OSU, state loses valuable problem solver with death of Gail Achterman

Gail Achterman
Aug. 1, 1949- Jan. 28, 2012

Gail Achterman was passionate about water resources, transportation issues, and creating dialogue. (photo: Kelly James)

Oregon lost a dedicated natural resources and environmental problem solver last week when Gail Achterman died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 62. Achterman had recently retired as director of the Institute for Natural Resources (INR) at Oregon State University, and was an adjunct professor in the Department of Forest Resources. She was also a lawyer, and had worked on natural resource issues for more than three decades.

A fourth-generation Oregonian, Achterman was best known for her innovative approach to creating dialogue around natural resource and environmental issues. As director of the Institute for Natural Resources, her approach embodied OSU’s Land Grant mission as she focused on bringing constituents together to talk about science, and on listening to public concerns and connecting them to university experts.

In her own blog, Achterman recalled her first memories of the Willamette River as a child, turned red from the outflow of a beet processing plant. She was forbidden from swimming in the river as a little girl, and the condition of river quality impressed upon her at a young age.

“Now 40 years after graduating from college and 33 years after moving home, I hope I can use all I’ve learned about natural resources, infrastructure and people to help others do what needs to be done to live in harmony with each other and with nature here,” she wrote.

Todd Jarvis, associate director for the Institute of Water and Watersheds and the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at OSU, said Achterman was a remarkable legal scholar in water resources.

“She was one of the few who recognized the direct connection of Oregon’s water to Oregon’s business, always pushing one to think out of the box to invest in water for agriculture, aggregate, forest ecosystems and our silicon forests,” Jarvis said. “The Institute for Water and Watersheds at OSU valued her selfless guidance and assistance with our growth and professional reputation in water scholarship.”

Julie Bain spent six years as Achterman’s assistant with the INR, and was constantly impressed with her dedication.

“The one phrase I heard most from Gail was ‘I know this will be difficult, but we need to make it work.’ This translated to: I know I’m on vacation then, but I’m going to participate anyway or I know I’m committed (two or three) different places but I’ll figure out how to do all of them,” she said. “Her commitment to OSU, OUS, Oregon, and the nation was tireless and knew no bounds.”

“Gail was a terrific bridge builder,” said Hal Salwasser, dean of the OSU College of Forestry, “and a bold leader for sustaining natural resources in ways that benefitted our communities, the economy and the environment.”

With a rich background in the legal groundings of natural resources first honed at the U.S. Department of the Interior, and a lifelong dedication to public service, Achterman was driven to build community among the many differing voices surrounding issues as controversial as watershed restoration and wildland fire management. It was her sense of humor that kept her lighthearted under pressure, said former colleague Sally Duncan, program manager of policy research for the Institute of Natural Resources.

“Gail had an insatiably curious mind, an ability to synthesize disparate ideas at a startlingly rapid pace, and a bone-deep joy in working for Oregon,” Duncan said. “She also had a great sense of humor and of the absurd, and the ability to take criticism and laugh at herself.”

Lisa Gaines, interim director for INR, agreed that Achterman’s ability to connect, and to keep a light heart, made her a true stand out.

“For many of us, Gail was more than a colleague — she was a friend, a mentor, an inspiration,” Gaines said. “Her ability to connect people with place, and to concisely and passionately state her vision for Oregon was brilliant. But there was nothing more wonderful than to see her laugh.”

An avid bicyclist, Achterman also served on the Oregon Transportation Commission and was chair from 2007 to August 2011. She was known for helping move ODOT away from a highway-centric approach, and advocated for support of biking and walking projects.

Thayne Dutson, dean emeritus of the College of Agricultural Sciences, chaired the committee that convinced Achterman to come to OSU. He praised her kindness and her intellect.

“She had a driven work ethic, and the combination of her intelligence and her work ethic made her really productive,” he said. “She also really cared about people, the state and natural resources.”

Achterman also had a rich set of connections across the state, and the ability to remember everyone she’d met and important details about them.

“OSU was extremely fortunate to have her for the time we did,” Dutson said.

The Oregon Legislative Assembly created a resolution honoring Achterman’s legacy of service to the state. Read the resolution here: http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/sites/default/files/osu-today/gail.pdf

A public memorial service for Achterman will be held Feb. 9, 3 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church Sanctuary at 1200 S.W. Alder St., Portland. A reception will follow the Multnomah Athletic Club, 1849 S.W. Salmon St. A campus memorial service will be held at 4 p.m., Feb. 24, in the Construction and Engineering Hall at LaSells Stewart Center.

One Response to “OSU, state loses valuable problem solver with death of Gail Achterman”

  1. John Selker says:

    Gail was an intellectual leader with boundless energy, and a unwavering commitment to making Oregon a better place for its citizens of today and future generations. She had an original and insightful vision for water and the other natural resources which changed the face of this state for the better in manifold aspects. We were inordinately blessed to have her here, but loosing her, we have lost much more than I can describe. My heart goes out to her family.