PEC President Davitt Woodwell will be retiring in the New Year, leaving a legacy of partnership building, and clearing the way for the next generation of environmental stewards. Woodwell reflects on his thirty-plus years at PEC and what’s next, both for him and the organization that he’s led for the last decade.
It’s a bit strange for Davitt Woodwell to look back at his more than 30 years at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. A classic “boomerang” case, he never intended to return to his native Pittsburgh after college, much less spend his entire career in Pennsylvania.
But in that time, he’s had a hand in some of the most important advancements in conservation across the state, from cleaning up industrial sites to building expansive nonmotorized trail networks that extend beyond Pennsylvania’s borders — though if you ask him about any of this, he’ll focus the spotlight on someone else.
Woodwell got his start at PEC as a legal intern back in 1991, becoming President in 2014.
In addition to his work at PEC, he’s served on boards, commissions, task forces, and transition teams, advising governors, cabinet secretaries and agency chiefs, as well as federal policy makers and local elected officials.
Guiding all of that work is a philosophy that’s come to be called “the PEC way.” It involves convening various stakeholders, finding common ground on issues, and working together to solve them, rather than trying to force agreement through command and control.
“If you don’t have the players [and] the stakeholders involved in buying into it, you’re not going get anywhere,” Woodwell said.
It was this kind of approach that he saw as particularly successful in the drafting of the Land Recycling Program, also known as the Voluntary Cleanup Act. Enacted in 1995, the program encourages the cleanup and reuse of brownfields, rather than letting them sit fenced off and unused.
“It was incredibly effective at getting those properties opened up, getting cleanups done, and encouraging landowners to really do great redevelopment,” Woodwell said.
The philosophy continues to guide PEC’s work in everything from decarbonization to trail development.
“If you think about the beach and all those grains of sand, we are working not as one of the grains of sand — we’re working as the spaces in between to try to find the linkages and get them to sort of succeed together,” Woodwell said. “We succeed when our partners succeed. In most cases, we don’t do anything alone.”
Woodwell’s aptitude for sparking achievement in others extends to the PEC office, where he has encouraged staff to break out of their comfort zones and accept the risk of failure — a risk for which he holds himself personally responsible as a leader.
“If they get in trouble, it’s my fault. If they do it well, it’s their success,” he said.
While Woodwell announced his retirement in July, he’s spent the last three years planning for his departure. He leaves PEC on a high note, at a time when programs are running smoothly and partnerships are strong.
This week, PEC named its new President, Thomas Gilbert, who will begin in January. He currently serves as Co-Executive Director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and has an extensive track record of building strong coalitions and partnerships — in other words, he’s already well versed in the PEC Way.
“I think Tom’s going to do a great job. I think it’s going to be phenomenal,” Woodwell said. “He comes from a place, from an organization and a background and a history with projects that overlap very nicely with all that PEC’s doing in the programmatic and in the policy work.”
Woodwell is circumspect about what the future holds for him, but it likely will involve some volunteer advising and plenty of time on trails.
“I don’t know what’s it’s going to be,” he said, “but it’s going to be fun.”
Josh Raulerson: (00:02)
It is Friday, December 15th, 2023. I’m Josh Raulerson, and this is Pennsylvania Legacies, the podcast from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. And this is our last podcast release for the year! As we turn the page on 2023, we’re also marking the end of an era here at PEC. Davitt Woodwell, our President announced last summer, he’d be retiring at the end of this year. That announcement kicked off the search for a new PEC president, a process that came to an end earlier this week with the news that Thomas Gilbert, currently Co-Executive Director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, will step into the role in January. And we’ll be getting to know Mr. Gilbert in the New Year. But this episode of Pennsylvania Legacies will serve as exit interview for Mr. Woodwell, who’s been with PEC since 1991. Davitt started out as a legal intern and went on to serve as staff attorney before becoming director of the Western PA Office, later vice president and eventually president of PEC in 2014.
Over the years, he’s had a hand in some of PEC’s most impactful work that includes initiatives on power sector, decarbonization, regional and national trail networks, as well as networks of trail professionals legacy mine, land restoration standards and practices for shale gas development and much more. He served on countless boards, commissions, task forces, and transition teams, advising governors, cabinet secretaries and agency chiefs, as well as federal policy makers and local elected officials. Skipping much further down, a very long list of accomplishments, Davitt holds the additional distinction, maybe a dubious one, of being the founding host of the Pennsylvania Legacy’s Podcast back in 2016. So it’s only right that in one of his final acts in office, he should sit down as our final guest of the year on the podcast. So Davitt, having said all that, I’ll echo your own words, something I’ve heard you say many times: Thanks for doing this.
Davitt Woodwell: (02:01)
My pleasure. I think.
Josh Raulerson: (02:04)
I want to start off talking a little bit about your bio and growing up in Western Pennsylvania since I have to think, you know, your experiences as a young person here and the, I guess the times you lived through have to have shaped your approach to this job. So tell me about that.
