NRDC’s Rhea Suh on multitasking, being yelled at by senators

By Robin Bravender | 08/12/2016 01:11 PM EDT

Rhea Suh has been at the helm of the Natural Resources Defense Council since January 2015.

Rhea Suh.

Rhea Suh. Photo courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Rhea Suh has been at the helm of the Natural Resources Defense Council since January 2015.

She’s a Colorado native and the daughter of Korean immigrants. She worked on Capitol Hill for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, did stints handling energy and climate issues at nonprofit foundations, and worked as the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget during the Obama administration.

Suh was later appointed to another high-level Interior post overseeing the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, but she ran into staunch opposition from Senate Republicans due to her past statements criticizing natural gas development in the West.


She recently chatted with Greenwire about the uproar over her nomination, her new life as NRDC’s president, diversity in the environmental movement and the television shows she’s addicted to.

You’ve been on the job at NRDC for about a year and a half now. Do you feel settled?

I am feeling certainly more settled. The first year was a whirlwind. Simultaneously, it was actually just an incredible first year with the amount of action we saw on so many issues — the Clean Power Plan and Paris. I felt a little bit like a carpetbagger, where things we worked on for decades all came to fruition in this really incredible way. It made for a pretty spectacular entry into the organization.

You’re coming from the Interior Department. What has the biggest change been for you?

When I first started at NRDC, I used to joke about coming from the administration, where you kind of just felt like you were moving from fire to fire, burning platform to burning platform. I felt like anything in comparison would be easier. I stopped making that statement. It’s as full and active, just in a slightly different way. … In government, I also like to joke every time you do a public speech or give testimony, 300 people write and edit it. We don’t have that problem at NRDC. We aren’t afraid of taking advocacy positions, it’s what we do as an organization. That’s a piece that’s been quite fun for me.

President Obama nominated you to be assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, but you were never confirmed. Looking back now, how do you feel about that?

I feel a lot of things about that episode. In an overarching sense, there’s a sense of serendipity around it. I never expected to be controversial, never expected to go through what I went through. All those things happened in sequence, and I’ve got to believe that there might be some kind of serendipity there. I also kind of think as hard as that was, gosh, I learned a lot from it. There’s nothing quite like the experience of being yelled at in a Senate hearing by senators.

You’ve lived in Colorado, California, Boston, Washington, D.C., and now New York. Where is home for you?

Colorado still feels like home. I don’t have any family there anymore, but every time I go back, the quality of the light, the way the air smells, the mountains, the trees, it just feels like home. I’m a western kid through and through, regardless of the fact that I live in New York City now.

The National Park Service is celebrating its centennial. Do you have a favorite park?

I’m biased by saying my favorite is the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. That was one of the first pieces of legislation when I worked for Ben Nighthorse Campbell. … It’s spectacular, right around the corner from Telluride. It’s a place that holds a lot of meaning for me.

What are your favorite things to do in New York?

I’ve discovered that one of the biggest urban parks that the national park system has — Jacob Riis beach, a unit of the National Park Service — it’s like a half-hour from downtown Brooklyn. It’s a beautiful stretch of beach that rivals anything that you’ll see in Maryland or Virginia.

Your parents are Korean immigrants. How much has that shaped who you are?

I think profoundly. In addition to just kind of the sense of responsibility a lot of immigrant children have, it’s a large part of why I’ve chosen a career path that really is about making a difference, being in government. … When my parents were dreaming about coming to America, my dad literally had a postcard of the moon over San Francisco. What that picture evokes for me, they weren’t just aspiring to a more stable country, they were aspiring to this quality of life. I don’t take that quality of life for granted. It’s why I’m an environmentalist.

You’ve talked a lot about the importance of diversity in the environmental movement. Do you see things changing for the better on that front?

I think they are. I think they are, perhaps, in a too-slow sort of way. I still go to environmental meetings or we do receptions or we have gatherings and there just aren’t a lot of people of color in the room. I just feel like there’s still a fundamental disconnect that’s creating that chasm, and I kind of have made one of my biggest priorities at NRDC an effort to think about how to close that chasm.

Do you watch TV?

I have a 5-year-old daughter, and the luxuries of TV have kind of gone away over the past five years. I was totally hooked on "Breaking Bad" and totally hooked on "Homeland." Every once in a while, I watch "Veep."

Do you have any pets?

I have a 14-year-old-plus Lab named Lucy. She’s really old.

What would you say is the quirkiest thing about you?

I’m an incessant multitasker. … I have been known to be cooking, vacuuming, talking on the phone and ordering something on my computer simultaneously.

This interview has been edited and condensed.