By Scottee Cantrell
Even as a child, when she decided she wanted to be President of the United States, Teresa R. Christopher T’03 dreamed big and worked hard to turn her dreams into reality. Her educator parents taught her that girls could do anything, and she took that to heart as she has pursued her twin passions of the ocean and policy.
You may not be able to put a check by her name on the Presidential ballot — just yet — but you may have seen Christopher’s photo on the nightly news directing restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or at the White House when the first national ocean policy was signed by President Obama, or in Africa and Asia working on wildlife trafficking.
All of these newsworthy moments have their foundation in her upbringing on the Jersey Shore and in her Duke education. At Duke, she majored in Earth and Ocean Sciences and Political Science with an emphasis on international relations, but she didn’t stop there. Always trying to stretch the breadth of her experience, she also minored in marine biology.
Christopher, currently vice president of conservation strategy and operations at the National Audubon Society, grew up in West Long Branch, New Jersey. A shore town in Monmouth County, N.J., 25 miles south of New York City, it is near Asbury Park and home to President Woodrow Wilson’s summer White House. For four generations her family has called this area home, a place where life is driven by the ocean and the coast. Tourists fill the beaches as surfers ride the waves and clammers dredge for ocean quahogs offshore. Fishing is recreational here. It also is a livelihood.
“Growing up on the shore is a way of life — between the fishing and surfing and spending time with family and friends at the beach, you grow up understanding that the ocean and coasts are not only the economic engine of the community and how special a place it is, but the challenges that can come with living on the coasts,” says Christopher.
She saw the opportunities tourism brought and the challenges posed by increased coastal development; she experienced the sea as a livelihood and saw the trash and medical needles washing up on the shore. All of this led her to Duke where she was lured by the presence of the Duke Marine Lab and the chance to pursue her love of politics and the ocean.
While she can attribute her interest in the coast to her upbringing, the origin of her policy passion, she says, is a little harder to pinpoint. Nonetheless, from an early age she participated in school student government and took advantage of many opportunities to go to Washington to participate in leadership programs focused on government.
“I really enjoy big picture policymaking and finding pragmatic solutions to some of the most important challenges people face.”
This love of policy and the ocean has seen her through college, law school and almost 14 years of public service, much of it related to the sea — including eight years in the Obama Administration. It is those years of which she is most proud so far.
DEVELOPING FIRST U.S. NATIONAL OCEAN POLICY
President Obama created the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force in June 2009 and charged it with developing recommendations to enhance national stewardship of the oceans, coasts and Great Lakes.
It was to be an effort to bring together multiple agencies to promote oceans and coasts that are “healthy and resilient, safe and productive.”
The ocean and coastal economy contribute billions of dollars in goods and services to the gross national product and employ millions of people. Many of those jobs depend on healthy, clean waters and abundant fish.
Christopher was instrumental in the development of what would become the first U.S. national ocean policy. She joined the White House in May 2009 at the time Obama set out to improve how we oversee our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes, including a plan that eventually would enhance the sustainability of ocean and coastal economies, support sustainable uses and access, streamline permitting, promote clean water, protect coastal communities and improve access to renewable offshore energy.
She began working in the General Counsel’s office at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and then as Ocean Policy Advisor, at the same time finishing her law degree at night at Georgetown University Law Center. Her job was to manage the ocean policy task force, lead development of recommendations for the President, and write the policy. It was a challenge working on a very tight deadline of 180 days set by the President. To do it, they engaged thousands of stakeholders from around the country, sought input from
26 agencies each of which had different points of view, and coordinated across all levels of government — local, state, tribal, and international.
“The United States has more than 100 ocean-related laws — so creating a balanced, and I believe, a good policy, while working with a multitude of interests and agencies, was a challenge and a great opportunity,” she says.
“It took a lot of negotiation and deliberation, balancing different perspectives and considering different needs: national security, economic, energy, transportation, coastal communities and the environment.”
That policy was approved and eventually implemented. President Trump rolled it back in June. “I’m very proud of that policy and what we accomplished,” she says.
STARTING AN AGENCY FROM SCRATCH
On April 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, operated by BP about 41 miles off the Louisiana coast, resulted in the largest environmental disaster in history. Before the spill was capped, 134 million gallons of oil was dumped into the Gulf affecting tourism, the fishing industry, the environment, the livelihoods of residents and business owners from Louisiana to Florida.
The oil slick eventually impacted at least 43,300 square miles, an area about the size of the state of Virginia, and fouled 1,300 miles of shoreline, a distance equal by road from New Orleans to New York City.
By Fall 2012, Christopher was appointed to a new position in the Secretary of Commerce’s office and she drew the assignment of spearheading the Gulf restoration economic and environmental efforts. When she undertook the mission to rebuild the Gulf Coast and start an agency from scratch – an opportunity that rarely happens, if ever – she already felt a connection and an understanding to these coastal communities and their concerns.
“I grew up in a very similar community where livelihoods and culture revolve around the coasts, and I understood the urgency to bring back that way of life.”
Ironically, she started the job as senior advisor to the Secretary of Commerce two weeks before Hurricane Sandy hit and devastated the coast of New Jersey. This was an experience in shared pain that made her empathize even more with Gulf residents and inspired her to get them the help they needed as soon as possible.
