As Esty exits, some worry, some hope [Connecticut Mirror]

January 23, 2014

By: Jan Ellen Spiegel | CT Mirror

In June 2011, Dan Esty, then head of the Department of Environmental Protection, sat in a New Haven café over a late breakfast and looked a few weeks into the future to when the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection he was creating would officially exist.

“Some of the environment folks are worried that the agenda gets taken over by the energy side. The energy folks are all sure their agenda is going to be taken over by environment people,” he said. “We’re going to pursue both elements with equal vigor.”

As Esty exits after three years at the helm of DEP then the new DEEP, some environmental advocates and lawmakers are unconvinced that pursuit was equal. Energy was the top priority, they think, and some would like to see that focus change.

Most believe, and some say they have first-hand knowledge, that lower energy costs were Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s orders. Esty gets little of the blame for what they see as environmental protection’s poor-cousin status.

In fact many are concerned about his departure, worrying that no successor will have the breadth of expertise Esty had across energy and environmental subjects, and some fear a backsliding, especially in regional energy initiatives.

“I think the smart move here is to understand you’re not trying to find another Dan Esty because you can’t,” said Stewart Hudson, executive director of Audubon Connecticut. “His intellect, his ability to frankly become as smart as he became on the energy side is extraordinary.”

Hudson, in his former position with the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, also worked with Esty on energy efficiency, conservation and climate, and called his energy work “transformative.”

“But,” he said, using careful language, “It may be time now to have a greater balance between what attention we pay to the environmental side as well.”

Hudson pointed specifically to more permanent protection of state lands. Even though in the last three years DEEP acquired 1,366 acres of open space, and another 4,556 acres were preserved, a recent report by the Council on Environmental Quality said land protections in place now might not be permanent.

The Council, Hudson and others cited the controversial Haddam land swap to trade state-owned Connecticut riverfront property for forestland so the riverfront property could be developed. Most absolve Esty of complicity in the deal, which the legislature approved and Malloy signed. It ultimately failed because the property values were too unequal.

Hudson also called for better park management, bird conservation and coastline protection in the wake of the damaging storms over the last several years. “There’s a start there, but much more needs to be done,” he said.

Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association said that while Esty supported land conservation and pursued bonding to protect open space and to add to state parks and forests, “the staff, the actual people who maintain parks, are at all-time lows.”

He cited 72 full-time field staff for 107 state parks; 18 staff, 10 of whom are eligible to retire within five years, to manage 170,000 acres of state forests; and only 34 environmental conservation police for the whole state.

“It actually would not take much money to make a huge difference there,” Hammerling said. “We’re talking less than $5 million.”

In that 2011 interview, Esty said even though most people already thought of him primarily as an “energy guy,” he thought of himself as an “environment guy.” Yet in three years of the Malloy administration’s incessantly repeated focus on “cheaper, cleaner, more reliable” energy, many forgot that he was also the commissioner of environmental protection.

“I never forgot that,” Esty said late on the afternoon he announced his resignation to return to his position at Yale University. “I have been thrilled to be the commissioner of forests and parks and wildlife areas and outdoor recreation.

“My greatest joys in many cases being commissioner were the days spent out in those resources hiking and biking and fishing.”

He said he hoped one of his legacies would be his monthly “Commissioner in Your Corner,” which took him to the corners of the state hiking, biking, kayaking and canoeing, fishing, snowshoeing and more. Some environmental advocates privately said, though, they felt like props and would like to have seen such media events backed with financing.

“I would have loved to have had some resources to push more money out into our state parks and forests,” Esty said. “If there had been an easing of the state budget challenges, we might have had a different answer in place, but I think we’ve done pretty well.”

And there are those who agree. “I don’t feel like we can be in a position to complain or ask for more focus given what they’ve done,” said Don Strait, president of Connecticut Fund for the Environment and Save the Sound. For Long Island Sound in particular, he cited nearly $1 billion in loans and grants for clean water program support for fiscal years 2014-15, four times the levels of the M. Jodi Rell administration.

Even so, said Environment Committee co-chair Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, who called Esty almost a Teddy Roosevelt naturalist, “energy was put as a priority by a governor who was politically fraught with economic problems in terms of lack of attractiveness of the Connecticut economy.

“I don’t feel that there is the priority for the environment by the executive and legislative leaders. It’s worrisome to me what’s going to happen.”

Sen. Clark Chapin, R-New Milford, ranking member of the Environment Committee and a member of the Energy and Technology Committee, had praise for Esty, noting, “He may be the only commissioner that has my cellphone number.

“I do agree,” he said, “That the conservation side of the agency does not receive the attention it deserves. However I don’t think I can lay the blame for that at the governor’s doorstep or Commissioner Esty’s because the legislature plays such a vital role in funding as well as policy for the agency.”

The post-Esty world is also raising concerns on other fronts. He and Malloy are widely credited with transforming what had long been seen as the state’s anemic participation in regional energy initiatives into a leadership role.

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