Sarah Bittleman's job isn't the most difficult in Washington, D.C., but it's up there.
As U.S. EPA's chief agriculture adviser, Bittleman is the intermediary between the agency and farmers -- a job akin to that of a boxing referee. And for good measure, she's also in the middle of intra-EPA squabbles as agriculture issues butt up against air and water regulations.
"I explain EPA to agriculture, but I also spend a lot of time explaining agriculture to EPA," Bittleman often says.
Asked what she does to relax, she replies, "I don't have a lot of time for fun."
Bittleman has spent nearly 20 years in D.C. She's worked on Capitol Hill for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), former Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). She's lobbied on behalf of Washington state, directed congressional and legislative affairs for the Department of the Interior and most recently served for four years as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's top adviser on energy and EPA.
And for the past six months, she's been senior agriculture counselor to the EPA administrator, a position Bittleman says she finds fascinating.
Bittleman is known around the capital for her quick wit, uncompromising directness, and willingness to meet and talk out problems.
"I think what Sarah's trying to do from her perch -- and I think it would be responsible to do it from ours -- is say, 'Let's sort through this thing, and if there's problems, let's work on them,'" said Jon Doggett, vice president for public policy at the National Corn Growers Association. "She has very little patience for rhetoric."
Though Bittleman has thrived in the trenches of D.C., she grew up in a calm, green place: a Christmas tree farm that her parents started on an old dairy that they purchased after leaving New York City.
Bittleman spent her youth planting seedlings and collecting cordwood for the furnace in the house. She spent summers at camp on Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains.
Her journey to Washington began at the end of her undergraduate years at Union College, a liberal arts school in Schenectady, N.Y., where she became interested in maritime issues and commercial fishing before graduating in 1988. She earned a law degree at Tulane University School of Law in New Orleans.
Bittleman earned a fellowship and moved to Washington to work for New Jersey Rep. Jim Saxton, the then-moderate Republican chairman of a House fisheries panel. Thrown into 1996 debates over the reauthorization of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, she found a new home.
"I kind of got a little Potomac fever and never made it back to upstate New York," said Bittleman, who also holds a master's in public administration from East Carolina University.
Though she opted out of a life in upstate New York, she said she appreciates what she learned there -- a love of the outdoors, public lands and farms. What little free time she has she spends gardening at her house in Washington and doing renovations to boost its energy efficiency, spending time with her dog, and, more recently, working with her mother on a project to put online the drawings and paintings of her late father, Union College art professor Arnold Bittleman.
"Home is where I learned to work outdoors," she said. "Camp is where I learned to recreate outdoors."
It was the Endangered Species Act that gave her an appreciation of the delicate relationship between the government and the private sector.
"The first minute you're involved in the Endangered Species Act and Western land issues, you realize that for those folks, the local government is the federal government; the federal government is a very localized influence," Bittleman said. "I became fascinated by that nexus and wanting to bridge the gaps between people who live 2,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., and the conversations that were happening here."
The desire to build bridges between parties that often don't see eye to eye has guided her career since.
In her work on agriculture issues on Capitol Hill and at USDA, she earned a reputation with farm lobbyists for being direct but fair.
"You left the office and you knew exactly where things laid, and it was always done very professionally," said Doggett, who first met Bittleman when she worked for Saxton.
Dale Moore, former chief of staff for George W. Bush administration Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, recalls hearing about Bittleman as he was leaving USDA for a consulting position outside the government. Bittleman was recruited into the department with the onset of the Obama administration and remained an aide to Vilsack until February of this year.
Moore, who's now executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said he reached out to Bittleman early in the Obama administration to speak about dioxin, a chemical compound linked to developmental and reproductive problems. Farm groups have long sparred with federal regulators over the compound, which has been used as an ingredient in pesticides.
After an initial meeting about dioxin, Bittleman asked whether Moore could bring a group for another meeting to see what the concerns were and how USDA has previously approached the issue. Moore said he was impressed.
"Sarah always made herself readily available and would bring that probing, questioning way of 'What is it that you want to talk to me about and, more to the point, what is it that you are trying to get me to do?'" Moore said. "Even if we had a policy disagreement, I appreciated the fact that I could reach out."
