A major project of WSU’s Emeritus Society, these oral histories provide absorbing recollections of WSU history from the early 1950s on. Conducted and transcribed by history graduate student, now instructor, Katy Fry ’06, ’11, the histories deliver unfiltered memories of WSU through five presidencies and rich insight into how we came to be where we are now.
In this history, agricultural economist Norm Whittlesey (at WSU 1964–1996) talks about his work on water policy and some considerable controversy regarding water. The Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Project was originally planned as purely an irrigation project. Half of it was funded by Congress. Power generation was added later in the planning. Decades after the dam’s completion, the plans for the second portion of the irrigation project were resurrected, and Whittlesey was asked to analyze its worth. Much to the dismay of a determined interest group, he testified before the House of Representatives that the project was in fact not worth the cost.
Whittlesey learned the dangers of being forthright and recounts a not-so-surprising but still troubling conversation with an unnamed legislator about truth and accountability. He also muses that the results of his testimony changed his opinion of tenure.
F - Ok, its April 9, 2010. we’re in the Emeritus Society Lounge, Owen Science Library, WSU campus. Lets start with your name
NW - My name is Norman Whittlesey
F - And when and where were you born
NW - I was born in Colorado Springs in 1933, July 3, 1933. We lived in, on a poor dirt farm way out in eastern Colorado on the plains in that time.
F - Were your parents farmers then
NW - Yes
F - What’s a dirt farm
NW - Well we had to make our living growing what we could out there in dry land agriculture growing corn, some beef, milking cows, just whatever you can scratch out a living with in those days
F - And they did that all through the depression
NW - Yep.
F - What were the; what were your early school experiences
NW - Well I went to, uh, in eastern Colorado I went to what would now be termed as a small school. Out there it wasn’t all that small, but it was a 3 room school, 3 teachers and 12 grades and so each teacher had 4 grades and I went from 1st through high school and I think there was probably 40 kids in the whole 12 grades, maybe something of that, I don’t remember the exact number, but; and then I went, when I was 12 years old, we moved from eastern Colorado to western Colorado near Aspen but actually in Basalt. Most people don’t know where Basalt is, uh, again to farm and there in the 7th and 8th grade, I went to a 1 room school of 8 grades and when I graduated from the 8th grade, the, uh, an interesting side note is the teacher took me aside on the day of, the last day of school and told me I should go get a job because I’d never make it through high school, uh, but I went to high school anyway and there I went to a larger school in Basalt which was, actually there was 12 grades again but there were 34 students in high school, 4 grades, but there was 12 in my class, only 4 in my sister’s class who was 2 years behind me, but 34 students in 4 grades of high school, so that was my academic career up through high school.
F - What was your; so how did you know you’d go to college; was your family very supportive of you
NW - Well they I guess I did well enough in school that they encouraged me to go, but neither of my parents were college educated and they didn’t know much about it, actually, but I was encouraged to go and went to Colorado State University, uh, and got my bachelor’s degree there
F - In what, what did you major in
NW - Well I started out in engineering but being a farm boy, never been hardly off the farm up until then, I, uh, after the first year I decided that I couldn’t be an engineer even though I was passing ok, but so I changed to what was then termed general agriculture degree and then in my I think junior year I came to the realization that I wasn’t gonna be able to find a job with that, so I got a degree in vocational agriculture which would allow me to teach in high schools, vo ag, if you’re familiar with that, but and then; but knowing all this time that when I, as soon as I graduated, I had to go into the Army; this was during the Korean War
F - So what year did you graduate, then, was it in ‘51
NW - I graduated in 1955 and then I went into the Army, I spent 2 and a half years in the Army; 2 years in the 101st Airborne jumping out of airplanes and by then, actually I got married in my senior year of college and by the time I got through my service time, 2 and a half years, I, uh, had 2 children and I decided I needed; I didn’t wanta stay in the military and I didn’t wanta teach high school, so I figured I had to go back to school
F - Now did the returning, um, the returning soldiers from Korea get a GI Bill, then
NW - They did, but because; and that was one of the things that I guess I’m always a little bit maybe bitter about; I shouldn’t say use that term, but there were some of us for about 2 years there that fell through the hole. They stopped the GI Bill just as I went in the military and then restarted it just as the Viet Nam War started up and I fell in that gap and then; so I went through; I came back from the military, I got a master’s degree at Colorado State University in Economics, went on to Iowa State University, got a Ph.D. in Economics or Agricultural Economics and just about the time I graduated with my Ph.D. they made the GI Bill retroactive for me, so at that point I had 4 years of GI Bill if I could use it, but by then there was no way that I could use it, so I went, I put myself through school
F - How did you do that
NW - Without help, oh just assistantships and work, hard work, uh, so and I had to support a family and go to school at the same time and we lived rather frugally at that time
F - Was your; you had 2 children, so did your wife have to stay home
NW - Yeah, she stayed home, they were small children and but we were able to live in what was in those days housing that had been built for World War II veterans, so cheap housing; wasn’t good, but it was cheap and we managed to live on what we made. Came out of school without debt
F - Can’t do that now
NW - You can’t do that now
F - So what year, then, did you earn your Ph.D.
