Environmental Paragon

At age 77, South Bay Democratic State Senator Byron Sher is finally leaving Sacramento, forced out by term limits. Sher has been a part of every major piece of environmental legislation since he entered the Assembly in 1980.

Without Sher’s legislation, the California League of Conservation Voters—an organization that ranks elected officials based on how they vote on environmental bills—admits if would have little on which to rate other lawmakers.

To cite just two examples among many, in 1989 Sher jumpstarted curbside recycling programs across the state by requiring local governments to greatly reduce their waste streams. And when the Bush administration weakened the anti-pollution regulations for older power plants, Sher stepped in with legislation to circumvent those regulations, maintaining cleaner air for California.

You had a decent career as a Stanford law professor. What triggered you to go into public service?

A lot of my colleagues at the law faculty ask that question, saying it’s kind of an unsavory thing to become a state legislator. But I previously had had local government experience.

When you serve on a city council in a smaller community, it’s kind of a hobby. It carried no salary and it’s just something you did. But I enjoyed the balance and I enjoyed the competitiveness of working on issues that people didn’t always agree on. The legislature, which can be a full-time job, just grew out of that. Once you get into local government, and you like it, you start looking at other opportunities. When the incumbent Assembly member in our area was not going to run for reelection, I decided to go for it.

Before that teaching was my profession and politics was my hobby. After I got elected to the legislature, it got reversed.

How were you able to convince others that protecting our environment was so essential?

I’ve always been interested in protecting California’s resources. That’s what California’s all about—the wonderful natural resources we have here, such a diversity from the coast, the mountains and the desert, all within not too great a distance. And they’re always under threat. I saw that in even in the city council context.

In Sacramento, I knew from Day One that I wanted to be on the natural resources committee. And I succeeded to that chairmanship after four years in the Assembly and was the chair for almost the rest of my time there.

Do you think there’s another way to go about ensuring those protections outside of politics?

There are a lot of ways. Immediately you think of all the conservancies and foundations that are trying to identify sensitive lands along the coast and trying to get them protected. With the tremendous projected increase in population, anything that’s in private ownership is susceptible to being developed. These are nonprofits that try to act faster than government often can. In my district, Peninsula Open Space Trust has protected a lot of wonderful properties along the San Mateo County coast.

How much of your job has been responding to what the federal government has done recently?

Quite a bit. The current administration is no friend to the environment. We’re backsliding on federal laws that once provided protection. The Bush administration eliminated the New Source Review for the Clean Air Act. They claimed it was inhibiting utilities from modernizing their plants.

This had been the law of the whole country for 25 years. We wanted to make sure it would continue to be the law in California so we introduced Senate Bill 288. It didn’t impose any new requirements, just locked into place the ones that the federal government suddenly decided not to enforce.

We tried again this year on wetlands, after the federal government decided the Army Corps of Engineers no longer had jurisdiction over so-called intermittent wetlands. We introduced SB 1477, supported by the Audubon Society and other environmental groups, to lock protection for those wetlands into California law. The bill passed the Senate and failed in the policy committee over in the Assembly.

It was the major environmental bill that I carried this last year. We worked very hard on it and gathered a lot of support. But part of the dynamic is it’s harder to get some of these bills through the Assembly now than in times past.

There is a happy ending because the secretary of the California EPA recently sent me a copy of a letter asking the state water board to do the same thing by regulation.

Are there any regrets or sore spots on your career in Sacramento?

The area that I had the least success in was trying to update and strengthen the Forestry Act.

Another bill of mine that failed this year was my last effort to limit clear-cutting of old-growth forests. The industry has always resisted that, but I think the public strongly supports limits, particularly in the North Coast area where the redwoods are. That bill got to the Assembly floor, and we didn’t think we had the votes.

So who will carry the torch now?

My good friend Sheila Kuehl from Santa Monica has been the chair of the Senate Natural Resources committee. Gloria Romero from Los Angeles is quite interested in hazardous materials. These are talented legislators who have other interests too. I’m sure they’ll continue to be a force for the environment, but the question is, will they focus to the extent that I did?

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