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Bittleman getting attention for EPA work with farmers

September 11, 2013

Greenwire has profiled Tulane Law graduate Sarah Bittleman (L '93), senior agriculture counselor to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

The story by Amanda Peterka is reprinted here with permission.

(Copyright 2013, Environment and Energy Publishing LLC.)

EPA and farmers should be friends? Sarah Bittleman's working on it 

Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sarah Bittleman's job isn't the most difficult in Washington, D.C., but it's up there.

As U.S. EPA's chief agriculture adviser, Bittleman is the intermediary between the agency and farmers -- a job akin to that of a boxing referee. And for good measure, she's also in the middle of intra-EPA squabbles as agriculture issues butt up against air and water regulations.

"I explain EPA to agriculture, but I also spend a lot of time explaining agriculture to EPA," Bittleman often says.

Asked what she does to relax, she replies, "I don't have a lot of time for fun."

Bittleman has spent nearly 20 years in D.C. She's worked on Capitol Hill for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), former Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). She's lobbied on behalf of Washington state, directed congressional and legislative affairs for the Department of the Interior and most recently served for four years as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's top adviser on energy and EPA.

And for the past six months, she's been senior agriculture counselor to the EPA administrator, a position Bittleman says she finds fascinating.

Bittleman is known around the capital for her quick wit, uncompromising directness, and willingness to meet and talk out problems.

"I think what Sarah's trying to do from her perch -- and I think it would be responsible to do it from ours -- is say, 'Let's sort through this thing, and if there's problems, let's work on them,'" said Jon Doggett, vice president for public policy at the National Corn Growers Association. "She has very little patience for rhetoric."

Though Bittleman has thrived in the trenches of D.C., she grew up in a calm, green place: a Christmas tree farm that her parents started on an old dairy that they purchased after leaving New York City.

Bittleman spent her youth planting seedlings and collecting cordwood for the furnace in the house. She spent summers at camp on Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains.

Her journey to Washington began at the end of her undergraduate years at Union College, a liberal arts school in Schenectady, N.Y., where she became interested in maritime issues and commercial fishing before graduating in 1988. She earned a law degree at Tulane University School of Law in New Orleans.

Bittleman earned a fellowship and moved to Washington to work for New Jersey Rep. Jim Saxton, the then-moderate Republican chairman of a House fisheries panel. Thrown into 1996 debates over the reauthorization of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, she found a new home.

"I kind of got a little Potomac fever and never made it back to upstate New York," said Bittleman, who also holds a master's in public administration from East Carolina University.

Though she opted out of a life in upstate New York, she said she appreciates what she learned there -- a love of the outdoors, public lands and farms. What little free time she has she spends gardening at her house in Washington and doing renovations to boost its energy efficiency, spending time with her dog, and, more recently, working with her mother on a project to put online the drawings and paintings of her late father, Union College art professor Arnold Bittleman.

"Home is where I learned to work outdoors," she said. "Camp is where I learned to recreate outdoors."

It was the Endangered Species Act that gave her an appreciation of the delicate relationship between the government and the private sector.

"The first minute you're involved in the Endangered Species Act and Western land issues, you realize that for those folks, the local government is the federal government; the federal government is a very localized influence," Bittleman said. "I became fascinated by that nexus and wanting to bridge the gaps between people who live 2,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., and the conversations that were happening here."

The desire to build bridges between parties that often don't see eye to eye has guided her career since.

'Genuine effort'

In her work on agriculture issues on Capitol Hill and at USDA, she earned a reputation with farm lobbyists for being direct but fair.

"You left the office and you knew exactly where things laid, and it was always done very professionally," said Doggett, who first met Bittleman when she worked for Saxton.

Dale Moore, former chief of staff for George W. Bush administration Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, recalls hearing about Bittleman as he was leaving USDA for a consulting position outside the government. Bittleman was recruited into the department with the onset of the Obama administration and remained an aide to Vilsack until February of this year.

Read the rest of the story here


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