The first time I met Gail Achterman was in the late 1990s. I was apprehensive, expecting a whip-smart, hard-edged lawyer. Her reputation was that of a policy fixer, depended on by Oregon governors to bargain out compromises on complicated natural resource conflicts like spotted owls and old growth forests.
Instead, I found a friend. Sure, she was formidably intelligent, and she was impatient with nonsense and posturing. But if she was tough, she was never hard. No, she was principled and—because confident in her principles—flexible, sensitive, and inquisitive. More: what drew me to her was that she was moved by a deep, restless, almost palpable quest—a quest for solutions for Oregon and the Northwest.
There were others in the meeting, I feel sure, but Gail and I ran away with the conversation. I remember we talked about Wendell Berry, a formative influence of mine. We talked about the meaning of place in modern life. We talked about Cascadia’s rivers and whether the love of them might motivate conservation and sustainable land-use in watersheds across the region.
Over the next years, Gail grew more and more involved with Sightline, ultimately joining our board of directors and helping develop our strategy for effecting social change. She shared research with us, introduced hundreds of people to our work through her speeches, made large annual donations to the organization, and came to board meetings with bright, challenging new perspectives to help sharpen our focus.
The last time I saw her, seven months ago, she was planning her next chapter, likely a new venture to conserve the Willamette River and its watershed. As we wrapped up our meeting, she mentioned that she had been having difficulty sleeping. Soon thereafter, her doctors diagnosed pancreatic cancer, and now she is gone, at 62.
No one could say she didn’t make the most of her time. Her career path blazed like a shooting star, and the Oregonian ably detailed it in its obituary. Just in the years I knew her, she built a uniquely effective watershed conservancy in Bend. She built a new institute for natural resources at Oregon State in Corvallis. She chaired the board of 1,000 Friends of Oregon. She served on and chaired Oregon’s Transportation Commission, where she prompted and prodded for innovative new approaches, like by-the-mile road pricing and bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
Gail’s fans were many. On Monday, Oregonian editorial writer Rick Attig, called her, “a rare figure in Oregon public policy circles, someone who always seemed in the tough debates and the discussions for the right reasons—to figure things out, to find the solution, to get things done. She wasn’t an attention seeker, and my guess is that Achterman is probably the most intelligent, most effective public servant that you’ve never heard of.” BikePortland’s Jonathan Maus agrees.
Sightline director Mary Fellows of Portland remembers Gail’s prowess as a public speaker: “She was equally effective addressing the scions of Portland at the Portland City Club and the (slightly scruffier) hard-core bicycle advocates at an Oregon Bicycle Summit.”
Wayne Lei, also of Portland, chairs the governance committee of Sightline’s board. He was impressed by the depth of Gail’s understanding of public policy issues, from transportation economics to electric utility regulation. “If Gail called, you did not say ‘no.’ . . . You can count the number of such folks on one hand in Oregon.”
Former Sightline board chair David Yaden, of Lake Oswego, Oregon, first recruited Gail to serve Sightline and worked with Gail in many other capacities as well. To him, what stood out about Gail was that “there wasn’t a cynical bone in her body. Whatever she may have felt about polluters or pillagers of the land, she always channeled her energy into fixing the problem, not taking revenge. . . . She was one of those who kept me looking forward and upward, and I will miss her.”
So will I.
In 1986, when I was 21, I spent months in the ferment of Central America, learning Spanish and observing revolution and civil war. There, political beliefs and action could lead directly to death, and mourning the dead was a pressing need for the living. At ceremonies, an announcer would call the name of a fallen friend, and the entire crowd would answer, “Presente! Presente! Presente!”
I didn’t understand until my Spanish teacher explained. “It’s like calling roll in school,” she said. They were saying that their departed colleagues were still there, present in all of them, that they had each taken up the cause of the fallen and made it their own.
This week, I’ve been saying it a lot: Gail Achterman: Presente! Presente! Presente!
A memorial service is scheduled in Portland for Thursday afternoon, February 9. Details are here. [CORRECTED — not Feb. 2]