Be prepared

State Natural Resources Secretary John Laird on budgets, beaches and climate change

John Laird will step to more than the mic as newly appointed secretary of natural resources.

John Laird will step to more than the mic as newly appointed secretary of natural resources.


John Laird has been in office for more than four months as California’s secretary for natural resources, but he has been preparing for the job since he graduated from college in 1972. Laird’s new duties include overseeing the Coastal Commission, state lands, the Department of Fish and Game, and providing input on the future of the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

After graduating from UC Santa Cruz, Laird steadily proceeded from congressional staffer to Santa Cruz mayor and city councilman to state assemblyman to his new position. Along the way, he has accumulated significant insight into California’s political, budgetary and environmental issues. SN&R chatted with him on the phone about where he has been, lessons learned from the Chicago Cubs and the road ahead for California’s natural resources.

What drew you initially to public service and politics?

I originally became involved in politics as a result of the Vietnam War. There was a lot of political activism going on, and I decided the best way [to engage] was through politics. I liked to get things done, and that has been a common thread since.

Describe your challenges and priorities as secretary of natural resources.

The biggest challenge will be resource protection in an era of tough budget times. Restoring the habitat of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is also critical. I see it as a participatory process that will be managed by science in order to restore the fish population. [Once that happens] the main challenge will then be determining [the Delta’s] water reliability.

I grew up 15 miles outside the Delta [in Vallejo], and my first job after college was on the staff of a congressman from Antioch. So throughout my career I have spent a lot of time on Delta issues, and I have never been far away from it.

[In that time, the health of] the Delta has gotten worse, with fish populations declining and increased salinity. But I think that presents an opportunity, since every interest group realizes the status quo is unacceptable.

How about climate change?

With climate change, the big issues are the shrinking Sierra Nevada snowpack and rising sea levels. We have to think about how we are going to adapt and about establishing renewable-energy policy along the lines of [Assembly Bill 32].

[Climate change] is very much a moving political target. Sea levels are going to rise. It is really up to local governments to take the steps to adapt.

[By coincidence,] I met with [the California] Ocean [Protection] Council on the same day the tsunami hit Japan. Although higher sea levels are seen as gradual, the real impact will be from dramatic events. The tsunami hit California at low tide, but what would happen if it hit 50 years from now at high tide and with higher sea levels?

You mentioned you like to unwind on the weekends by riding your bike on a route that takes you through three state parks. With the budget cuts, will state parks stay open?

This is a hard issue for me personally, because I introduced legislation for a vehicle-licensing fee to help fund state parks, but it didn’t get passed by voters. So there is a terrible irony.

Californians are good about acquiring land for state parks but not good about providing the resources to run them. California is going to grow by 50 million people, and they are going to need parks and open space.

With the budget cuts, all options are on the table. Some state and county governments have used public-private relationships to operate parks. We will have to wait and see what the dimensions of the budget cuts are, but those [types of] options will be discussed.

You’re a Chicago Cubs fan?

My father grew up a few hours from Chicago, so I became a fan because of him. Even before the Giants moved to San Francisco. The Cubs haven’t won a pennant since my father got back from World War II, and haven’t won a World Series in a hundred years. So it has taught me to handle adversity and to be prepared for anything.