At USDA, Bittleman also helped head up communication between the department and EPA. Larry Elworth, Bittleman's predecessor at EPA, said that he appreciated the contact with Bittleman.
"Sarah has a great sense of humor. When things are serious enough, being able to actually interact with somebody on the human level who's really smart and takes time to find out what's going on -- it's important to have that in the same person," Elworth said. "When I heard that Sarah was taking the job at EPA while still at USDA, I said the biggest disadvantage of her job is not going to have Sarah Bittleman to work with."
At EPA, Bittleman faces a big challenge, as the agency has found itself in near-constant battle with farmers in the past few years over a wide range of regulatory issues.
Bittleman joined the agency, in fact, just weeks after EPA revealed to livestock groups that it had released hundreds of pages of spreadsheets containing data on livestock operations in 29 states to environmental groups as part of a Freedom of Information Act request. The fallout from the data release has continued on and off Capitol Hill, and earlier this summer, agribusiness groups filed a lawsuit against EPA in anticipation of the agency's response to more FOIA requests.
The challenge partly lies in the fact that federal agriculture regulations span several different offices, including those of air and water, and partly in the fact that farm rules are a federal and state patchwork. A rumor can start a fight between EPA and farmers.
"Part of it is making sure where there are agricultural issues involved that the agency is in the position to fully understand and consider them," Elworth said. "Sometimes those issues are not intuitively obvious to people at EPA. Sometimes those issues are not always obvious to people outside of EPA."
Bittleman's approach has been to open up as many communication channels as possible. She's started weekly and monthly conference calls with Capitol Hill staffers, other EPA regions and advisers, USDA officials, commodity groups, livestock groups, specialty crop groups, and chemical companies. She's visited farms in several states, including Louisiana, where she attended law school.
At a recent conference in Washington where she spoke to members of the National Association of Conservation Districts, Bittleman stayed afterward for a half-hour or so to speak to the farmers who had lined up to ask questions after her speech. She freely gave out her email address to anyone who asked.
"I think everybody, whether you're from rural America or urban America, what people appreciate is genuine effort, and I'm willing to put in the genuine effort to have conversations with folks and answer questions the best I can," Bittleman said. "I think a lot of the time, that's what people want. They want an effort, they want a real person to answer the phone."
'Before we light a fuse'
Livestock groups that say they were blindsided by EPA's recent release of data say they're so far pleased with Bittleman as EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy's earpiece on agricultural issues.
"What we've been very pleased with is that she's done exactly what she said she's going to do, have the conversation with the industry," said Collin Woodall, vice president of government affairs at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "She came in right in the middle of that producer data situation that we were dealing with, and she was very upfront. She never ducked our phone calls."
In the past, said Michael Formica, chief environmental counsel at the National Pork Producers Council, interest groups had trouble getting in touch with the agency. The data release epitomized the agency's problems with agriculture, he said.
"I would say the thing she learned, and that became readily apparent, maybe to her and some political folks, is that the biggest problem I think they had the first four years -- and maybe every administration has that issue -- is you only listen to one side, or you only talk to one set of people," Formica said. "You don't get a clear picture as to what the real issues are, and what's feasible and not feasible."
Bittleman said that her work at USDA prepared her for the EPA position in that it taught her what programs there are available for farmers and ranchers to comply with regulations, and whether the agency was asking too much of the agriculture community.
Bittleman says she feels as if she's making inroads in the relationship with the industry.
"I guess if I were to figure out at the end of my tenure here if I was successful or not," Bittleman said, "it would be based on if at least some folks in agriculture are looking at EPA and saying, 'You know what, they're not just a barrier, they're not just a regulatory barrier; they're a scientific agency that provides me information that helps me do my job better.'"
But are agriculture and EPA going to become best friends now that Bittleman's on the job?
Don't get your hopes up, Moore says.
"I would say categorically no. It's not changing our minds that maybe EPA is right on this particular regulatory issue," said Moore, whose American Farm Bureau Federation filed the lawsuit against EPA with the National Pork Producers Council. "What it does, though, is providing that element of communication. Before we light the fuse on something, let's reach out and see if we can get ahold of Sarah, if Sarah can set up a meeting with us with appropriate technical regulatory decisionmakers."
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