Davitt Woodwell: (02:19)
I didn’t plan to be here. It moved back in like ’89 after a bunch of time away. And I think the experiences in, in a lot of ways it was experiences elsewhere that informed a way to go with some of these issues around here, Pennsylvania, Western Pennsylvania, specifically in the region in Northern Appalachia are amazing places. And I don’t think I realized that. I think it took being away for a while, if that’s even a term, and doing sort of the boomerang thing that so many people have done to really start appreciating what was here and what was available. And I came back in about ’89 to figure out what to do next, go to law school, be an aging law student, and coming out of that, not wanting to do the firm life or anything like that, and happened upon PEC when Brian Hill came to do a presentation at Pitt at the law school. And I figured I was heading to Alaska that summer and looked at the finances and the timing. It didn’t work out. So I called him and asked him if he’d taken an intern. He said no. I said a law student? He said yes. And then it was just the opportunity to really get exposed to all these wonderful issues that we’ve been able to work on all the projects and look for solutions to a lot of stuff with an amazing array of people all across the state and beyond.
Josh Raulerson: (03:42)
So were you already thinking environmental law at that point?
Davitt Woodwell (03:44)
No, I was, I was at a point in a career where I needed another degree, couldn’t get into business school because I couldn’t do calculus. So, you know, law schools, I sort of looked at it and they are able to really change the way you think and look at issues. And in a lot of ways it became, you know, where do you get to go to do different kinds of problem solving? And you know, in my life, being outdoors and fishing, paddling, doing all kinds of stuff, was it sort of made sense to look at environmental and conservation. I think over time that developed from more of an almost pure policy look and into a lot of these projects that PEC now does. And the opportunity to be with an organization that could adapt and grow to that over time was really lucky.
Josh Raulerson: (04:30)
I think you would’ve been around for de-industrialization for the beginnings of the environmental movement in the seventies. Did those things make an impression on you at the time?
Davitt Woodwell (04:40)
No, I — the de-industrialization was around, I mean, the eighties, I was actually not here when a lot of that, when a lot of the changes happened with that, the, you know, I was in a Ranger Rick club or something in, you know, the early seventies in school in Pittsburgh. And so paying attention to some things, and as always, you know, recycling was the stuff people talked about. And that’s had its own history going on, but being outdoors and, you know, going to camps here and elsewhere. But I sort of missed that. I mean, I’ve never, I’ve never really been a joiner, I guess. And so it’s doing other things and at that point then going into, you know, working at camps in Ontario for about 10 years and starting to teach, so I could keep doing that. I’ve taken the view that a lot of the change that can be made isn’t necessarily through command and control.
It’s not through the regulations, it’s not through the legislation. Those are great, but if you don’t have the players, the stakeholders involved in buying into it, you’re not going to get anywhere. You know, the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 were basically full employment for lawyers for years because you’re just going to litigate everything. But, you know, even looking at decarbonization now as you get companies and industries committing to actions and practices and goals even before government’s telling them to, that’s real. And could that have been achieved without a lot of the advocacy ahead of time? Probably not. I don’t think it would’ve been. But you know, it takes that kind of activity. And now everybody, but the policy makers, in some cases, are really moving forward.
Josh Raulerson (06:16)
I think safe to say the approach you just described is, is fairly representative of what we sometimes call the “PEC Way.” Could you explain what that is, what that idea means to you, and, you know, sort of how it’s guided you over the years?
Davitt Woodwell: (06:29)
Yeah, I mean, I think it goes back to when I first got involved with PEC, which was around ’91 to ’93 kind of as an intern and then as a staff attorney. But at that point, PEC was doing a lot of work with growth management. Growth management was, you know, looking at municipal regulation. It was looking at state approaches that you could do, what was happening in Oregon, what was happening in Maryland, what was happening elsewhere in the country. And that coupled with the issue of brownfields, you know, these industrial sites where it was cheaper and easier for a company to put a fence up around a site than to even test to see if there was contamination on it because of how strict and draconian, frankly, the laws were. This is one where the, the regulations, which are, which you could say, oh, that’s great, everybody’s gotta clean up. These sites were actually counterproductive because you wouldn’t, as a landowner go in and check to see, because then suddenly you’re on the hook for a major cleanups.
So PEC was involved with Dave Hess, who at that point was working for Senator Brightbill and later became Secretary of DEP, and then after that was a lobbyist for PEC and all these other things. But going around the state and talking with a number of different stakeholders all in the same room at once, trying to figure out what the goals were for everybody, what the issues were, what was holding it up. And that was an amazing process to really be, I mean, I was not running it by any means. I was learning through the whole thing and to sort of see how that type of conversation interaction could get you to the heart of a matter that resulted finally in Act Two, the, you know, really the cleanup law for Pennsylvania that’s been incredibly effective at cleaning stuff up.