With no initial money and a statute — the RESTORE Act (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States) — Christopher flew to the Gulf monthly for the better part of four years as she built the initial team, partnered with state and local governments and Gulf communities, and ran the meetings of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.
“When you start with no funding, it’s like building a plane at the same time you are flying it,” she says. Plus, there was the challenge of ongoing litigation and balancing the different perspectives of five Gulf states and six Cabinet officials.
“We established the foundational rules, procedures and a framework that would last 20 years. We funded over $180 million in initial projects needed to create jobs and fix the environment after one of the worst environmental disasters in the world.”
The RESTORE Act dedicated $5.2 billion, 80 percent of all administrative and civil penalties related to the spill, to a trust fund and it outlined a structure by which the funds could be utilized to restore and protect natural resources, ecosystems, fisheries, marine and wildlife habitats, beaches, coastal wetlands and economy of the Gulf Coast region.
“It was an honor and a privilege to work with thousands of people throughout the Gulf coast to help restore the ecosystems, economies, and businesses.”
“I am proud of what we accomplished in that very short period of time: we put an initial plan in place, got agreement from five governors and 6 Cabinet officials, set up a fully functioning agency, and funded over $180 million in initial projects that help the people of the Gulf coast.”
Bruce Andrews, who was Deputy Secretary of Commerce, when Christopher oversaw the Gulf project, says of her work: “Teresa is a fantastically talented individual. The challenge she faced not only required her to be an expert on substantive issues of Gulf Coast restoration, but the interpersonal skills to manage a complex and diverse set of federal and state interests.”
Andrews is now managing director of Rock Creek Global Advisors in D.C.
LEADING A U.S. DELEGATION TO SEEK COOPERATION ON HALTING WILDLIFE TRAFFICKING
If starting a new agency and writing the national ocean policy weren’t big enough accomplishments for this woman driven by her passions, in the last year of the administration she tackled another that touched on her international relations interests.
Christopher had the opportunity to help run the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as the No. 2 person. Building on the work of what she describes as a great team of people, she led a U.S. delegation to the Sudan to assess the possibility of long-term cooperation with the government to halt wildlife trafficking.
Wildlife trafficking is the fourth largest transnational crime in the world. It generates about $20 billion dollars a year for transnational criminal organizations like al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army).
She also served as alternate head of a 48-person delegation to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, where every U.S. position was adopted.
“It was record breaking,” she says. “We were able to protect sharks, rays, elephants, pangolins and many iconic species in the world that have been threatened by unsustainable trade practices.”
After she left the Obama Administration, she helped with Phil Murphy’s gubernatorial race in New Jersey. “I was able to work on cutting-edge environmental and energy policy issues —everything from offshore wind to grid resilience to water infrastructure.” She recently joined the National Audubon Society.
BUILDING HER CAREER FOUNDATION THROUGH A DUKE EDUCATION
Looking back on her career so far, Christopher says: “Whether it is helping to restore the Gulf Coast after the BP oil spill, writing our first national ocean policy or protecting iconic species, I really believe that my Duke education has been a key part of the foundation to make it happen.”
At Duke, she was attracted by the chance to work with top-notch faculty in political science, foreign relations, public policy, and marine and coastal issues.
“I find all the hard science, the field work and the research I did in EOS to be extremely helpful in my career. It not only provided the foundation of my knowledge base, but gave me the experience of what it’s like to be in the field and in a lab. So, when I’m talking to scientists and reading scientific reports for decision-making, I understand the context,” she says.
It was hard for her to choose two of her favorite faculty out of the number of talented, world class faculty she says influenced her – but she singled out Orrin Pilkey and Andrew S. Coburn MEM’93, who worked with him as associated director of the Duke Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, during that time. She also cited political scientist Meg McKean, who taught the classes that combined what she loved – political science and the environment.
She recalls that in her junior year she sought Pilkey out in his Old Chem office: “I distinctly remember all of my friends were getting internships at Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, but I really wanted to go work on coastal policy.”
Pilkey, an emeritus professor in EOS at the Nicholas School, founded the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines that is now at Western Carolina University. He is renowned for his books, articles and talks on conservation of the world’s beaches and barrier islands in the face of sea-level rise, shoreline stabilization and over-development of the coast.
“I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with him through the summer and into the next school year looking at beach nourishment and coastal development and what those implications were on coastal communities, public beach access and coastal resilience.”
Coburn, now associate director of the Western Carolina Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, says: “As soon as I met Teresa, I knew she had a real passion for protecting and preserving our nation’s threatened coastal resources and that she would, one day, have positive impact on national coastal policy.
“What set Teresa apart was her maturity, motivation and eagerness to work an entire summer with the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines — just to learn as much as she could about coastal environmental management, coastal development and how coastal policy was created,” he says.
LOOKING TOWARD A FUTURE IN PUBLIC SERVICE
When she looks to the future, Christopher says she plans to go back into public service. “Whether it’s running for office back in New Jersey or going back to an appointed state or federal government position, I think you will see that in my future.”
Hopefully — given her passion and drive — that means we’ll still have a chance to put a check next to her name on the ballot for President. It could happen.
Scottee Cantrell is the Nicholas School’s Associate Dean for Marketing, Communications and Strategic Engagement. Photography by Sam Kittner.
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