NW - Uh lets see I graduated, I finished my Ph.D. in 1963
F - And it was in Agricultural Economics
NW - It was in an Econ, it was in a joint department; Economics and Agricultural Economics and you could call your degree either Economics or Agricultural Economics, either one and I chose Agricultural Economics because I knew more about that than and that’s what I wanted to do and so I came here in; well by that time I had a job with the Economic Research Service of USDA, um,
F - Right out of the Ph.D.
NW - Well actually I got the job before I finished the Ph.D., uh, so some of the research I was doing for my graduate degree was for the Economic Research Service of USDA. At that time they had a field, USDA Economic Research Service had field staff in all the Colleges of Agriculture, uh, and so when I graduated with my Ph.D., I actually came to WSU as an employee of the Economic Research Service, uh, and ironically I planned to be in Pullman only 1 year because they had told me there was another position opening in Corvallis that they wanted me to take, uh, the year after I was to arrive here and so we came to Pullman thinking we were only gonna be here 1 year and still haven’t left
F - So what was your, what were your job requirements that year; you weren’t teaching I imagine
NW - Well actually we did. It was; the Economic Research staff were, uh, what they called them, they were members of a department, they had to be in a department, so mostly our obligations were research, but we could teach and I did teach even that first year and then at the end of that; by the end of that first year, it became obvious to me that I didn’t want to, well the Economic Research Service, Federal Government, uh, the looked like my path of, my career path at that point was to become, move into administration and probably without too long being back in Washington, D.C. and I didn’t wanta do that, so I started looking at the job market for academics at that point and I looked at positions in several universities in the west and including here at WSU, they had an opening at that time and ultimately I chose the one that was here in the Ag Econ Department, but I didn’t even change desks, I was able to stay in the same department doing essentially the same things but for a different employer at that point and so I’ve been in; actually I’ve worked for WSU since 1965, but the first year I was here, I was an employee of the Economic Research Service of USDA, even though at that point, at that time they were considered to be conjunctive, um, faculty, uh, they had some sort of a, um, there was a faculty appointment that you got with that, but it wasn’t you were full blown faculty, you just had the privileges of faculty at that point until I actually became an employee of WSU in 1965
F - What was your impression of the campus when you
NW - Well it was different than it is today by a long ways, been tremendous growth in those years. The decorum of faculty and students was quite different, uh, all the faculty wore ties and coats every day, um, at least the men did, uh, women, girls, students wore dresses, they didn’t wear slacks or shorts, um, men didn’t wear jeans at work, you know, dress pants to school and that was the standard for about, well 3 or 4 more years and then in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s there started to be a lot of uprisings that were more in race and various things and the standards changed tremendously and some of it went very fast and you know some of it too far but now its back, you know, its back to where we are now today, but there was some major changes we went through in those years.