Was it a lot we agreed with everything with, with when it went through? No. You know, did PEC get everything we wanted? No, but as you look back on it, it was incredibly effective at getting those properties opened up, getting cleanups done, and encouraging landowners to really do great redevelopment. And knowing that it’s Pennsylvania, especially in Western Pennsylvania, there’s a lot of riverfront property that had just been cut off, we’d been cut off from and cut off from those rivers for so long. So that, that then evolved into this idea of, you know, we try to take a look at an issue, whatever it may be, figure out what we know and don’t know, put people in a room together, try to find out if there is common ground, if there isn’t common ground. And then not holding anybody to anything. We come out and say, here’s what we think. And we’ve been successful in doing that with everything from gravel bike riding to the brownfields work, to shale, unconventional shale gas development, decarbonization carbon pricing, and really using it as a base for our work. And I think in every one of those cases, I would say that we still today, whether it’s three months, five years, or 15, 20 years after that work, we still can look at it and say it holds up.
Josh Raulerson: (09:31)
So, I’m not going to ask you to talk about your proudest accomplishments. I know better than that, but, what would you say are some of PEC’s, we’ll put it that way, some of PEC’s biggest achievements during the time you’ve been here and, you know, what have you taken the most personal satisfaction from?
Davitt Woodwell: (09:47)
So I think an important thing for PEC is we, and this goes back a couple of decades as well, when we had consultants sort of saying, okay, how are you going to make your pitch? You know, and at that point the euphemisms were Joe and Susie Six-Pack, how are you going to get your, your word out? And during that meeting, a couple of us really came up with, we don’t do that. There are only five people, 10 people in Pennsylvania who really have to know exactly how we do it. And those are probably our biggest funders. But because beyond that, so much of what we do is with partners and what we do couldn’t be done without those partners. Dozens and dozens of them on whatever issue it may be. And we’re sort of there too, to help to try to push something and see where the gaps may be, what can happen. And Jack Inger, who was on the board forever and then worked with us on a variety of great issues came up with the idea that was really, we were working interstitial. So in, if you think about the beach and all those grains of sand, we’re working not as one of the grains of sand. We’re working as the spaces in between to try to find the linkages and get them to sort of succeed together. So our, we succeed when our partners succeed. In most cases, we don’t do anything alone.
Josh Raulerson: (11:03)
So, yeah. What, what have been some of the most impactful partnership arrangements?
Davitt Woodwell: (11:07)
I’m just going to try to avoid that as much as I can. No, I think if, if you, if you look at this, I still hold that what PEC does in the policy work is the most important work we do. And over time, there’s been a lot on, you know, in the last 20 years, in the last 15 years, shale gas work, decarbonization work, and others, really that power to convene. And I think what we’ve, how we’ve been able to participate in shale gas discussions and there are people who disagree strongly with how we’ve done it. We worked with industry, we worked with national NGOs, some state NGOs, to really try to push beyond, beyond compliance, beyond just what you’re supposed to do. And that’s been seen even recently with a controversial one with CNX. I was thrilled to be able to be with the governor and Nick DeIuliis, the CEO of CNX recently on a well pad. And they were talking about putting into place stuff that we’d been talking about for 10 years. Earth shattering? No. Important? Yes. And it’s about transparency and understanding things. And I think, you know, if you go, if somebody goes back and looks and sees to take a look at what the unconventional shale gas industry’s biggest mistake was early on, they weren’t transparent. They didn’t talk about what was going down hole. They weren’t talking about what was coming back up the hole with produced water flow back water. And with that, they, and some of that was trade secret, and there were all kinds of issues, but they, it, it developed this sort of distrust and I think it’s taken a long time to get over that. And so our work over six or seven years on everything from details of Act 13 to talking about how you deal with produced water, to talk about, you know, what you do on, on pads, how you work with flaring, and still continuing today with methane rules and some of that just coming out from EPA this week that we’re recording this, and seeing now what Pennsylvania’s going to do with that, that’s important, impactful stuff that is nuanced to many, probably overwhelming or boring or geeky, but it matters.
And so that kind of work, I think in the policy world where we’re able to delve in, not worry about headlines and really take a look at something and try to see what you want the outcomes to be is impactful, then they’re, the programs, I mean, work with, you know, MS4, communities in southeastern Pennsylvania on stormwater, stormwater’s, something that’s been a problem. Pennsylvania water’s been a problem and an asset. But how you deal with that has been tough. In western Southwestern Pennsylvania, it’s been with, you know, how does Alcosan work with its 83 municipalities in the southeast, totally different system where Philadelphia Water Department is responsible for supplying water and treating wastewater. It owns all the systems to totally different systems. Plus then another about a thousand combined sewer overflows communities, separate sanitary sewer systems throughout the rest of the state and, and just a, a mess that’s taking decades to deal with.
But, you know, we’ve had folks doing great work with municipalities in the southeast, really helping them to address these issues. We’ve brought together watershed groups at times in ways they hadn’t been because we were able to sort of be above the fray a little bit. And that kind of example really has shown through in the trails and outdoor recreation work where, you know, in the southeastern part of the state, the Circuit Trails in Philly and New Jersey in the Northeast, it’s the Northeast Pennsylvania Trails Forum where we were able just to, to do a, a great plan working with all the partners there, the Industrial Heartlands Trails Coalition in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia, touch of, of ma of, not Massachusetts, but New York. Maybe we’ll get to Massachusetts. How that, how we can bring folks together and really push stuff forward because we are looking at this a little differently. I mean, I know we’ve had program officers at foundations who have said, you’re really hard to explain to our board. And we try to say, well, sorry. You can’t always touch what we do, but we can point to somebody else who’s done it.
