Interview with Bridgett Luther, Director of the California Department of Conservation

bridgett luther california conservation photo

Photo via California Department of Conservation

Bridgett Luther, Director of the California Department of Conservation, has a lot on her schedule: her department oversees recycling, land conservation, mine reclamation, geological surveys, the state mining and geology board, and oil, gas, and geothermal resources. Here, she talks about how getting out of the cubicle and into the community improved the state's efforts, California's role as a green leader, working with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger--and how you can find your own spot in state government.TreeHugger: How did you end up with your appointed position?
Bridgett Luther: Lots of people have asked how I got my job. Well, first, I filled out the form! It's very difficult for governors or presidents to know who's out there that would be good for an appointment unless you let them know. You might think, well, they must know me, I'm so involved, but there are people in the governor's office just looking through stacks of paper of people who've applied, and that's what they have to go on. It's helpful if you know someone on the campaign--it's not necessary, but it is helpful if you know the person who gets the job. I had worked briefly on the governor's campaign and felt good about that, I thought he'd be an amazing governor.

After I put in my application, I didn't get a call for a couple of years, so I kind of moved on, and then when a position became open they pulled my application form the file. I wasn't from government, I worked in non-profits, but my husband encouraged me to apply. It was only because [of him] that I even knew there was a process. People don't think there's an opportunity to get in on this really base level and say, what are the policies that we can put into place that will really have an impact--but there's always an opportunity for folks to be involved. Every election means new leaders, and there's another round of elections in lots of states next year. It's a good chance for people to say, I could take a year off from my job and help my governor or my state toward the way I think it should go.

California: Ahead of the Pack on the Conservation Front

TH: How do you think California's green efforts fit in with those in the rest of the country? BL: The governor came in and said, this is my highest priority, how can we get this done, and it just happened at the same time that Al Gore came out with An Inconvenient Truth, and I think the whole world was watching and hoping for the United States to take the lead. In California there are so many interesting things--climate change, land use, conservation--and then business, transport, housing, health services, workforce development, that I'm not as familiar with--and all the appointees just came in as part of a team. A lot of states have sort of followed California's lead...we try to be leaders on a lot of fronts because we're so big. Our issues have such a ripple effect--if you make a policy that affects 35 million people, that can have a big impact.

TH: What are some of the biggest projects you've been working on?
BL: When I came in we were running a recycling program, but then, what happens to the bottles? There's a gap between collecting the bottles, which we're good at, and then, what, 80 percent of the recycled material eventually ends up in a landfill. The question is, how do you make a plastic bottle more recyclable? So we talked to a bunch of people at Stanford who are working on making a polymer from methane--you off-gas the methane, and then you're able to grow a methane molecule into a polymer. The state is invested in figuring out how to get that polymer to where it could be made profitable, and where you could use it--where it doesn't come out in sheets, but could be molded into bottles. Then when you collect the bottles, you can disconnect the polymers and use them again, or if it goes to the landfill, the methane is used as energy.

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