As a teenager, Eric Washburn immersed himself in books about ecology. Home-schooled for a year on a ranch in Colorado's Yampa River Valley, the future aide to two Senate Democratic leaders shot thousands of photographs of local wildlife.
"I think that was the most formative year of my life," said Washburn, who just joined the Policy Resolution Group at Bracewell & Giuliani. "It was that Colorado experience that instilled in me that love of nature."
At Bracewell's PRG, Washburn will draw on his expertise—work as an environmentalist plus a decade in the Senate followed by a decade on K Street—to advise utilities and other clients in the energy space. As oil and gas companies expand their operations in the Western U.S., Washburn will help them set up "habitat exchanges" to mitigate ecological damage.
"Inevitably, you're going to have a certain amount of harm to the habitat, whether it's because of a new oil well or a wind farm," he said. "So you look for areas offsite where you can invest in restoring that habitat so that there's no net loss."
One of the animals threatened is the greater prairie chicken, an endangered species that draws spectators for its flamboyant plumage and outlandish mating ritual. Another is the greater sage-grouse, which has not been classified as an endangered species but has spawned conservation efforts on the state and national levels. "We're waiting to see, over time, what the mitigation needs are with respect to these two birds," Washburn said.
Washburn, 51, who arrives from BlueWater Strategies, was enticed to Bracewell & Giuliani by close friend Scott Segal, who leads the PRG. "He and I have literally talked to each other for over 10 years about the possibility of … working together as partners," Washburn said. "I think we figured out that we'd better do this now before we were grumpy old men."
Washburn was also intrigued by what he calls the group's "integrated system," which combines a law firm, lobby shop, and communications operation.
Born in Manhattan, Kan., Washburn moved to Blacksburg, Va., when he was 2. As he was growing up he relocated to Stockholm, Denver, southern Michigan, the Yampa River Valley, and finally southern Maine. His stepfather taught deaf children and was a "very idealistic man," he said. "He was constantly struggling to find the perfect educational forum and never quite achieved that. That's why we moved as often as we did."
After receiving a bachelor's degree in psychobiology from Bowdoin College, Washburn enrolled at Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies but left after a year to spend nine months as a research assistant in the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which was dismantled in 1995. "It was one of the unfortunate agencies that got eliminated after Republicans took power in Congress in 1994 and were looking for ways to shrink government," Washburn explained. "OTA was one agency that didn't have a large enough constituency to defend itself."
Washburn returned to Yale for a semester, but then was lured to Washington for a second time as a consultant with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Eventually, Washburn resumed his studies in New Haven and received a master's degree in forest science, after which he spent several years laying the groundwork for a doctoral dissertation on "how the national news media covers environmental issues," he said. At some point, however, Washburn suspended his studies yet again to join the staff of Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the Democratic leader in the Senate from 1995 to 2005.
"At the time, I thought that I was going to finish writing my dissertation while working six days a week in the Senate," Washburn said. "Of course, those became fundamentally incompatible. The Senate won out, and I never quite finished my Ph.D."
After four years as Daschle's legislative assistant, Washburn was promoted to legislative director. Later, he became a senior adviser to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., which led to an appointment as Democratic staff director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. But Washburn was bumped from that position as part of a deal to entice then-Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., away from his party.
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"During that period, [Reid] was negotiating with Jeffords to switch parties and caucus with the Democrats," Washburn said. "As part of the bargaining, Jeffords became chairman of the EPW Committee, bringing with him his own staff."
Before BlueWater Strategies, Washburn worked at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell, and Berkowitz. Washburn is the founding executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a coalition of environmental groups.
Washburn is married to Robin Schepper, former executive director of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign. They have two adopted children from Kazakhstan.
This article appears in the April 15, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.
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