Josh Raulerson: (15:26)
And that has really the model that has worked so well over the years. It’s about partnerships. It’s not just that PEC comes up with a thing and does it. It’s like, we pilot and model and do proof of concept and then we hand it off to somebody else and let them succeed with it. And that’s kind of the PEC Way, too. But you know, at the same time, somebody has to be the one to take the risk and to propose the wacky, innovative idea and to launch the experiment in the first place. And a lot of times that’s been PEC and honestly, it’s, it’s been you.
Davitt Woodwell: (15:56)
The economic relationship between PEC and me has been very good for me because PEC has let me do stuff. And, and funders have done it, too, where you can’t succeed at everything you do. And at some point you’re taking risks. And we aren’t doing brain surgery, we’re not delivering babies, and we’re not the public health system where lives are on the line. I mean, you can argue public health is tied into everything we do, but I think the ability to try to push the envelope is such that if you’ve got it right, most of the time you need to push it. And we aren’t judged based on a stock price or a, you know, year over year return. In that way we are judged, I think, by funders and by others on what are you getting right. How’s it working? And occasionally you look at something today and say, I tried, we tried that 20 years ago. Were we too early? Did we just do it wrong? Is there a new opportunity? Are there different people in decision making positions? And so therefore you can give another shot. I’ve, I’ve been really lucky. I have a mind that probably gets bored too easily. So it’s a lot of time on the turnpike to think about things over the years. And I think the, the crazy things at the beginning end up not being so wild. We, you know, PEC has sort of, I’ve claimed, had an ongoing back and forth between eastern and western Pennsylvania on trails and, you know, we were thrilled to be able to be part of, this isn’t a wacky thing, but be able to be part of sort of the last parts of the Great Allegheny Passage and getting that done. I mean, Hannah Hardy, now Brett Hollern, who was working on that trail before, and we, you know, we would pass that back and forth with Philadelphia and they’ve got the Circuit Trails now.
And then we had to one up them with the Industrial Heartlands Trail Coalition, of which we started doing a bunch of GIS work, which they then took and did a better job with. And then we said, oh, that’s enough. So there’s been this, this bouncing back and forth. I think the other is, you know, within that, taking a look at technology, taking a look at opportunities, you know, why do we have a podcast? Because it was something weird to try before you even got here. And then the opportunity to steal you from WESA was really phenomenal. And to build on some of those technological changes, to have folks go out and do things with gravel biking. I mean, we saw gravel biking coming along, partially because some of us had been doing it forever, not knowing that’s what it was. But also we had staff who were interested and that you can take a, you can take a leap by having a couple of meetings about something and then going further with it.
So I think it’s pushing the envelope a little bit and getting funders who say, you can’t do that with everything, but give it a shot with something and we’ll see where it ends up. Other things like the, I mean, it wasn’t PEC, but it was when I was at River Life for two years on leave of absence, but the barriers on the Fort Pitt Bridge that was proposed to be blocked off by very tall Jersey barriers so that you would not have a view coming outta the tunnel. And that was a tunnel that had been called the Best Gateway to a city by The New Yorker. All these other pieces and the opportunity to look at something like that and say, can we imagine this differently? And now if you come out of that tunnel, you will notice that there is what’s called the Pennsylvania barrier, and it’s concrete with this sort of metal thing on top. And it ended up being the first time that Federal Highway approved testing a barrier virtually without actually taking semis and crashing it into them. It’s been successful so far. I think it’s saved a, a big piece there. So there, there are little things around that I look at and go, that was kind of fun.
Josh Raulerson: (19:34)
Yeah, well, you know, a lot of success stories to look back on, but at the same time, you know, the flip side of, of taking risks and being experimental is that sometimes it doesn’t work out. And I think you’ve done a lot to de-stigmatize failure and taking some of the risk out of these situations for your staff, even to the point of encouraging people to blame you when things don’t go as expected. But really even more than that, emphasizing that when, when you fail, the point is not that it didn’t go the way you wanted. The point is what do you take away from it? So what are, like, how, how did you come by that bit of wisdom? Like what were some of your most instructive failures in your career?
Davitt Woodwell (20:12)
Yeah, for, I mean, the first three months I was at PEC, I did a survey of, put out a survey to all the municipalities in at least Allegheny County, if not more. And that’s 130 in Allegheny County, plus more in the region about environmental advisory councils. There’s a question, okay, are you interested in this? Here’s what they are. Send this back. They all came back, you know, it, it’s like, are you interested? A lot came back, yeah, we’re interested. This is something we want to talk about. Well, nowhere on there had I put, what’s your name? What’s your municipality? How do we contact you? So we had all this great, this is pre-internet, pre everything. And it was like, okay, that was really stupid. So ever since then, that’s there. And you, you learn the things over, over time and I think you just ways of doing things.