F - Specifically here at WSU
NW - Here at WSU, and I’m sure it was true everywhere, but here we had the stadium burned down and we had demonstrations that took over the administration building, President’s Office, uh, things of that sort were going on at that time and but I don’t know, we didn’t seem to worry too much about it; caught the headlines, but we survived it
F - I’m always curious if certain departments, I mean I would imagine that certain departments on campus reacted differently to those events of the late ‘60s
NW - I’m sure they did. I think the more academic departments you know, Political Science and some of those that what we thought of as up here on the hill, uh, were more involved in some of that change than we were. We were, in the agriculture, were kind of isolated in some ways, I suppose, uh, and the students in agriculture probably weren’t as involved as, in some of that as some of the other student groups might have been, uh, so yeah we were probably more isolated from it than other parts of campus, although it was a small, much smaller place in those days and so you know everybody was involved to some extent
F - What was your tenure process like
NW - My tenure process, it was I guess fairly standard, uh, I; you had to publish, um, research and publish appropriately and actually I was a year later than I should have been getting tenure because the Dean we had at that time, I was approved by the department and the Department Chairman, but the Dean forgot my, forgot to act upon it and so I sat for another year at that point, uh
F - What year was that
NW - what happened but
F - What year
NW - Oh, this would have been in the early ‘70s and I can’t, I don’t uh, probably ’71, maybe, somewhere in there, um, Dean; again, there was a dif, it was a different era, things were done differently in those times and but I did make tenure and did move on to you know, I continued my research and was promoted to full professor eventually and
F - When you say things were done differently, do you mean it was less competitive or
NW - Uh, no I don’t; maybe it was less competitive, I don’t know, uh, the standards were different in the publication process, at least in my field it was. Now everything has to be peer reviewed journals and in those days, the, there was a lot of emphasis of publishing in what we call research bulletins and technical bulletins through the College of Agriculture printing and well university printing process and these were widely used research publications, uh, and they counted much as a journal article would today in tenure, uh, although I did have journal articles as well, but so; but today that, there are no such outlets as that, so everything, all tenure merits are gained through peer review process, um, so that was, that part of it was different I guess, um, I don’t know that the standards were different, uh, maybe they were to some degree, um, but you know for that period, that’s the way they did things
F - Um, so when you came, what was your class load like, were you mostly teaching undergrads or did you have graduate students
NW - Most of my teaching over the years was in, at the graduate level, um, I did teach, actually I didn’t really teach much below C, I never taught much below senior level, um, and probably didn’t do that even until for the first 15 years or so, most all my teaching was at the graduate level
F - Was that because we didn’t have an Ag Econ undergraduate program
NW - No, we did, yeah, its just that I, my research and my I guess my expertise is in a comparative advantage sense was better used in teaching at the graduate level than other people in the department who were probably better at teaching at the undergraduate level, you know, it’s a matter of using the resources where they were most productive I suppose, um, and I guess I don’t know if it is clear to you, but throughout my uh, career, actually, I think my whole career at WSU, I was a, I think 35% teaching appointment and a 65% research appointment, so my teaching load was not horrendous, you know, like one class a semester or something, and the rest of my time was spent either in research and because it was research, I always had graduate students um, both master’s and Ph.D. working in my research and I guess maybe because of that I ended up doing more of my teaching at the graduate level, too
F - Well I was talking to Dr. George Hinman and he mentioned a project that you were involved in in the mid-‘70s on irrigation and that got you together, I believe, you and who was the third person, Butcher, Walt Butcher, um, and that it got you into a little bit of hot water with some people; do you wanta talk about that, or how your research, um, developed up until this project in the mid-‘70s
NW - Well I, my research in the early years, ‘60s and early ‘70s was focused on production agriculture, economics of production agriculture, how to be more efficient, make more profit, you know, be more productive, if you like, uh, in agriculture, but all of my career, even going back to my master’s degree in, at Colorado State University, and even my farming experience at western Colorado was from irrigated agriculture, uh, and so some of my research here, although focused kind of on a production side, was; a lot of it was also involving irrigated agriculture; the Columbia Basin project was booming at that time. It was a new project and a lot of new farms out there and we were doing research on some of that, you know, various aspects of that and then in the, I think it was about 1976, uh, there was, um, well I don’t know how much of this you wanta know, but the Columbia Basin project itself goes back to the 1930s when Grand Coulee Dam was built. It; Grant Coulee Dam was built as an irrigation project, not a power project and it’s the purpose of it at that time was more of a make-work project for the depression era and the authorization from Congress at that point, at that time that went with the Dam was to irrigate 1.1 million acres of central Washington, but they only funded the first half of the irrigation project, by about the mid-‘70s the first irrigation actually began about 1950 and by about the early ‘70s they had essentially completed water delivery to the first 550 thousand acres of land out there and of course the politicians, the landowners, the local economic interests of banks, machinery dealers, uh, food processing, all of that, uh, everybody had a full expectation of the rest of the project being completed on schedule; as soon as we get the first half done, we’re gonna do the second half, but; and, but there was a little bit of political change in that period, um, and they, the uh, the state legislature was trying to build some momentum in the state and in the federal Congress for funding the second half of the project and so ironically the house agriculture committee, the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee hired me or gave me a grant so to speak to study what would be termed the benefits of more