Lessons from James Strock on Environmental Protection and the Government

This is a part of a series of excerpts from the book, Leadership in Environmental Issues: What Works ©, by managing partner Stephen Anderson. This excerpted material is from Chapter 2 on James M. Strock.

A consistent, thematic question for everyone involved in environmental issues is, “Can government legislate and enforce consistently enough to save our global climate?”

There is now a spirited public debate about whether and how environmental change can be achieved in the twenty-first century. After the extraordinary progress achieved in the mid- and late-twentieth century, the federal government has been increasingly inert.

The last major environmental statute to be enacted was the Clear Air Act Amendments of 1990. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has managed to become extremely controversial while often dropping the ball in its fundamental mission.

Two calamities in 2015 have placed the USEPA under the microscope. One was the agency’s pollution of the Animas River. Another was failure of all agencies – local, state and federal – to protect the population of Flint, Michigan, from exposure to toxic levels of lead in drinking water.

While many counsel despair, there are voices of optimism; one is that of James Strock. He has witnessed and participated in some of the great environmental accomplishments spurred by government in the past half-century. He has also been on the receiving end, spending half of his career in the private sector. He concludes that government’s role has been indispensable, yet must evolve to be effective in the changed circumstances of our time.

Strock is uniquely qualified to address government’s influence on the environment. He held senior-level responsibility as California’s first secretary for environmental protection from 1991-1997, and prior to that, as law enforcement chief for the USEPA, general counsel to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, counsel to the U.S. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, and special assistant to U.S. EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus, as well as a lawyer in private practice.

These were the early years of institutionalizing environmental change through government action. If the 1960s and 1970s were years of rising public awareness, often sparked by non-governmental-organization advocacy – the 1980s and 1990s were years of striking federal and state legislative and regulatory accomplishments.

Environmental values were reflected and reinforced by civil and criminal law enforcement, reaching not only large corporations, but also, smaller enterprises, individuals and government agencies themselves.

Strock’s interest in the environmental field was piqued by childhood reading about Theodore Roosevelt. Jim’s own book, “Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership” published in 2001 summarized the achievement of the first great environmental president, “His eye for the future sharpened by his familiarity with the past, Roosevelt undertook an unprecedented agenda of natural resources conservation – embracing 150 million acres of land into federal protection – presaging future generations’ environmental consciousness.”

Like many others who came of age in the mid-twentieth century, Strock turned to the law as a means to participate in environmental issues. He attended Harvard Law School. As was common in the late 1970’s and early 1980s, Harvard had limited environmental law offerings in its curriculum. The Law School then, as it does now, was liberal in allowing students to plumb all available resources: “Pursue your own passions, and also think about how to take advantages of opportunities for advanced work, fellowships, and courses elsewhere in the University.” (Harvard Law School Programs of Study). Today the Law School offers more than 400 courses, seminars, and reading groups on the environment and related topics.

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