And I was in the, at a public meeting on our project we’re doing recently and with somebody else who’s been doing this stuff for a very long time. And we said, okay, we’re being quiet in this meeting, which is unusual for both of us. And we were sitting in the back cringing a little bit as the, you know, as folks were leading the meeting, but it’s also, that’s how we learned. We screwed up. And, you know, you learn over time, you get the scars, you get the battle wounds, you get the lessons, and you look at different ways of making it, whether it’s do you preset a salad at an event, or who do you contact first and how do you give the, how do you figure out who needs the credit and the attention, and how do you make sure they get it right? And throw the, throw that ego thing under the bus.
Josh Raulerson: (21:36)
Well, that kind of gets to a a broader question. I wanted to ask about your approach to leadership generally, and how do you, how do you build a team? How do you select the people that you want to have working together, and how do you create an environment where they can work together effectively?
Davitt Woodwell: (21:52)
I have no idea , but the background on this was, I was a camp counselor and director and stuff for years and then taught at a boarding school, and I didn’t know any other way. So when this came through and it’s like, all right, now you’re running an office in a region, now you’re doing this. I knew no other way than like, it’s a camp counselor thing or it’s a family and it’s, which also means that there are, you know, there are rules you, you look, you can look at at moving them, but there are ways you do stuff and you can adapt them based on who you’ve got, you know, make sure that people understand what they’re doing. You know, it’s always sort of a family first thing. You know, we personally a work life balance, I think there’s work and then there’s time maybe for balance after that, but that’s doesn’t fly these days necessarily.
But I do think that getting a team together where they can work and riff off each other and also understand if you’re taking a position that somebody else had, you’re not them, we’re not doing widgets, we’re not putting F-150s together. This is not, it needs to be done exactly the same way every time. Everybody’s different. And when somebody gets into a position, giving them the opportunity to put their stamp on it, as, as long as it’s meeting some of those outcomes and, and desires, and they may come up with a totally different way of doing it. They may take you down paths you never thought would be there, but that’s, you know, in, in this part of the non-profit world, and PEC’s in a really weird little niche, but it’s, it’s that ability to make that happen as long as you’re hitting the big notes
Josh Raulerson: (23:19)
You have always exhibited like a really, I think, successful balance between this, like, the vision thing and the big picture and also direct involvement in things. And that can be a delicate dance, I think. How do you know when to take ownership of a given initiative or project? When to kind of step back and let, let staff lead the way? How do you think about those things?
Davitt Woodwell: (23:40)
I’ve been a control freak about it. I’ve needed, this is not, it’s not necessarily a healthy way to do it, but it’s to know everything that’s going on, on everything, and up to a point you can do that, you know, PEC’s been different sizes at different times over the last 30 years, over the last 15. When I started, it was one and a half people were in the Pittsburgh office; now it’s 10 or something. And we’ve been up and down over time, but I, you know, it’s looking at it and, and seeing where you want to get and then getting comfortable with the piece going or just saying, they’ve got this, or I care so much about this and there are nuances that I want t make sure get right, that you become sort of a pain in the butt about. The theory here had also been for a long time an old Texas Rangers thing— not the, not the baseball team, but the Rangers, which was one riot, one ranger that you can go handle it.
So pretty much we don’t travel in packs. It’s sort of like you send somebody out, they can do the work. If they get in trouble, it’s my fault. If they do it well, it’s there, their success. And I think trusting people and also know that everything’s not going to go right all the time. But knowing, I think for something like we’ve done that, that links between policy programs and projects, being able to sort of look at all of that and see where they link, how they feed off one another. And not that everybody in the organization should know that because there’s just not, nobody has that much bandwidth to know it all and to do that work, but to have somebody who can sort of look across it and understand how that fits together. I think, you know, John Walliser who does that amazingly with the policy work, knowing also what these other pieces are so that if if you’re in with the legislator, you can talk about something maybe they don’t want to talk about, but you can also then talk about a project in their district or close by or close to their heart that, that they do enjoy.So you’re not, you’re not in an adversarial position.
Josh Raulerson: (25:27)
How did you know it was time to move on? What prompted that?
Davitt Woodwell: (25:31)
I’ve been working on this for a few years. The idea when, I’m not sure if I was getting counseled out of a position or not, but leaving one, the idea was leave on top. And so, you know, being fair to whomever was coming next, being fair to all of you, all the staff and all the programs and all the funders was put together something that’s at a very good point and that there aren’t any crises was the goal. So I mean, while this, I announced this in July, I’ve been working on it for at least two years, three years, and looking at the right timing, getting you know, making sure the finances are in great shape, the fundraising, the relationships, staff, the projects and programs and, you know, it’s just, it’s right and it’s also the world is changing and I do stuff differently now than I did 25 years ago and look at it differently and maybe crankier and maybe, you know, more cynical at times, but it’s, it’s that opportunity to take this and flip it, have somebody else come in as president. We’ve done a lot of work on strategic planning and organizational effectiveness over the last three years through the pandemic and then afterwards that I think set this up and the board with a board that’s in place and is understanding really what’s going on, that it’s the right time for so to, to hand it to somebody and give them the opportunity. And I think Tom’s going to do a great job. I think it’s going to be phenomenal. You know, he comes from a place, from an organization and a background and a history with projects that overlap very nicely with all that PEC’s doing in the programmatic and in the policy work, you know, understands how to run an organization, has been there, has long history with a bunch of different great organizations. And I, I think it’s great and it’s a chance for him to do it. I mean, one person said to me, nobody’s going to fill your shoes and my line was burn them. You don’t want to fill them. You know, give somebody the, the resources and the ability to make their own pair and go forward. And, you know, the staff of 25, 26, wherever we are today is really phenomenal. And I think that’s the other thing to be sort of mutually supportive with him as he comes in.
