Gov.-elect Pete Wilson on Wednesday named as his secretary of resources a former Sierra Club director who pledged to aggressively mediate disputes between the environmental movement and the business community.
Douglas P. Wheeler, currently executive vice president of the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation Foundation, said he intends to be a “responsible activist” who will strive to include all points of view in the Administration’s decision-making process.
“It’s been my experience that you make more progress, achieve more conservation, through cooperation than through confrontation,” Wheeler said at a news conference with Wilson. “We need to adopt pragmatic and inclusive approaches if we’re going to solve these polarized issues.”
Wilson, who during last fall’s election opposed Propositions 128 and 130, known as “Big Green” and “Forests Forever” by their supporters, said he believes voters in rejecting both measures demonstrated that they do not want “radical environmental change” but seek instead to protect the state’s natural resources without grinding the economy to a halt.
He said that the centrist philosophy of Wheeler, a Republican, will “assure that both board chairmen and backpackers believe California is a state worth living and working in.”
Wilson declined to say how the Resources Agency would be affected by his proposed creation of a California Environmental Protection Agency, which would require reorganization of at least two Cabinet-level agencies.
The resources secretary currently oversees the Coastal Commission and the departments of Fish and Game, Water Resources and Forestry, among others. The environmental affairs secretary, whom Wilson has yet to name, supervises three semi-independent commissions that regulate air and water quality and waste management.
A 48-year-old native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Wheeler from 1972 to 1977 was a deputy assistant secretary of the Interior under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. In 1980 he founded the American Farmland Trust, a nationwide nonprofit group dedicated to preserving agricultural land in the face of rapid suburban development.
He was executive director of the Sierra Club from 1985 until 1987, when he left to become an executive at the Washington-based Conservation Foundation, the same environmental organization that produced William K. Reilly, administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Wheeler left the Sierra Club amid friction with the group’s volunteer activists and board members, many of whom disliked his management style. Wheeler was said to be too much an advocate of centralized control in an organization that historically was run from the bottom up with a great deal of involvement by grass-roots volunteers.
Still, Sierra Club leaders and other environmentalists applauded his appointment Wednesday, even while expressing some unease about Wheeler’s willingness to compromise with the business community.
Bob Hattoy, Southern California director for the Sierra Club, said Wheeler can pursue a “winning combination” of working with Republicans and grass-roots environmentalists at the same time.
“Doug makes environmentalists a little nervous because he’s such a corporate kind of guy, and he makes Republicans a little nervous because he’s such an environmentalist,” Hattoy said. “It makes a good bridge.”
Considering that most environmental organizations endorsed Wilson’s opponent, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, leaders in the movement said they could find little to quibble with in the governor-elect’s selection.
“John Muir isn’t governor of California; Pete Wilson is,” said Denis Hayes, who was coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970 and now directs Green Seal Inc., a nonprofit program that certifies commercial products as environmentally sound. “I think his interests are Wilson’s interests.”
Throughout his career, Wheeler has demonstrated a knack for working with--and sometimes criticizing--all sides on tough issues, while taking the middle road himself.
“He’s not going to be outspoken; he won’t be an aggressive leader taking unorthodox stands,” said Patricia Schifferle, a former Wilderness Society California representative and now a private environmental consultant. “But I think his past record demonstrates he has been willing to stand up for environmental protection.”
During the 1988 election campaign, Wheeler wrote an article for the Washington Post in which he rapped former President Ronald Reagan for appointing “insensitive” and “incompetent” environmental administrators. But in the same piece, Wheeler criticized the Sierra Club for being too rigidly partisan in its support for Democratic candidates, noting that the club objected when Wilson, then running for reelection to the Senate, used positive letters from the organization in his campaign commercials.
Wilson praised his nominee for understanding what needs to be done to “harmonize” environmental quality and economic development. He said recent history in the Legislature proves that partisan confrontation only produces stalemate.
“The hard lesson many interest groups have learned is that it is perhaps better to see if there isn’t some rational and perfectly legitimate way to accommodate one another (rather) than continue this rather unproductive warfare that leads to no progress for either side,” Wilson said.