California Greening: An Interview with Bill Craven
A look at the past, present, and future of California’s environmental policy.
By Liv O’Keeffe
Thousands of natural resource bills have passed through California’s legislature in the last 18 years, and one man’s name appears on nearly all of them.
William (Bill) Craven is the chief consultant of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, where for nearly 20 years his committee has analyzed every bill pertaining to California’s natural resources. In so doing, he’s supervised each bill’s fate — whether to amend it, hold it for a later session, kill it, or strengthen it. Few people have had the same level of influence over California’s natural resource laws in the last 20 years.
We wanted to make sure we did things in a way where the credit got shared, and it wasn’t viewed as a partisan thing or even a one-house thing. That’s how I like to do
things, because it makes for the most successful and lasting legislation.”
—William (Bill) Craven, retiring chief consultant of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee
A Midwestern native, Craven earned a name for himself challenging Kansas Big Ag over pesticide contamination, first as a reporter, later as an environmental attorney. In 1996, Sierra Club California recruited Craven to serve as the state organization’s director until he became the chief consultant for the Assembly Natural Resources Committee in 2000. A year later, Sen. Sheila Kuehl brought Craven over as the Senate’s chief consultant, where he has served since. “It’s probably one of the better environmental jobs in the country because you’re more directly helping to create and shape environmental law that will endure for years if not decades,” Craven said, reflecting on his years at the Capitol and the news of his pending retirement. “You have to do it with an eye on political realities and environmental goals all at the same time.”
Recently, I sat down with Craven and CNPS Legislative Consultant Alfredo Arredondo of Priority Strategies to talk about the arc of California’s environmental progress. Both warm and blunt, Craven offered a candid insider’s view of the challenges we face and the significant work California’s environmental leaders will face for generations to come.
L: Bill, you’ve had an incredible vantage point over the course of your career. What trends have you observed, either positive or negative, in the environmental movement?
B: I would say the relative decline in the numbers of public interest lobbyists in the environmental world is an unfortunate situation. The organizations used to be stronger. Today, we see smaller in-house lobbying staffs and the creation of a series of smaller private sector folks who do really good work for their clients but the in-house organizational strength is lacking. There never will be a shortage of people who lobby for the economic interest of their clients, and what’s missing are the folks who represent the public interest.
Moving the needle on enviro law is always uphill, and it’s difficult. There are far more small bills that do a little bit of good that are home runs.
L: What changed?
B: Money talks. The economic interests can fill a vacuum. There’s support for greater environmental protection and climate resiliency, but environmental issues are seldom in the public’s top 10. They might hover ninth or tenth. The public is always more concerned about schools, healthcare, and public safety. Although, I have to say today’s climate issues are kind of public safety writ large.
L: From your years of watching environmental legislation move through California’s government, how would you say the environmental community has done? Have we seen a net plus or minus — or a wash?
B: There have been some advances, not as many as I’d like, and there have been some real disappointments. This year, the failure of the fire prevention bills bugged me as did the veto of SB 1 [California Environmental, Public Health, and Workers Defense Act of 2019], but it’s a two- year session, and we’ll come back with those. I have to say, every administration has its high points and low points in terms of their environmental record. Moving the needle on enviro law is always uphill, and it’s difficult. There are far more small bills that do a little bit of good that are home runs. In the Assembly, there’s a lot more room for singles.
A: What are some of the highlights where you’ve seen great public policy at play?
B: The State Parks legislation was a series of bills done in collaboration with the Assembly. My counterpart and I worked on two or three bills and then some budget actions that significantly improved state parks so that its internal operations were improved, its budgeting became transparent, and its work with nonprofit partners was also improved. State Parks is in a much better position than it was a few years ago.
Here in California, nearly everyone cares about state parks. I can’t tell you how many times during those years we would come back into session and all the members in the committee (Republican and Democrat) talked about state parks they’d visited over the weekend. That doesn’t happen when you talk about hospitals. So, we wanted to make sure we did things in a way where the credit got shared, and it wasn’t viewed as a partisan thing or even a one-house thing. That’s how I like to do things, because it makes for the most successful and lasting legislation.
