Gail Achterman has invited a few people for dinner. The food is sumptuous and the conversation is lively. Among the guests are a dean from Oregon State University, a natural resource specialist from the governor’s office, a couple of venture capitalists, a high-tech entrepreneur, a state legislator and several CEOs.
Achterman is the executive director of the new Institute for Natural Resources at Oregon State University. And this dinner is just one of many innovative ideas she has about how to run a research institute.
“The institute is a catalyst bringing people together to talk about how science at the university can help people in communities, businesses and government,” Achterman said.
“This is a service organization,” she said. “It is not driven by scientific hypothesis, but rather by public needs. We reach out to the public and hear their concerns and questions, then connect them with university experts who can help them find answers.”
The Institute for Natural Resources was created by the Oregon Legislature with the Oregon Sustainability Act of 2001. Since Achterman took over as the Institute’s director in 2003, she has moved quickly to find new ways to connect Oregon decision-makers with credible, science-based information about the state’s natural resource issues.
“Gail has brought enormous energy to the institute,” said Thayne Dutson, dean of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and chair of the search committee that helped select Achterman for the new post. “She has a lot of experience with natural resource policy and law, she has a lot of connections with agencies and organizations throughout the state, and she is very bright.”
Achterman grew up in Portland and left Oregon after high school for Stanford University. The Bay Area gave her plenty of opportunity to get involved in conservation issues, including Save the Bay, an effort to preserve San Francisco Bay as an estuary, not as subdivisions. Increasingly, she became focused on the land and the environmental laws that protect it.
In 1974, Achterman left the West Coast for the University of Michigan Law School. “It’s absurd to think that this fourth-generation Oregonian had to travel to Michigan to get academic training in environmental law,” she laughs, “but at the time that was the only program in the country that combined law and natural resource management.”
From Michigan, with her newly minted degrees in law and natural resources, Achterman went to Washington D.C., to the Interior Department Solicitor’s Office, at a time when new environmental legislation was finding its first foothold in environmental policy. Four years in Washington honed her expertise in public land law and policy and convinced her that she was finally ready to come home.
“I came back to Oregon to work in a private law practice at a time when environmental litigation was beginning to rev up,” Achterman said. “In the beginning, I was able to do everything, from cases involving clean water to land transactions.”
Her expert understanding of law, policy and science eventually landed her as the natural resource advisor in the office of Governor Neil Goldschmidt. “That’s when I got to work with lots of OSU people, including Norm Johnson in the College of Forestry and Thayne Dutson in the College of Agricultural Sciences,” Achterman said.
This was the beginning of many collaborations to follow, as Achterman continued to bring together scientists, government officials and the public. In less than a year under her direction, the Institute for Natural Resources has been asked to review salmon habitat plans for the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests, to help citizens in the Walla Walla Basin develop new approaches to watershed restoration and to support an interdisciplinary review of the state’s wildland fire management program.
The institute’s biggest project to date is the Willamette Basin Conservation Project, developing new ways to provide citizens with expertise and research on the state’s most populated bioregion.
“Environmental issues are complex and controversial—that’s something almost everyone agrees on,” Achterman said. “We all have opinions about how to manage forests, protect rivers and restore landscapes. But opinions differ, and there are lots of unanswered questions.”
Achterman isn’t waiting for people to call with questions. She’s prompting conversations with people around the state, connecting experts and decision-makers and building bridges between science and policy.