irrigated agriculture in the state. Everybody thinking that there was nothing bad about it, couldn’t be anything but good and so I did what I considered to be the best possible job I could to tell the public what the facts were and the outcome was that by the time we took account of the energy effects of taking water out, that would have been used for hydropower production, the huge subsidies for taxes, uh, through taxes and various other manipulations that would result in the additional irrigation, it became obvious that this was not a good investment, not for the state, not for the federal government, not for the people of the region and I published this and that publication in 1976 caused a lot of the concern at the legislative level because they had not anticipated that as the outcome of my work, but I was, I felt that I wasn’t gonna change the results to make it, make things sound like they wanted, make them, tell them what they wanted to hear, um, and so the second half of the project, then, lingered for a while, but there was still a lot of momentum for it, all the politicians, a number of senators, Jackson and Magneson were the big, were very powerful Senators from WSU at that time, or not WSU, from the State of Washington at that time, uh, Representative Foley was the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, um, so; in early ‘80s, this kind, this momentum to develop the second half of the project, um, was building and in 1984 I believe it was, um, at that point, uh, maybe its irrelevant, but when Jimmy Carter was President, he made it mandatory that future water projects funded by the Federal Government would have to be cost-shared by the states and so when President, so in 1984, President Reagan was President and that rule was still in effect and up until that time, the states you know the Bureau of Reclamation could build an irrigation project and the state could benefit from it without having to contribute in any way, uh, through state tax funds were, uh, but by 1984 it was required that the state had to make some contribution, maybe just a token contribution to, if we’re gonna get the second half of this project, um, they had to put some money in the state budget for that and I think there was something like any number I pick is probably gonna be wrong, but I think it was a hundred million dollars that they were gonna contribute to the construction of the second half of the project, but it was like a 2 billion dollar project, so it would have been you know still a token amount but it was a fairly significant amount for the state and actually the last day of the special session of the state legislature, uh, the Chairman of the House Revenue Committee asked me to come over and testify about this project and so I did and I tried to explain to them that this is not good, you know, its not a good investment for the people of the state, its gonna be energy costs are gonna go up, your taxes are gonna go up, a lot of things and there’s, you know, it’s a hugely inefficient project because you’re gonna spend ultimately state and federal funds probably 10 times as much as the benefits that you’re gonna create, uh, well out of that testimony, because of that testimony, the House of Representatives took the funding out of the budget and because the Senate had already passed the budget with that money in it, the state Senate and the federal government had already put money, earmarked money for funding the project, just waiting on this state money to make sure we had, the state had a commitment to the project. Well when the House pulled out the funding, project funding because of my testimony, that; and then the, that took it out of the whole state budget, that, then, resulted in the federal government saying ok we won’t fund it and I got blamed for stopping the whole project and this caused a great deal of ire and consternation; I had one Senator, Tom Hansen, tried to get me fired, he tried to, uh, use me as an example of investigation for university consulting, he tried to subpoena records to see if there was, you know, just doing a fishing expedition to see if there was some way to get me fired, um, put a lot of pressure on me for several years, uh, but I guess the bottom line is I survived and I outlived him and
F - And WSU’s administration always supported you
NW - Well uh I could just the day that I went or the week that I was going over to testify, it was known that what I was gonna say was not gonna be favorable to the project and I got a lot of pressure from my Dean who was an Acting Dean at that time and from President Terrell to either not go, don’t go do this or well change your testimony and I refused to do either one. Fortunately I had tenure, so they couldn’t fire me, um, and I guess you know I’d always said up to that point that you know you don’t, tenure is unimportant; if you can’t earn your keep, then you should be fired but in that case, it was a good thing to have. I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t have tenure, but uh, anyway, uh, Senator uh, where was I, oh the administration uh, they were very concerned about what I was gonna say because they were afraid that the immediate reaction at the legislative level would lead to harm the state, the university budget through the budgeting process and there was an attempt to do that I think but I don’t and some people said I cost the university some money but I don’t think it, I don’t think in the end I really did
F - In terms of the budget
NW - Yeah
F - What was the, what was your fellow colleagues in your department or throughout the campus, what was their support like for what you were going through
NW - I was always very careful to always have my colleagues review everything I did and said because I knew it was very politically sensitive and so I had good support within the department, um, and for the most part, the academicians outside the department, even though they didn’t understand the arguments always, most of them, um, supported what I was doing, you know, academic freedom and tell it like it is, uh, so there was; but there was a lot of pressure brought on me, even after that testimony, then, this one Senator particularly he was, he tried several different ways to punish me, I guess would be the term and this went on for probably 2 or 3 years, um, and then I finally, and the university administration either they were not aware of it, or not, certainly not being very supportive in protecting me I guess at that point and it was at that point that Walt Butcher and George Hinman and I had been doing some things together and not that project but because we were doing some other work together, he was investigating me so he ended up investigating them and that’s where they got involved
F - Was he trying to say you were doing too much outside, you were doing too much outside, work outside of your duties to WSU
