the film
Commentaries and editorials

Marine Agency Director Quits for Seattle Job

by Rebecca Cook
The Oregonian, September 10, 2000

Will Stelle led the regional office of the National Marine Fisheries Service
through choppy waters in the salmon debate

After six years in the Northwest salmon-recovery hot seat, Will Stelle is leaving the National Marine Fisheries Service to be an attorney in Seattle.

Stelle, 49, took the job as the agency's regional director at a time when the salmon crisis was becoming big news. Now, rivers in the Northwest are home to numerous fish runs protected under the Endangered Species Act, and the National Marine Fisheries Service has a say in land use on both sides of the Cascades.

While six years was enough, Stelle said he feels great about the work done in that time and is optimistic that salmon recovery will be successful in the region. His last day in the fisheries job will be Friday.

"Obviously mistakes have been made and things sometimes turn out the way you don't necessarily plan them to, but as a general matter, I absolutely believe we've got the basic building blocks in place" for a successful recovery, he said Saturday.

As a father of four and sole family breadwinner, he's ready to earn more than his $130,200 government salary. He joins Seattle's Preston Gates Ellis law firm as a partner Oct. 2.

"I hope I'm going to be working on the Endangered Species Act and water issues and advising both counties and municipal governments and the private sector on how to work their way through these Endangered Species Act issues," he said.

The fisheries agency has been at the center of controversy on several issues, including resumption of whaling by the Makah tribe and protection of sea lions. But dwindling salmon runs have been the hottest issue for the agency, putting it in the middle of states, tribes, environmentalists and private industry in fights over Snake River dam-breaching, irrigation and hatchery practices.

"I think he's gotten tired of the hot seat," said Tim Stearns of the National Wildlife Federation's Seattle office.

"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.

"We needed someone to frame up our choices and make decisions early, and he chose to put off decisions," he said.

Others disagree.

"No one is paid enough to take that kind of abuse," said Bill Bakke of the Native Fish Society in Portland, who praised Stelle's bids for hatchery reform and defense of wild fish.

"I give him high marks," Bakke said. "The most important hatchery reform in the Northwest is happening because of (National Marine Fisheries Service's) efforts. They stood their ground at great political cost, and I give them all kinds of credit on that."

Environmentalists in Oregon also are grateful for the agency's efforts in 1998 to reform timber practices to protect fish.

Stelle said conflicts were to be expected when making the types of changes necessary to protect fish. Despite the many flare-ups, they didn't wear him down, he said. He said he was ready for change and so was the agency.

"I love this stuff," he said. "The subject matter is great, and it hasn't worn me down in the slightest, largely because the topic itself is absolutely fascinating."

The initial phase of salmon recovery is complete, he said: Fish are listed, and broad rules requiring their protection have been issued, leaving room for state and local decisions on how to proceed.

The second phase will involve working out the details and putting the strategy in place.

Donna Darm, the agency's assistant regional director, will become acting head of the regional office, but Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., is concerned that the changeover will set back the agency's work on salmon issues, said Joe Sheffo, Smith's press secretary.

"The senator would be concerned that this transition period will further push off the implementation of salmon recovery efforts that will be measured in about five years' time in terms of the progress made and how that progress will offset the need to breach the dams," Sheffo said.

But Stelle said Darm's experience will ensure a smooth changeover.

"I think it's a good question to ask, and I'm absolutely convinced it's not a problem," he said. "The program itself has really been a team effort, and it will continue as a team effort. I think Donna knows all of the features of the program as well as I do, and so I'm convinced it will be a seamless transition."

Wire and Staff
Marine Agency Director Quits for Seattle Job
The Oregonian, September 10, 2000

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation