Previously the Public Affairs Manager and Policy Analyst for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for 26 years, Steve Robinson has had a career working closely with tribes on public relations and natural resources, and joined the CELP Board in June 2016. He has also worked in corporate public affairs, served as Chief of Public Information and Public Affairs Director for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Advertising Manager for a major real estate company in Portland, Oregon and worked several years as a daily newspaper reporter.
What’s your first memory of being aware of water conservation, or conservation in general?
I have always known how precious and rare fresh water is. I first became aware of the need to conserve it when I was a boy, fishing on the Calapooia River, which runs through my birth town of Albany, Oregon. Even then, the water in the river would run low in the summer, though it still contained enough to accommodate the activities of a young boy who couldn’t afford a fishing pole. But who needed one? There were plenty of long sticks nearby and all one had to do was tie some fishing line to its end, put a hook and some weight on the other end of the line and dangle it in the water. I became committed to working on conservation during the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, as a journalism student at the University of Oregon in Eugene. That was a time of civil unrest, and there was no shortage of boycotts and protests on the UO campus. The message of the masses was to end the war in Vietnam, but also to take better care of the environment. It was a time that gave birth to Earth Day and it was the first time I became active with the Native American Tribes—as a member of the UO Indian Student Union and as a reporter for the University’s daily newspaper. When I commenced my journalism career as a reporter for a daily newspaper in Eastern Oregon, my career of writing about natural resources and the environment continued, and my efforts to support the Tribes continued also as I served as public relations manager for the Indian Festival of Arts. Ultimately, I left the life of a newspaper reporter to get into public relations. I moved to Olympia to take a job as an information officer for the State Department of Natural Resources. I was eventually promoted to Public Affairs Director of that agency. I served on a large number of boards and commissions in my seven years with DNR, including a term as president of the Washington State Information Council. While at DNR I became integrally familiar with the U.S. v. Washington (Boldt) Decision, and produced an article for the New York Times on it. When the Commissioner of Public Lands I served under left office I did a five year stint in corporate public relations. I was also introduced to self-employment, starting a public relations company through which I employed a dozen people. However, after five years as a “corporatier” a job came to my attention that I couldn’t resist: Public Affairs Director for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Being a husband and father of two children by then, I wasn’t convinced that I really should move back to Olympia. But I decided to give it a shot. I met NWIFC Chairman Billy Frank, Jr. my first day on the job, and I was hooked. I worked for the Commission, serving the Treaty Indian Tribes in Western Washington for the next 26 years. I built a public relations program there, and over the years had golden opportunities to work with the Tribes here as well as indigenous governments and peoples across the country and beyond. My most memorable experience working for the Commission was, without a doubt, the opportunity to work with Billy. I was his “PR guy” and he became my life’s mentor. We worked and travelled together very extensively. I was the very fortunate fellow who got to be with him for thousands of hours, addressing environmental issues from the tribal perspective and standing up for treaty-protected rights near and far. My time with my spiritual brother Billy was the most entrancing and captivating time of my life. I learned so much from him that there are no words to describe it. After his passing on May 5, 2014, I have been dedicated to doing whatever I can to support the continuation and commemoration of his legacy. Among his many posthumous honors, the Nisqually Estuary has been named after him and he was a recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the greatest honor that can be bestowed on a citizen of this country. I now associate closer than ever with his son, Willie, who serves on the Nisqually Tribal Council, which is also a great experience for me. I left the Commission in September of 2010 to start my own public relations business, SR Productions of Olympia. My company is dedicated to serving tribes and to doing all I can to protect and restore the natural heritage of this country.
How did you first become aware of/involved with CELP?
As Public Affairs Manager and as a Policy Analyst for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission I have had the honor of working with CELP on a number of critical environmental issues and programs. I have always considered CELP to be a truly great organization, and I have always wholeheartedly supported its purpose and objectives. After I started my business, I also had the opportunity to serve as CELP’s lobbyist in Olympia, and to work with Rachael Pasqual in that capacity. We did extensive work together to support good water quality and quantity legislation and to modify or defeat bad bills. I look forward to serving on the CELP board.
What do you wish other people knew about CELP or water conservation generally?
I want everyone to know that CELP is a Class A organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of our very precious water resources. I want people to know that fresh water is a threatened resource, one that is far rarer than most realize, and that it is absolutely fundamental to all life. I not only want people to know that each and every one of us depends on clean, fresh water for their very survival, but also that they can help protect it through conservation, prevention of pollution, support for more effective infrastructure and good education.
What’s your personal philosophy on what should be done about water conservation?