NW - No it wasn’t; he was just looking for anything that might, he might wanta claim was violation of some state or university rule. He didn’t ever find anything, so we weren’t doing anything wrong, but he was you know, looking in our records, you know, starting to subpoena telephone records and financial records and things of that sort that; and so it got so uncomfortable at that point that I called Helen Summers who was the, uh, Chairman of the House Revenue Committee, I believe, at that time and she was the one that had gotten me involved in the testimony in 1984 that resulted in the project being stopped and I told her what was going on and she was somewhat appalled that you know this was being allowed to happen and um took it up with personally I think with some of the people who had been doing this and then called the administration here and said look you’re not, this is not the way the university should be run, you know, and at that point it pretty much stopped, uh, at least from that source, but even today, um, well I should point out that this year because of stimulus money being used, that is being used to develop a piece of that project out there and Walt Butcher and I had been writing papers about this and trying to inform people about what’s going on, uh, so the project is still alive in a sense, um, but there are still people out there who consider me to be persona non grata because of my stance on the economics of the project and things of that sort. You know, they, there are a lot of people who don’t, who believe that I’m stating the facts but because I’m from WSU, from the state, that its somehow immoral to be honest about what you’re saying. You should only tell people what they wanta hear I guess is what I’m, what they want and I never was one to operate that way and
F - Well it seems like you would be more loyal to actually be trying to help the people in their region that this would be affecting the most
NW - Well I felt that way and I still do. I just think that is true, but the thing you’ve got to recall or understand and which I probably was very naïve about in the beginning; I learned it the hard way, but is that any public funding of projects generally has a very small number of beneficiaries, but they’re very well organized, they’re very aware of those benefits and hence very politically powerful. They have a lot of political leverage and that is true out there today, that’s why we’re spending stimulus money on a bridge to nowhere. They’re never gonna complete the project, but there’s, they’re talking about and in fact about to spend 50 million dollars on a piece of that project because of the political leverage that these Odessa farmers have wanting water from the Columbia Basin project, but back to the story. The beneficiaries of these kinds of projects are generally small, local, well-organized and politically powerful. The people that are paying the bill; you and me and all the taxpayers of the US, all the rate payers of the northwest we’ll say who are affected by energy costs are generally ignorant of those things and so what happens is the politicians will respond to the loud voices of the beneficiaries. Even though they know that it may be wrong, but that’s how they get elected, that’s how they stay elected and so it’s a political process and even though I felt and still feel that I was doing the right thing and helping the most people with what with my research, uh, those who lost so to speak because the project was stopped were very upset because they stood to gain quite a bit. The landowners, a few farmers, uh, some bankers, machinery dealers, food processors, that’s about it. Everybody else is gonna lose, but those people within the state were very powerful and they still are and that’s the way things get done. I spent some time with a local representative, I won’t use the name, who was elected this last time to the legislature from this region, explaining all of this process to her and how inefficient more irrigation out there would be, uh, the representative understood what I was saying and ultimately I think even agreed with what I was saying, but then came down to the end and said its fine for you economists to be objective, but when I go out there and look these farmers in the eye, I can’t tell them we can’t do this, even though I know its wrong and because that’s where the votes come from and the fact is that because there’s so much ignorance, I don’t use that term in a derogatory sense, about these projects but the people down there on the street in Pullman or Spokane or go out here and talk to a farmer, you know, should we irrigate some more land, wouldn’t it be great to, you know, make the desert bloom, have more food to feed the world, wouldn’t that be great, yeah sure, we should do that, but what they don’t understand is that we; and the politicians prey on that, uh, that kind of ignorance, but what the politicians don’t tell them is that its gonna cost about 10 times what the benefits are and that’s why projects like that happen and unless there’s somebody that sheds light on them, uh, as too often there’s not, uh, they have, you know they get billed even though they’re inefficient and you know and probably the truth of the matter is that if there had been some process like this in the very beginning it may have been that the first half of the project would never have been built because it was very inefficient, but you know, once its built, you know the money’s spent, so there’s no point in fighting over that
F - Were you the only voice of dissent in that; were you the only
NW - Well I got blamed for most of it. I mean I always had colleagues that were supportive and even co-authored as parts of what I presented and even offered; some of them even offered testimony in various aspects of public impacts and so forth, uh, but I guess I was always considered to be the leader and at least on that aspect of it, but uh, I guess what is kind of ironic about the whole controversy and the infamy of it is that it was a very small part of my overall research, it was just kind of a sideline and the only reason I did it was because the legislature asked me to get involved in the first place, but they asked me thinking that they knew the answers before they, before I did the work and when I did the work and it came out differently than they had anticipated, then they didn’t like what they heard
F - Uh huh, but it wasn’t but they trusted it enough to stop the
NW - Well those who, yeah, there was some who; the ones who ultimately voted to you know I guess to support my work, uh, yeah, they believed it. There was a lot of effort spent both in the state and at the federal level to refute my work, um, at one time I was told, I don’t know if it was factual, but that the Bureau of Reclamation had like 12 economists working on that project trying to refute my research and the state had people working on parts of it as well, but nobody ever found me wrong and uh, but that doesn’t make me any more popular, so it was, you know, you do what you have to do and then live with the results I guess and that’s what I did.