Josh Raulerson: (27:43)
Okay. So here we are wrapping up 2023 and you’re leaving us in really good shape. We’ve got a new leader identified. All the pieces are kind of in place. So as you, you know, get ready to ride off into the sunset and you, you know, you talk about legacy a lot. What do you see on the horizon for us? Like what do you think is next for PEC? What do you hope to see?
Davitt Woodwell: (28:01)
I mean, one thing I, you know, I hope to see PEC do well. I don’t know what it’s going to be. I think, you know, clearly the next year, year and a half, two years is sort of dialed in in a lot of the programmatic work and a lot of the funding. So that’s, you know, that’s sort of set, especially the trails and outdoor recreation, the outdoor economy, the activation piece of that is a big focus right now. I anticipate that continues and does stuff. I think the water work, water’s so important in Pennsylvania. I think an opportunity to sort of look at that stuff and see how we’re, how we’re doing with the water, it’s, it’s very different across parts of the state right now. And how PEC works on that. The decarbonization is going to continue to be the most important work.
We do the most, the most hard hitting work, probably for at least four more years. We got into that, you know, 2007 PEC put out the first carbon roadmap for Pennsylvania, and then unconventional shale gas came along. And as one person on staff had said at one point, whenever two or more people are gathered together in Pennsylvania, they shall talk about shale gas for five or six years. We’re still working on some of those issues. And that will continue as well, the legacy issues. But I do think the decarbonization as we look at anything from, you know, what continues to happen with RGGI, with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative membership for Pennsylvania, what happens with the Clean Energy Standard. How do the hydrogen hubs in both Philadelphia and in the tri-state area of southwestern Pennsylvania play into this? What have, you know, Pennsylvania’s an amazing energy place and even since the Inflation Reduction Act, which really had all of that sort of climate and decarbonization stuff in it, new, new breakouts for geothermal for what really large scale geothermal have been evolving, even just in that time, pure hydrogen being found underground, maybe under Philadelphia. We’ll see Westinghouse coming back into the market in a, in a real big way in southwestern Pennsylvania with developing and putting together modular and even portable nuclear systems. You know, as renewables go, it’s more talk about what are the land use impacts around solar. You know, how do you do the permitting of that? What’s happening with wind? What do you do with hydro, carbon capture? All of this stuff is still just swimming around and the next, you know, 20 or 30 years of that are just gonna be incredible to see what happens. And I think Pennsylvania is well positioned to really be an important player. Don’t forget Pennsylvania pre, the last number I’ve got is pre-pandemic, but 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas submissions, 1% came from Pennsylvania. So it’s not like we’re just some backwater dealing with this. It really matters.
So I, seeing what PEC does with that, seeing where the, especially the cycling stuff goes. I think PEC is emerging as a critical player on all this cycling stuff we saw during the pandemic, the, you know, the outdoor recreation numbers just blossom. The bike industry was suffering with a lot of supply chain issues. Now, it may be that it’s suffering the other way with maybe some oversupply and some of the, so many people bought bikes during the pandemic that maybe that’s backed off. But overall, e-bikes, gravel biking, mountain biking as an economic development strategy, which may sound crazy to people, but it’s real for the Pittsburgh region and breaking down some of those things and thinking about this more as northern Appalachia around here and others, and it, I can probably become more parochial too as time goes on. I don’t, you know, and think more about this specific region, but there’s a lot, PEC’s going to keep doing stuff and it evolves based on who the people are, what the issues are, what the opportunities are.
Josh Raulerson: (31:56)
Well, and especially when we’re talking about energy policy and climate change. You know, certainly PEC has been working on climate issues since long before I got here, but you know, that can feel like such a slog at times. It’s an area where it’s really easy to get demoralized. And you’ve personally talked me off the ledge more than once on this particular topic. So I guess my question has been, and remains, how are you so upbeat? How do you stay optimistic about the future?