L: Last year, CNPS advocated to secure really important seed-banking funding through the state budget process, which was a different kind of advocacy (funding vs. legislation). How should environmental proponents be thinking about our efforts in terms of the mix of funding and legislative priorities?
B: The best way to achieve your policy objectives is to make sure your policy objectives are funded. For example, small but important programs for Fish and Wildlife [California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife] are literally budget dust in the California budget, but unless someone is there to pay attention and connect the dots between the budget and the state laws, we don’t get complete resolution. I have to say there is a lot of incomplete resolution going around these days. By that I mean that positive changes in state law that everyone works so hard to accomplish are really much more effective when someone monitors the budget process to make sure those changes get as much funding as possible.
A: What do you see as the biggest issues or challenges that we need to address for the next generation? What recommendations do you have?
B: Sea level rise — the cost of moving or relocating public infrastructure along the coast. The dollar number is so high, we haven’t even calculated it.
The second is the cost of land management for all lands in the state at risk of fire. We haven’t done nearly enough to manage for risk and to sequester carbon and I see those two goals as complementary. Nor have we done enough to harden houses. And there’s a biodiversity component to all of this, particularly in SoCal where we haven’t identified how these fire prevention techniques should be deployed in chaparral and coastal sage scrub, which is a big issue everywhere from the central coast to the Mexican border.
The recent Next Ten report (the October 2019 California Green Innovation Index Report) showed how far behind we are in reaching our urban greenhouse goals. So the question is: How do we address the housing shortage in a way where the mobility of that new population is consistent with our greenhouse reduction targets? That’s a question that challenges the enviro community, the housing community, the building community, and the transportation community. To solve that issue, we’re going to need to have some serious discussions across all of those sectors.
Being an all-purpose lobbying group on all things related to biodiversity would be an exhausting undertaking. You’re better off engaging in the legislative process only on the most essential and most important questions.
A: What’s your level of confidence that the legislative process can contribute here?
B: Look, I have both a very jaded side and a very optimistic side. There really are smart people in the legislature who understand the difficulty of these kinds of issues who I think will prevail. We have to shape it as a win for each of those communities, but it takes significant senior legislative leadership as well as a diverse array of staff familiar with each of those topics. But those are the circumstances where the best bills in California have come out of similar difficult circumstances. SB 375 [The Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008] is one; the NCCP [Natural Community Conservation Planning] statutes is another. I’m not sure who it is that’s going to address these topics, but somebody will stand up.
L: When you look at an organization like CNPS, what advice do you have for us? How can we be most effective?
B: I have nothing but good things to say about CNPS. It’s one of those groups that’s not in this for the economic benefits to its membership; it’s in it for protecting the biodiversity of the state. There should be more groups like it. I think you need to pick your battles. Being an all-purpose lobbying group on all things related to nature would be an exhausting undertaking. You’re better off engaging in the legislative process only on the most essential and most important questions.
L: What’s your advice for our next generation of environmental advocates?
B: There are at least two distinctive approaches you can take: The first is to be an advocate in a sort of take-no- prisoners approach — be fairly hardcore, no compromise. The second style is the insider style, which is where I found myself, in the center of the sausage-making, trying to get the most for the environment out of the legislative issues for that year. There’s room for both. People need to quit fighting each other over the various approaches, because we lose so much over the internal bickering. When our community sabotages each other, we lose more than the other side.
I think if there could be more coalitions, regardless of the group, we could make a lot more progress. We also have to recognize different approaches. The groups that favor regulation have a role, and the groups that favor collaboration have a role. Both need to be involved in figuring out the solutions because there’s going to be a role for each.
L: You must have gotten quite an earful from all sides over the years.
B: I don’t care about the chatter anymore. I’m pretty much focused on the results.
Liv O’Keeffe is the Senior Director of Communications and Engagement for CNPS.