F - So then would you say that that project that you worked on was the most how should we say significant project or research you ever did while you were here at WSU or are there other projects that you’re more
NW - Well its more because of the magnitude of it, but it stopped what was probably a number but probably a 4 billion dollar project in the 1980s and that would be 3 or 4 times that today and because of the huge political turmoil that resulted from; I should give you a folder I’ve got on newspaper clippings that you could
F - That’d be wonderful
NW - look through, but um, but and because of that, um, I got an award from the American Agricultural Economics Association for public policy, the national public policy award in I don’t remember, late ‘80s I think it was, ’89 maybe, which is; and they only give 1 per year for the whole nation and then ultimately e 3 or 4 years later I was elected a Fellow to the American Agricultural Economics Association and
F - Because of that work
NW - well
F - and part
NW - certainly part of it, uh, and so uh my colleagues in my profession were very supportive, I guess is what I’m saying, uh, even though a lot of them at the time were trying to, would have liked to have, uh, not been associated with me, I mean they didn’t wanta, didn’t want the political turmoil to rub off on them and some people I guess tolerate it better than other, it didn’t, it didn’t bother me that much, I guess, uh, there were aspects of it that actually kind of haunted me clear to the end of my career and I guess still does to some extent, although I don’t have to depend on research funds and grants and so forth today, but the State Department of Ecology, uh, we used to have a water research center here, I guess we still have a water research center and then there was state funds and some federal funds that came through the water research center that would, were open competitive grants for projects within the state and uh several years I would submit projects proposals and have very high reviews, good reviews from all the academic world and the State Department of Ecology would still try to kill my projects because of my stance on the project and so it was a political thing that they I guess felt obligated to continue even long after the, you know the initial incident that caused it all, but so there were people out there and still are to some extent that continue to hold a grudge. In fact, uh, 5 or 6 years ago maybe more, 7 or 8 years ago there was, the, uh, the State Department of Ecology wanted a study, kind of a re-study of irrigation benefits, irrigation development benefits for the state and I had just recently retired and so I probably still had the most expertise in that general area, so I offered to organize a team to carry out the study and for the State Department of Ecology and we had, and then we submitted our proposal and it was, I think they were clear up almost to the point of signing the contract and it became; somebody at the, in Olympia found out that it, that my name was on there and they killed the project and gave it to somebody from the University of Washington who ultimately didn’t do it very well, I didn’t think, but and as a result ended in some bad decisions since then, but that’s another story
F - So this time period from the mid-’80s when you were going through this, did it cause any; you said it didn’t affect you too much, you believed in your, the decision you made. Did it affect your family negatively in any way
NW - No, I suppose there was some stress for a couple of years there when I was being investigated or you know Senator Hansen was trying to do everything he could find possible to make my life uncomfortable and to some extent it was starting to involve my family, but not, you know, there were no demonstrations or no cross burnings on my lawn or anything of that sort and the people here in town that knew me, they, you know, they were most supportive, so uh I tried not to bring any stress home with me, I guess, and so while my wife was aware of it, I don’t think that it had a large impact on her life or my children
F - Did you ever think about leaving WSU
NW - Oh I had a lot of opportunities over the years, you know, in your early years there’s more opportunities than there are when, after you’ve matured, but I had a lot of chances that I could have left, I guess, you know, job opportunities, but I; none of them ever looked as good as what I had, I guess, all things considered, so ultimately stayed and you know within the department and within the college, I was supported well and you know and treated well, so you know, I have no complaints on that score.
