ELM Board Member Profile: Tom Powers

By Marisa Hobbs, ELM Intern

Tom Powers has been President of the Boston Harbor Island Alliance since 2004.  He has also been an ELM Director for five years. His past experience includes positions with USGen New England, Inc., the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, where he held various positions including Acting Commissioner. The following are excerpts from an interview with Mr. Powers.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Newton, Massachusetts and when I was ten I moved to South Dakota.  So I had a split between essentially nine years in Newton and nine years in South Dakota before going to college.  I went to college in Ohio (Oberlin) and migrated east after that and wound up here in the early 70s for law school and stayed here ever since.

After attending Oberlin College, why did you decide to attend Harvard Law School and John F. Kennedy’s School of Government?

I wanted to go to law school because I wanted to do environmental work.  The best avenue I could see to get into environmental protection was a law degree.

I then practiced environmental law for twelve years at the Department of Environmental Protection, but then had a chance for a fellowship at the Kennedy School, an opportunity that allowed me to switch over from advising people on their legal options to making environmental decisions myself.  It seemed like a more direct way to protect the environment.  I was very lucky and managed to turn the Kennedy School degree into a decision-making job at DEP. 

What made you go into the environmental field in the first place?

The primary thing I can think of is an outing club trip to the Smokey Mountains in 1969.  I was just struck by how beautiful they were, how important clean air was, how much it made me happy to be outdoors.  It was all that, combined with the 60s / John F. Kennedy time period of trying to figure out how you can contribute, what government can do for people, and how you can contribute to government.  These were all parts of why I went into the environmental field. 

Why have you remained in the environmental field for so many years?

It’s enormously rewarding to think you are protecting the planet and trying to make it better for your fellow citizens.

What career achievements are you most proud of?

I was a primary author of the Coastal Wetlands Protection Regulations when those were still administered at DEP in 1978, and those were pretty cutting edge at the time.  They went much further and were much farther reaching, and they became a model for other regulations.  Along the same line, one of the most challenging sets of regulations was revising the Title 5 Septic System regulations in 1994.  They were also enormously controversial so they involved working with a wide range of people, taking a broad view of what was both environmentally protective and in the public interest, and keeping in mind economics and jobs and all the other aspects of regulatory kinds of things.

In my current job, my proudest achievement is being able every day to help build the national park for the Greater Boston Area.  That park will be cherished for decades once it is fully established using the amazing but under-developed resource of the Boston Harbor Islands, particularly because that resource reflects the amazing environmental achievement of cleaning up Boston Harbor.

What is your favorite aspect of being President of the Boston Harbor Island Alliance?

Working with a wide range of people both inside and outside of government to build a steadily improving park that will hopefully draw generations of kids to be out of doors and have a love of the environment.  If they are sitting behind computers, they are not going to have the same degree of love for the environment as they would if they were out on an island and breathing salt air.

How did you get involved with the Environmental League of Massachusetts?

I have been a member of the Environmental League since the 80s.  It was clearly an organization that was doing what I believed in, which is advocating for environmental protection.  So I think that I have been part of it for that long and gradually got more involved.  Then, five years ago I was approached to be one of the board members and that sounded like a great opportunity.

Aside from environmental affairs, what are your favorite hobbies or interests?

Sports—running, cycling and hiking in particular.  Reading.  Following politics, but not participating first hand.  And family.  And a garden.  It’s sort of all consistent with being outdoors and putting your hands on the environment.

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