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Alumni Stories: Scott Cameron '77

Scott Cameron Speaks for the Trees by Lisa Birzen '03

"I was always fairly directed," Scott Cameron says.  "I usually knew what I wanted to do - I occasionally changed my mind - but at any given point in time I could tell you with some certainty what I wanted my life to be 5, 10 or 20 years later."

While Cameron was in high school, he wanted to protect the environment and "was constantly writing letters to senators and congressmen telling them to vote positively on environmental legislation," he recalls.

A native New Yorker, Cameron picked up the love of the outdoors from his father, whom he describes as "an avid fisherman" and "a frustrated forester who found himself  spending his entire career in public relations."

Arriving at Dartmouth in 1973, "I started off like a third of my class, as pre-med, but I always had an interest in the outdoors and ecology and gradually . . . my interest in biology was clearly gravitating towards the coursework in ecology," Cameron says.

"By the time I was a junior at Dartmouth, I had pretty much decided that I wanted a career in environmental policy and research policy," he recalls.

Cameron remembers "another pattern distinguished itself:  I was getting mostly A's in my courses in environmental studies and government and I was getting mostly B's in my courses in biology."

"I took a hint from my professors and decided I probably had more aptitude in public policy and public administration than I did in the straight sciences," Cameron concluded.

During his senior year, Cameron was an intern at the Department of the Interior's (DOI) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an experience which "cinched the deal for me that I wanted a career in public policy," he says.

In 1977, graduating from Dartmouth with a Biology degree, Cameron enrolled at Cornell University and graduated in 1979 with a Masters in Business Administration and a Natural Resources and Economics Concentration.

Looking back, Cameron says, "Getting an MBA was actually a perfect complement to my undergraduate degree in biology."

While at Dartmouth, "It clicked one day that economics and ecology both dealt with the flow of resources through a system.  In one case, what was moving around was land, labor, capital and financial assets and in the other case, what was moving around was sunlight, nutrients, water and  oxygen but economics and ecology really had a lot in common," he says.

"We are after all a modified market economy and the economic system; the price system determines much of the decision making in this society."

"To fail to appreciate, to fail to understand those dynamics significantly limits one's ability to achieve environmental objectives," Cameron asserts.

The summer after Cameron's first year of graduate school, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service invited him back for a three-month internship this time.

This experience "validated my assumption that I was interested in these topics, although let's face it, at age 21 or age 22, they were hardly giving me responsible assignments."

"It's not as if I walked in the door and they said, 'Here, solve the endangered species problem'," Cameron warns recent graduates.

"One of the things that new graduates have to get accustomed to is the fact that with an Ivy League degree, you don't know everything; you know relatively little.  When you've got your college degree you've just gotten off the bottom of the learning curve; you're not at the top," he stresses.

After his graduation, Cameron was invited back again and, due to good timing, could apply for the then newly established Presidential Management Internship program at the DOI, allowing him to bypass "the normal bureaucratic civil service hiring system gauntlet," to begin his career in the federal government.

His start at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within the DOI would lead to a long list of impressive contributions to the country's environmental policy and its subsequent implementation.

The DOI, founded in 1849, oversees numerous conservation issues regarding the United States' various water, land, energy resources; fish and wildlife; and land property, particularly that belonging to Native Americans.  The organization aims to protect the country's natural and cultural heritage and ensure its availability for future generations.

Reflecting on his rookie days, Cameron cautions of inevitable challenges and surprises.

"Probably the first and most telling:  how challenging it is to get policy decisions in headquarters."

"I was the stereotypical 24 year old MBA who figured, 'God, I've got 2 Ivy League degrees here; I can make a significant contribution to national environmental policy'," Cameron remembers.

When asked to cover the Pacific Salmon issue in the Northwest, Cameron proceeded to inform his third-level supervisor of what he had learned in graduate school on this topic and how to best solve the problem.

The supervisor responded by sending Cameron to study the fish in their natural habitat.

"I must say that in 10 days on the ground in the Pacific North West, I learned about 5 times as much as I had in that one year of graduate school about water rights issues and about water resources management issues in the Northwest."

At this pivotal point in his career, Cameron, at age 24, realized that "maybe a small dose of humility here might be appropriate and there's a lot more to learn out there than I got in my years in the Ivy League."

"The honest truth is that anyone who is growing professionally is constantly learning."

Today, Cameron has successively worked his way up from an intern position to his newly expanded post of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Performance, Accountability and Human Resources.

In his current role, Cameron is "in charge of strategic planning and program evaluation across the department; of efforts to use modern technology to significantly improve the level of service to the public and the efficiency of the Department's programs; of overall coordination of a series of major management initiatives emanating from the White House, called the President's Management Agency," he explains.

One of his most challenging current responsibilities, however, is "steering the administration's policies on invasive species, which is a really ecologically and economically significant natural resource issue that unfortunately hasn't gotten quite the press of things like climate change."

Invasive species are "organisms, plants, animals, microorganisms that are exotic to a particular environment and when introduced into that environment essentially take over the ecology," he explains.

Some well-known examples are the West-Nile virus brought to New York City by mosquitoes from Africa; gypsy months from Asia who have been "wreaking havoc on Northeast forests ever since" their arrival to the United States, and the Asian long-horned beetle, transported in wood-packing material from China, which at one point posed a real risk to Central Park and consequently to the maple forests of New England.

"There were some estimates that invasive plants cause in excess of 100 billion dollars of economic damage every year in the United States," Cameron reports.

"And unlike climate change, every year there are people who literally die because of invasive species," he adds.

Cameron fears this issue received little press because "there is no easy enemy that you can market against."

"The environmental groups have an easy time figuring out who the bad guy is for climate change; it's the internal combustion engine; it's fossil fuels and you can go after the oil companies, you can go after the coal companies, you can go after the automobile companies."

"The invasive species problem is much more subtle.  It's  secondary affect of international trade; it's a secondary affect of tourism.  The bad guys are not as easy to demonize."

Another reality Cameron has had to confront in his career in public policy "is that there are very, very rarely clear cut rights and wrongs.  People will have slightly different values, slightly different priorities and different assumptions about the world and most of the debate is around the margins."

"In order to try to sway the general public there is a tendency on both sides to try to exaggerate what the actual differences are in order to mobilize public support and public interest."

"But in my experience there usually is something correct and worth paying attention to from virtually every perspective in a public policy debate," he suggests.

To graduating seniors, Cameron can't stress enough:  Be mindful of the fact that you still have an awful lot to learn.

"In the working world, a network of professional contacts is extremely important in terms of one's own professional development, in terms of finding out about new jobs, in terms of being selected for new jobs."

Cameron advises those interested in tackling environmental issues from within the government to build a comfortable technical background, in science or engineering, as well as "a degree of comfort and familiarity with economics and public policy."

"Ironically, this harkens back to one of the underlying assumptions of a place like Dartmouth with a  liberal arts education that applies a certain amount of diversity in one's educational background that I think is very effective and useful to have in the working world."

In addition, "such relatively simple things as good writing skills, good oral communication skills are invaluable not just in the environmental field but frankly in any field of endeavor."

Furthermore, Cameron says that the choice of major will ultimately only have "significant impact on the first couple of jobs in your 20s.  It doesn't necessarily have much impact on where you're going to be in your 30s or subsequently in your career."

A choice of major may help open certain career doors, but, in the end, it is focus and determination that will help decide how one's professional career will eventually develop.

Last Updated: 6/21/12