and trade entity and move NOAA over to the Department of Interior as Nixon might have done 42 years ago. It's unclear if in today's context however, with increasing uses of our public seas, a U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone established in 1983 six times the size of the Louisiana Purchase, and an ocean economy larger than our farm sector, if NOAA might be more useful as an independent agency overseeing this unique sector of our economy and environment. A proposal discussed by the ocean commission headed by Leon Panetta was the creation of a larger unified ocean agency with the U.S. Coast Guard (presently in the Department of Homeland Security) for Operations and NOAA for science and policy. While that kind of "Department of the Ocean," might be unrealistic in the present political context of shrinking government it might also serve the public interest by making better use of existing public servants and the most neglected of our armed services.

Unfortunately with the bitter partisanship in today's Washington it's hard to imagine the Republicans in Congress giving President Obama the power to implement even his far more modest governmental reorganization plan before next November's elections. Still, I'm not entirely without hope that we might yet restore the blue in our red, white and blue. There's no telling when or where a bout of sanity could break out.