Davitt Woodwell: (32:25)
I think it’s having, you know, seen stuff happen before. It’s not, it’s not pollyannish I don’t think, but it is sitting and watching as the, as things progress. So if you focus just on Pennsylvania’s general assembly, thank God nothing’s ever going to happen. And you know, Congress got the IRA through the Inflation Reduction Act. So there’s a lot of the money there now. You know, there are the doomsday articles about, oh God, wind is falling off, offshore wind’s falling off so much because of inflation. And then what are the, the by American requirements in there, what’s that actually do to this? How’s, how’s an interconnected world economy work with this? So if you’re looking just at that, you can read headlines. It’s like, okay, there’s some problems. But if you also look at what the commitments that companies are making, it’s pretty impressive. Will they make them all? I don’t know, I, you know, is everybody going to hit everything? No, but even this week at COP whatever number we’re on, 28 yeah, 28, you know, EQT, a major Pennsylvania corporation at COP28 making commitments on, you know, decarbonizing. And then people said, well, that’s a natural gas company, but it’s going to take everybody and all of these things. And I think, you know, whether you’re looking at direct air capture in the Permian Basin of West Texas or in Ryjkiovik or you’re, you know, thinking about what’s going to happen with carbon capture and is that, or isn’t that gonna do stuff, it’s, if you focus on one of them, you can get in trouble. But if you look at all of it, I think some of it is, we’ve also been able, at PEC, one of the things we’ve been really lucky about is being able to work with some amazing people leading on this, like Armond Cohen at the Clean Air Task Force who’s doing this internationally and actually brought us into this stuff in about 2015 as a result of work we were doing with them on unconventional shale gas conversations started about what they were doing in India and China and elsewhere on climate. And really got us started on the decarbonization pathway. And then we got to meet Jesse Jenkins, who at that point was that either MIT or Harvard. And then went to the other one is now managing an amazing lab at Princeton and was the, the sort of the, the climate whisperer to Congress through the IRA. We can talk to Jesse and if you, if people haven’t done it, he did a phenomenal podcast with Ezra Klein of the Times about a year ago around the time that we had him here in Pittsburgh to talk to a bunch of local folks about decarbonization. And you know, the challenges are definitely there because he, Jesse will also look at you and say, it took us how long to get our electrical distribution infrastructure for electricity up to where we are today? We have to triple that in the next 30 years.
How are we going to do that? Especially in a society and state and everywhere where, not in my backyard and locally unwanted land uses NIMBYs and LULUs, you know, pervade and we saw what happened with pipelines around shale gas and I don’t think it mattered what was in the, in the pipeline. It was the pipeline. And if you’re getting to hydrogen, you’re getting to all these, you know, all these other things. More pipelines are probably going to be necessary more transmission lines unless we sort of go to all this modular locally distributed power, which is another possibility so that the grid’s going to keep changing. But I sort of have faith that we’re up to the challenge and somehow it’s going to break through. And I really do stand by this idea I’ve got, whether I’m right or not, I still stand by it, that the policy makers are really the last ones who are getting on board and that we, you know, in Pennsylvania it’s, it’s really up to the General Assembly right now with the combination of what’s been happening in the RGGI cases. If, if that holds up that it’s, the fee is called a tax, well it’s up to the General Assembly then, but they’ve also got this thing of the Environmental Rights Amendment hanging over their head. And so maybe they do need to act on that. But it’s, I hold out hope that we can do something. ’cause otherwise it’s just too depressing.
Josh Raulerson: (36:26)
One of the reasons PEC has been able to be successful is kind of by taking the long view. We recently celebrated our 50th anniversary. I think that was really instructive for a lot of us to kind of get a sense of where all of this came from and where, where it’s going. Is that something that that gives, you know, hope and encouragement for the future?
Davitt Woodwell: (36:43)
Yeah, there’s a throughline in Pennsylvania in conservation and environmental protection. I mean, we, you know, we had the Clean Streams Law before there was a Clean Water Act. We had, you know, we’re dealing with air issues before there was a Clean Air Act. And I think if you look back in Pennsylvania, a lot through conservation where you can see it, but you know, Joseph Trimble Rothrock or even earlier standing in what’s now the PA Wilds writing his wife a letter going, I’m not sure what I’ve done buying property for pennies an acre kind of thing. And where he’s standing, you know, it’d been totally denuded basically. And that’s now some of the wildest stuff in Pennsylvania to then, you know, Gifford Pinchot around the same time working with Teddy Roosevelt as his forester essentially to protect a whole lot of stuff. But then he becomes governor of Pennsylvania for two terms. Doc Goddard who State Park named former western Pennsylvania, but Doc served some insane number of governors and was actually on the PEC board. I mean, I had the thrill of being able to sit next to him at a couple of meetings and in his later years and just blown away by having that opportunity, but seeing what he did with Project 70 for state parks and with, with other pieces for forestry and really to give us this legacy we’ve got. Then you’ve got Franklin Kury, who was also on the PEC board at one point, who was a state rep and a senator. And while a state rep in 1970, ’71, wrote what’s now the Environmental Rights Amendment and got it passed and PEC was able to be part of that process to help get it passed.
