President Obama has nominated the leader of a conservation group to be the Interior Department's next assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, a position that oversees national parks and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Rebecca Wodder, who since 1995 has served as CEO of American Rivers, a national river conservation group, was picked to replace Tom Strickland, who left Interior for the private sector in early January.
Wodder's selection is seen as a nod to environmental groups and could draw opposition from some in the Senate over her group's positions on hydroelectric power and river restoration, particularly in the West.
If confirmed, Wodder would replace Rachel Jacobson, Interior's principal deputy solicitor, who is serving as acting assistant secretary in Strickland's absence.
At American Rivers, Wodder helped dozens of communities restore river health through conservation projects including river trails, the removal of obsolete and dangerous dams, and the implementation of green infrastructure to safeguard clean water, Interior said.
"Rebecca's extensive experience and notable accomplishments in natural resource management make her an outstanding choice for this key position on our departmental leadership team," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement. "Her lifelong work to conserve and restore America's lands and waters will be invaluable in carrying out Interior's strategic vision for our wildlife and park conservation programs and initiatives."
From 1981 to 1994, Wodder worked for the Wilderness Society, a national environmental group dedicated to protecting public lands, where her roles included vice president for organizational development and vice president for membership, marketing and development.
Prior to working with the Wilderness Society, Wodder served as legislative assistant for environmental and energy issues to Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), who is known as the principal founder of Earth Day.
Wodder was named a "Top 25 Outstanding Conservationist" by Outdoor Life magazine in 2010, and was named Woman of the Year by the American Sportfishing Association in 1998.
At American Rivers, Wodder is credited with leading collaborative efforts among federal, state, tribal and local governments; business and industry; and grass-roots groups to reach agreements on rivers and freshwater resources.
But her group has taken controversial positions in advocating for the removal of dams on the Lower Snake River and criticizing an Obama administration salmon restoration plan for the Columbia River that carries the support of states, tribes, the federal government and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
"This is a disappointing decision from the administration," Wodder said of the Obama plan in May 2010 (Greenwire, May 21, 2010). "We can recover salmon and restore the Snake River in a way that works for local communities and the region's economy, and we should embrace that path, not shy away from it."
Wodder at the time said President Obama had taken no action to specifically address climate change in the document. She said the White House had "lowered the bar" for protection of species.
Her transition from an environmental group to the office of the Interior secretary won't be easy, according to an Interior source who asked not to be identified by name because she is not authorized to speak to media on the matter.
"She was highly regarded at American Rivers, but the challenge is really about how well she makes that switch from the environmental world to the world of the executive," the Interior source said. "It's a different world."
Some also question whether Wodder will be confirmed by a deeply partisan Senate where lawmakers have recently blocked Interior nominees to force the agency's hand on energy development and draw negative attention to its conservation policies.
Confirmation of Dan Ashe, Obama's nominee to lead FWS, is still held up by Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R), who demanded access to documents regarding the development of the Bureau of Land Management "wild lands" order, which Congress blocked as part of an April funding resolution.
Lee's office is reviewing an initial installment of documents Interior provided late last week, a spokeswoman for the senator said.
Wodder could face similar challenges from Western senators whose states rely on hydroelectric dams to provide carbon-free electricity, water supplies for farming and flood control, among other things.
American Rivers argues that removing the lower four Snake River dams would be the "surest way to restore self-sustaining, harvestable wild salmon and steelhead populations to the lower Snake River and its tributaries."
But it emphasizes that before the dams are removed, the area must find carbon-free energy to replace lost power, upgrade its railroads, highways and the Columbia River barge system and retrofit irrigation pumps.
American Rivers, which publishes a yearly report of the 10 most endangered rivers, last month named the Susquehanna River in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland at the top of the list, citing a rush to drill and use hydraulic fracturing to access natural gas reserves, which it warned is a risk to clean water and public health.
The group also included the Hoback River in Wyoming and the Bristol Bay in Alaska, which are threatened by oil and gas drilling and hardrock mining, the group said.
"Is she going to be confirmed?" the Interior source speculated. "I think that's an open question."
Some observers have said they believe Ashe, if confirmed, would be the last Interior nominee to be confirmed during this session of Congress (E&E Daily, May 11).
A Nebraska native, Wodder holds a bachelor's degree in biology and a bachelor's in environmental studies from the University of Kansas. She also holds an master's in landscape architecture and a master's in water resources management from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
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