I consider myself a naturalist. I also consider myself a pragmatist. That is not a contradiction. People need homes. They need food. They need wood and they need energy. But they also need a healthy ecosystem. If we continue to destroy the natural environment, nothing else will matter. To me that is not a so-called liberal or left wing philosophy; it is a very practical viewpoint. It is good stewardship—something I believe is everybody’s responsibility. Whenever there is a question about how to manage land, water or air I tend to believe the answer is provided to us by Mother Nature. She did just fine for thousands of years before Euro-Americans and other “newcomers” occupied (over-occupied) this country. Millions of indigenous people got along just fine also. It took just a few hundred years to change all that, and today we face water shortage and water pollution problems. We face extinction of many species, and we are facing climate change, ocean acidification and a host of other challenges. These are the result of poorly informed choices and the voracious appetite of greedy individuals and corporations. Too many people thought, and many still do, that natural resources are endless or that the scars they leave on the Earth are someone else’s problem, or that their property rights give them license to do as they please. They argue that such freedom is fundamental to a democratic society. I say that when the activities of these people and companies transgress against the rights of others to have a livable environment, property rights and the so-called right to block the natural flow of rivers, or pour poison into them, etc. is trumped.
What to do about water conservation? Conserve it! By all means available. That includes fair regulation, as well as the opportunity to conserve voluntarily. It means judicious use and the control of waste. It means storage in some incidences, rationing when necessary and education, education, education. I am a strong believer in the power of education. We need to constantly improve environmental education, in schools and in public. People need to learn why they should care and how it affects them. No matter what there will be detractors. But I believe most people, once educated, want to do the right thing. My experience as of late is that most people want to change their approach to water management, in a way that preserves the resource for fish and wildlife. We should support that changing attitude, in a very public way.
Recent studies indicate that voluntarism in environmental protection and natural resource management has not been effective, which might lead some to abandon the approach. Not me. I believe every avenue must be taken to achieve water conservation. In many ways voluntarism is integral to success. Working with Billy Frank, Jr., I learned long ago that “getting people to the table” to seek agreement on such issues can be very effective. I also learned that such collaborative approaches are most effective when the stakeholders realize it is far more to their benefit to cooperate than not. The symbolism we often used to make progress was to hold one hand out, ready to shake others’ hands in a very cooperative manner while hovering a club over their heads in the other hand. In other words, keep the option open for them to “do the right thing” but be ready, willing and able to force the issue when necessary.
When examining my philosophy about water conservation, it is important to understand that I am tribal, both in spirit and heritage, and that I subscribe to all the elements of the Tribal Water Principles (attached). Essentially, this document was developed collaboratively among all the Treaty Indian Tribes in Western Washington in the 1990’s to express their common positions on water management and water rights. I was honored to be included in the discussions that led to this document, which points out that the treaty tribes do inherently and legally retain the right to have sufficient water in streams and rivers to sustain the fisheries resource. In effect, the protection of instream flows is protected by treaties and are thus “the law of the land,” as described in the U.S. Constitution. As stated in principle 5: “Adequate quantity and quality of water is necessary to protect the culture of the tribes, including but not limited to spiritual needs, fishing, hunting, and gathering rights and practices.” The principles also address the fact that treaties protect a reserved tribal right to surface and groundwater sufficient to fulfill the purposes of the reservations as permanent, economically viable homelands, and that this right exists with a priority date no more recent than the date the reservation was established.
Why do you support CELP?
I have always found CELP to be highly supportive of tribal treaty rights, as well as courageous in its efforts to effect change in water management. These qualities equate to high environmental values and good stewardship.
What would you tell someone who is thinking about becoming involved with CELP?
In my writings and in the work I’ve done with Billy Frank, Jr., and with the Tribes in the Northwest and beyond, I have often encouraged people to take action in ways that help improve water management and other critically important environmental efforts. In describing ways to get involved I have suggested joining organizations such as CELP. It is a very good way to provide a collective voice in such efforts. There is strength in numbers, especially when the strength is channeled in the progressive ways CELP has sponsored and endorsed. CELP, of course, stands for the Center for Environmental Law and Policy. I think it could also stand for Centering the Energies of Lots of People. CELP has been a leader in the effort to promote water conservation for a long time, and it is an organization which has excelled in helping many people focus their energies in that effort.
What do you do when you aren’t volunteering for CELP?
As owner of SR Productions of Olympia I serve the communication interests of my tribal clients however they direct me to do so. Those efforts take the form of writing and distributing news releases, working with the news media, producing videos and publications ranging from brochures to curricula. I write columns, coordinate events, provide communications-related training and provide intergovernmental coordination and lobbying in the State Legislature and Congress as well as other governments and entities. In my “spare time” I hang out with my family, watch sports, go to the gym, spend time in the outdoors, do some travelling and write everything from poetry to novels.