And I think you then look at the, you know, the line of the folks who were at DEP in the early days of some of their lawyers who then went on to private practice and served PEC board and elsewhere, you know, seeing what Tom Ridge did for environmental work and conservation work in Pennsylvania, which based on his time in Congress, I didn’t think he’d do. I was a little, he was, he was phenomenal. And you got Dave Hess, Jim Sy from that era, John Oliver. And then going through, and you look today, you know, Cindy Dunn is a public servant who has been involved in this stuff for over 30 years, running, running DCNR and looking at its future. And it’s really also exciting to look at all the folks working in these agencies and in the nonprofits and elsewhere to know that that whole line is just continuing.
It really, in some ways, it doesn’t matter who’s sitting in these seats. We know we’ve got good people, we know we’ve got good institutions and that together and, you know, all that through and industry. I mean, looking at the, you know, industry has changed a lot as well that it used to be there were, you know, lawyers representing industry from firms and internal who were like, how do we get away with stuff? How do we avoid it? Now it’s leased. We’re, we’re, we’ve got regs, we’re following them. Then it’s beyond that, what do we do to get beyond that? And the ideas that have, you know, even if ESG is on its way down a little bit, but that environmental responsibility and community responsibility is really strong in the private sector. And I think in all government, private and industry, there are just these great opportunities for improvement in moving forward. So Penns Woods has a great future.
Josh Raulerson: (39:53)
Okay, one more question, and I’m joking, but also I’m kind of not joking. Would you ever consider running for public office?
Davitt Woodwell: (40:00)
Never. I’ve seen too much of it and, you know, I wouldn’t make one point I yeah, never gonna happen. So that’s not a problem. But I’ve seen, but you know, being able to, to see and work with people who have had the guts to do that and have done that, have got great respect for many of them. And their ability or their need to know something about so much because, you know, we may think we’re sitting there talking about outdoor recreation or decarbonization or storm water or municipal planning. They have to know about broadband, healthcare, school systems, tax systems, water delivery, police services, prisons. And it’s scary to watch it all on TV and think everybody’s crazy. But we have had conversations with folks in D.C. who have worked to try to reassure us that almost ignore what you see on there. There are people who are actually running the government, who aren’t just out there for sound clips and, you know, and it’s elected folks, it’s staffers, it’s agency folks and others all actually working together trying to make sure that everything goes forward. So I hold hope in that, but I’m not, no way.
Josh Raulerson: (41:10)
Yeah. All right. Well in that case, what are you doing? What are your plans after you’ve left all this behind?
Davitt Woodwell: (41:15)
I don’t know. This has really been the focus is to get everything to the right point to make this handoff. You know, I may be doing some more stuff. I think looking some more at the Reforestation Legacy Mine lands sort of across Appalachia Green Forest work, which is a great organization we’ve worked with. Probably work with them some, they just got a big grant for strategic planning that PEC was part of. So I think as a volunteer advisor kind of thing, work with them a little bit on that and just see what happens. I don’t know what’s going to be, it’s going to be fun.
Josh Raulerson: (41:45)
Yeah. Whatever it is, you’ll probably be on, on some trails from time to time.
Davitt Woodwell: (41:48)
Hopefully a lot more. I think that was part of the realization. I I think this is also something for everybody, which is you look at folks who work on trails, outdoor recreation stuff, and you say, oh, that’s so fun. It must be great to be out there all the time. They’re not, there’s a lot of times when it’s like they’re, because of weekends, nights, and weekends and meetings and projects and ribbon cuttings and volunteer events and everything, a lot of those folks do not get to use those facilities as much as they would like, or probably in some cases need to. And so give ’em a shout out when you see ’em and thank them for it.
Josh Raulerson: (42:21)
Well, just to echo that point, speaking for, I think the staff here, and certainly for myself, I just want to say thank you. You gave me a chance to do something new and something different. I know a lot of people can say the same. You have started a lot of people on the path to do something great.
Davitt Woodwell: (42:38)
It was the other way around. I mean, it was just phenomenal to work with great people and have the ability to, you know, make mistakes and recover from them. Usually, well, not always, but usually recover from them and, you know, have teams and people. And that’s also with all those partners out there, all the folks sort of across the board and, you know, whether we agree with folks or not, it’s just committed people are great. So thank you, sir.
Josh Raulerson: (43:03)
Davitt Woodwell ends his 30-plus year career with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council this month. Wrapping up our year of interviews on the podcast, we’re excited to introduce you to our new leader, Tom Gilbert, in the new year. The show will return in January with more conversations about Pennsylvania’s many legacies, both the lasting impacts of past decisions, and the Commonwealth will leave for future generations. Hope you can join us then.
In the meantime, find out what PEC and our partners have been up to in the areas of clean energy policy, trails and outdoor recreation, healthy watersheds, and [email protected]. There you can also stream all past episodes of the podcast, pretty good way to kill a few hours if your holiday plans include a long road trip or a flight. Again, it’s pecpa.org. Thanks for being a listener to Pennsylvania Legacies. Hope you’re also a subscriber. If not, you can become one via your podcast platform of choice, whether that’s Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, SoundCloud, Stitcher, wherever you encounter the show. We appreciate your support in the form of a rating and a review. If you can find it in your heart, it helps others find the show and supports PEC’s work. Until next year, for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, I’m Josh Raulerson, and as always, thanks for listening.