F - Do you have any other significant projects that you wanta talk about. This seems like it overshadows everything
NW - Well I suppose it does in a sense, uh, but I did a lot of work you know in the ‘70s on energy use in agriculture, uh, and water quality, uh, I did a lot of interdisciplinary work with you know engineers, agronomists, uh, things of that sort. I guess toward the end, uh, some of the more, couple of the more significant things maybe in sort of a headline sense, I don’t know, is that I was lead economist and researcher on two US Supreme Court cases, uh, one was a dispute between Texas and New Mexico over the Pecos River and I worked for New Mexico on that case and we won the case in settlement and then later I worked for Kansas on a dispute between Kansas and Colorado over the Arkansas River and that went on for years and years um, and ultimately to trial and we won that argument, uh, and my names in US Supreme Court Judicial decisions I guess, they recognized me in that sense, um, so you know there’s; the work I did as a professor and researcher you know has led to other opportunities and roles in that sense. And there aren’t very many people doing that because; and I guess my comparative advantage was and probably still is if I wanted to do it, is that through the years, I was kind of forced in a sense to become very familiar with the work of, you know, hydrology, engineering, soil science, agronomics, uh, other fields that you have to; an economist can’t do much of his own, on his own in the real world without help from somebody else, you know, and certainly that was true in agriculture. And so my strengths were that I had a good, a very good understanding of these other disciplines and could communicate with them well and made it easier for me to work on these projects like a Supreme Court case where, you know, I had to have hydrologists and agronomists, engineers, other economists, uh, working for me and be able to put it all together into a believable package when you’re done, uh, and so I don’t know that there was anything that I did that, you know, I’ve done some things since, I suppose, that and actually while I was still professor here, we did some work on public grazing that resulted in some consternation trying to point out the heavy subsidies that go into grazing public lands in the west and Ray Hufaker and I did some work with, I guess we got in trouble with the potato industry in some way and I don’t remember why, exactly, but uh, a lot of my work through the years has been controversial I suppose
F - Is that common for economists, I mean I would imagine it could be
NW - Uh it can be, yeah, uh, Juan Snyder down here, he’s done some work on field burning of grass field burning and that was very unpopular, um, I guess my attitude was that most, if you’re doing something significant meaning in a public policy sense, something that really results in public decision making, there are going to be beneficiaries, you know, gainers and losers so to speak and if you tell, you know, present the facts as they are, then there is always a potential that somebody’s gonna be upset by the decision or by the information and I always tried to and believed that what I was doing was useful in a public policy sense. I wanted to do work that resulted in real world decisions and I suppose because of that, I maybe more than most, uh, ended up in situations where there was somebody who might be upset by the results and so uh I guess after the huge uprising over the Columbia Basin project, the rest of them seemed kind of trivial to me. I never worried about it too much, you know, do your work and tell it like it is and
F - And no other administrations after Terrell gave you, you know, wanted you to more toe the line or not get involved with certain
NW - Well Sam Smith, uh, he; had I not retired when I did and that wasn’t because of him, I think he was; there was still political pressure out there to somehow get rid of me because too often I guess things I said and did resulted in some reflection on WS, they thought it was on WSU, I don’t speak for WSU, I speak for me, uh, but he would, he had made a statement that was passed on to me that he was going to have me fired, but I don’t think he could have done it, so
F - Well and this was right before you retired anyway
NW - Yeah
F - When did you retire
NW - its about the time I retired, yeah, so this would have been clear up into the mid-‘90s, or late ‘90s, um, that it was toward the end of his career, too, but so there was, you know, my work was always I guess sensitive and I didn’t mean it to be that way, it just turned out that way, I mean just maybe I, things I did that gravitated to that; things that seemed to be publicly important and ultimately controversial, uh, so and after that of course I didn’t have anything to do with President Rawlins, um, but clear up through Sam Smith, you know, Terrell wanted to be supportive, but he was not an aggressive or strong-willed person. He would much rather have me just be compromised, uh, or look the other way or something, uh, Sam Smith was a bit more maybe I don’t know, in turn would be more aggressive or more strong-willed maybe in that sense and so; and I don’t know what, you know, if I were here today maybe they would have fired me, I don’t know, if I were still trying to work, but hasn’t happened, so its hard to speculate on the past, things that didn’t happen
