Martha Williams played polo at the University of Virginia. It’s a distinctive sport that, much like the oversight of wildlife and public lands, demands both finesse and the spine to stay in the saddle.
The Maryland native then ventured more than 2,000 miles west to attend law school in Montana, and she’s been moving back and forth in state and federal policy circles ever since.
Now, at age 54, Williams is back East again, where her experience managing tricky challenges atop the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks helped launch her nomination to head the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold her confirmation hearing Wednesday, undoubtedly examining Williams’ track record in the state.
“Martha’s tenure was steady,” Montana FWP Commissioner Pat Byorth told E&E News. “She did not go in for radical changes but guided the ship on the right track. Martha welcomed contrasting groups, sometimes frustratingly so, and was objective but never activist.”
Byorth added that in the face of some “intractable” interest groups, Williams’ “balanced approach seemed to infuriate the more extreme elements, but [she] kept the ship upright.”
A former law professor and a committed outdoorswoman, who’s held hunting and fishing licenses in Alaska and Montana and a fishing license in Oregon, Williams led the Montana department of some 700 employees and 55 state parks, plus assorted fisheries, starting in 2017.
She has been FWS deputy director since January. The White House announced her nomination as director last month, seeking to elevate her to oversee roughly 8,000 employees, 560-plus national wildlife refuges and implementation of key federal laws like the Endangered Species Act (Greenwire, Oct. 22).
“For someone that’s interested in conservation, I’m like a kid in a candy store,” Williams told Helena’s Independent Record newspaper in April. “I can’t believe some of the issues I get to engage in. They’re issues I’ve always read about or studied, so to be part of it is thrilling.”
From lecture hall to public lands
Williams graduated from the private Garrison Forest School near Baltimore, where her father had started the highly regarded polo program, before attending Virginia.
After law school, Williams worked as an attorney for the Montana department she would later lead and then served as deputy Interior solicitor for parks and wildlife between 2011 and 2013 before returning as an assistant professor at the Blewett School of Law at the University of Montana.
She co-directed the university’s Land Use & Natural Resources Clinic and taught a variety of environmental law classes.
“When she lectured, you knew that she had seen a lot and been there,” former University of Montana graduate student Charlie Ebbers told E&E News. “Honestly, she seemed to pass the ‘good person’ test. She was fair with her students and sharp, kind and knows the business.”
Ebbers added that Williams, who served on his thesis committee, was “honest with me, thorough with my work, and held me to the task [and] … I know she’s well-respected in Helena and Missoula and that people always wanted her time.”
In writing scholarly articles for law reviews, Williams illuminated her thinking about issues that are central to the work of FWS, in particular, the Endangered Species Act.
In a 2016 Fordham Environmental Law Review article titled "Lessons From the Wolf Wars," Williams argued that we should “change the way we talk about the ESA, shifting our focus and ensuing rhetoric from delisting to species recovery.”
The difficulty of delisting a species can “mask the success of the ESA in facilitating a species’ recovery,” Williams wrote, and she noted there is often “little room for delisting healthy populations of a species that is still recovering” in a larger portion of its range.
“However, the challenge this poses could instead be an opportunity to encourage states, municipalities, and private parties to establish robust conservation strategies with concrete agreements in place to prevent the need for listing a species … in the first place,” Williams suggested.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in 2017 elevated her from the law school to his administration, selecting her to head the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
As acting director starting in early 2017, and as confirmed director following her April 2017 approval by the Montana state Senate on a 47-3 vote, Williams inherited some deep-seated problems that predated her tenure and that resembled similar puzzles she’ll find at the federal level (Greenwire, Jan. 23, 2017).
“A number of my friends, when I stepped into this job, thought I was crazy,” Williams acknowledged in a December 2020 Montana Conservation Voters podcast.
Among the perennial and familiar-sounding challenges, in an August 2017 memo Bullock observed that “the fiscal health of the parks system remains a chronic problem amid rising costs for staffing and facility maintenance.”
The state’s Legislative Audit Division in April 2018 added that there was a long-standing perception that the department’s park operations were isolated from other sections.
"One lasting and tangible effect of the increasing isolation of the Parks Division in FWP was a lack of oversight of the parks budget,” the audit warned.
Like FWS, which has a deferred maintenance backlog that’s been estimated at $1.3 billion, the audit also noted the state’s facilities were burdened by a maintenance backlog (Greenwire, Feb. 27, 2018).
Williams accepted the critiques in 2018 while noting the “significant staff turnover in the past 18 months” and said that because “critical positions remain to be filled” it would take some time for improvements to kick in.
Throughout her tenure in a Democratic administration governing a rural state, Williams confronted any number of politically volatile conservation issues of the type that await her at FWS.
In 2019, for instance, members of the Montana state House considered and eventually rejected a bill that would have stripped the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission of its ability to ban night-time hunting of wolves.
The fight roused sentiments she’s certain to see again, as FWS earlier this fall agreed to consider whether to restore ESA protections for the gray wolf in response to recent Western state policies — including in Montana under new Republican leadership — promoting hunting of the animals (Greenwire, Sept. 16).
“Filling the pages of mythology, wolves intrinsically evoke passionate emotions both for and against,” Williams wrote in 2016. “They also tell a tale of the American west with their once-abundance, followed by near extirpation; slow natural recolonization, reintroduction, and robust recovery.”
“The long battle over wolves,” Williams added, “teaches us lessons that we can apply to other species as well, clarifying what recovery means under the ESA and applying it in a meaningful way.”