F - When you retired, um, did you retire completely or did you do what a lot of other retirees do and go onto a 40%
NW - Well I kind of did it; actually the first year I went to a half time appointment; Walt Butcher and I did it simultaneously so we could give the department a position to hire a new faculty member, so we gave up a half a year’s salary in that sense and they hired another person, uh, and then he didn’t stay long, left, so that didn’t pay off and then I went 40% for one year and decided that was a bad investment and then I just retired, but then I; at that point, I was working on this, on the US Supreme Court case for Kansas and that was almost a full time job for another 3 or 4 years, uh, research and putting things together and testimony and so on, um, so actually I worked so to speak, uh, for probably 4 or 5 years after I actually retired, maybe 6 years, um, and then I tried to take off, I didn’t wanta spend the rest of my life just doing that. Too many other things to do
F - Are you working on things now; oh you said you and Dr. Butcher
NW - Well al little bit, uh, Walt Butcher and I are, have been actually we just submitted an abstract for the, uh, Western Regional Economic Conference to present a paper on this topic I mentioned earlier about spending stimulus money on a bridge to nowhere so to speak, uh, and hoping to shed more light on that, um, maybe get that stopped before they spend the money. I think, you know, it’d be much better to spend it on education or welfare or roads or anything but that and I guess I feel obligated to help out in that sense if I can and tangentially I’m still working on another US Supreme Court case or at least a potential one, um, between Kansas and Nebraska over the Russian River, I guess, yeah, I think that’s right, um, but I; I’ve agreed to help, but I don’t wanta get deeply involved where I have to do a lot of testimony and more of an advisor in that project and I’ll help organize a team to work, to do the work, but I’m gonna sit back and kind of look over their shoulder. I don’t wanta spend my time, you know, there’s, you’ve never been under pressure ‘til you’ve been on the witness stand and have a team of lawyers trying to tear you apart and I’ve been there too many times and they know more about you, about me than I do sometimes and that’s very high pressure. Now I don’t need that any more
F - This is kind of off the subject, but I’m curious to know if you’re as outspoken in other areas of your life or if it mostly you know you feel very, you have deep convictions about your work and maybe your work informs your other, I don’t know, political views or something, social views or something like that
NW - Well I’m, I have strong convictions about things sometimes, but I’m not terribly outspoken about them I suppose in some ways that; I’m not writing letters to the editor every day or carrying signs or uh you know if somebody wants my opinion, I’ll tell them what it is, but I don’t, I try not to be an activist in any sense, but uh, you know, most of the things that have led to controversy in my life have been through what I consider to be objective research and I’m not gonna shade the facts or you know, the outcome to support one side or another or one opinion or another, I; so I’ve always tried to be very objective in that sense, but I haven’t gone out seeking uh controversy or activism in that sense, uh, you know, there’s things I feel very strongly about, I suppose, but I try not to impose my will on others by politics or religion or economics or things of that sort, I figure people have the right to their opinions
F - Yeah, ok. Well is there any; I thought this was all very interesting, but is there any last thoughts or memories or experiences you wanta share about your time here
NW - Well I enjoyed my time here, I always, you know, there was never a day when I didn’t wanta go to work, I liked my research, uh, I thought I was a good teacher but not outstanding, I; partly because I was always more interested in the research and maybe that’s why I always ended up teaching at the graduate level where I didn’t have to be a great motivator, but just present the facts or present the information and expect them to pick it up, uh, so you know that’s probably why I didn’t teach 200 level undergraduates or uh, and most all of my research through the years I enjoyed, I was always working on something I thought was interesting, uh, and relevant and had potential for some public policy decision making. I enjoyed working with my graduate students, I had a lot of them over the years, probably 40 or 50 maybe, uh, and most of them I, you know, we’re still good friends and I’ve enjoyed watching their careers, uh, the Dean of the College of Agriculture was one of my students, Bernardo, uh, you know I’ve enjoyed watching their careers and their progression and growth, uh, so yeah its been a good life and its treated me well and I; you don’t get rich being a college professor, but you know, its not a bad life and now I spend my time riding my horses, fishing, skiing and doing the things I wanta do.
F - Ok, thank you.
NW - That’s it
F - Yeah, thanks. If you want to, um,
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