Interview with CHE Partner, Cindy Sage
Principal, Sage Associates Environmental Consultants
Steve Heilig: Tell us your own background and how you came to do the work you do.
My goal in college was to collect enough science degrees to start an environmental sciences consulting firm. Growing up in a rural area of Southern California in the 1960’s, I watched with dismay the haphazard and inefficient urbanization of a lovely agricultural valley where I could ride my horse to elementary school, tie her up in a neighbor’s pasture, hop the fence and go to school.
I figured that there had to be a better way.
My husband, Dr. Orrin Sage and I met in the second grade at that elementary school. We shared this vision. By 1973, we had completed degrees in geology and biology at UC Santa Barbara. That year I started an environmental consulting company in Santa Barbara. We both worked to start the Environmental Studies Program at UCSB, where for more than a decade we developed and taught in geologic and botanical field mapping, environmental impact assessment, and California agriculture.
Our commitment to integrating good physical and biological sciences information into environmental land use planning and design has spanned 35 years, as teachers, consultants, and business owners. We operate today as a private practice.
Q: Please describe the primary mission and work of your organization.
Our primary work is making technical environmental information available and understandable; so that decisions about where we live, work and go to school can be better made by our decision-makers. Our work is all about providing reliable information in many areas of land use planning, land conservation, sustainable development and scientific uncertainty relating to prudent public policy.
We provide computer modeling, site assessment and mitigation options for power lines and wireless antenna sites, responding to the controversial area of low-intensity health effects from electromagnetic radiation. We have been involved in this work since 1982, when we first evaluated the possible health and property value impacts of power lines on residential development, agriculture and wildlife.
If our company had a motto, it would be close to Bertrand Russell’s adage, “the central problem of our age is how to act decisively in the absence of certainty.”
Today, we provide consulting services around the country to decision-makers, landowners, developers, city and county agencies and the public on EMF issues.
We still do much work in environmental planning and, more recently, on land conservation projects with Land Trusts. We recently completed site assessments on the 82,000-acre Hearst San Simeon Land Conservation Easement where extensive natural resource field mapping and agricultural monitoring and management plans were developed.
Q: What are the most striking recent developments related to your work, both scientifically and otherwise?
Electromagnetic fields (EMF) as a potential health risk from power line exposure was widely ridiculed just a decade ago. Today, it has been determined by major health agencies around the world to be classifiable as a Group 2B (Possible) carcinogen (IARC criteria). Working on environmental planning projects over two decades, we have had to find reasonable ways to incorporate “an evolving science”. Decisions go forward every day about “whether, when and where” to build new homes and schools, even with some degree of scientific uncertainty. We work really hard to provide visual and graphical information that decision-makers and the public can “get”… without loosing the integrity of the data and also conveying “what we know and don’t know” yet.
On the land conservation front, conservation easements are a relatively new way to provide for sustainable agriculture and open space in perpetuity. Conservation easements are tremendously important tools for wise land use planning that simply did not exist 30 years ago. They can preserve regionally important, intact wildlife habitats and botanical resources while ensuring the continuity of productive family farms and ranches. Our work on watershed planning and agriculture is also a key to the successful partnerships between conservation agencies and landowners.
Q: Can you tell us the most salient lessons you've learned in pursuing your goals?
That having science degrees is no guarantee that good information will rule the day in public hearings, land use decisions or in court. Public concern and political will have as much or more to do with the outcome of controversial decisions. Access to good scientific and public health policy information is only part of this process. But, it is where we choose to do our work.
Q: What do you see as the biggest need or unrealized goal in environmental health at this time, and the biggest obstacle to attaining that goal?
Public health policy experts do not have better criteria for substantiating when precautionary actions are warranted. I did a search some years ago, interviewing top public health people across the US. Not one of them could give any consistent public health policy criteria that are routinely used to trigger interim public policy or set regulatory limits. Most said, “it depends on what industry is fighting” new policies. This has to change.
Once people understand which standards of evidence are implicitly being relied upon in deciding when to take action; most decision-makers in the public health policy and environmental land use planning professions agree that causal scientific evidence is not required before taking any action at all.
Prudent, precautionary actions may be warranted when the “state of the science” is still inconclusive; but the evidence we have suggests that effects are “possible” or “more likely than not”. Standards of evidence for taking action need to be clearly delineated in environmental health and public policy debates.
Q: Any comments on how CHE has been useful to you - and how we might do more/better?
Information exchange and dissemination is a vital service that CHE provides to the public, and among scientists and public health experts. Since much of the science relating to possible carcinogens involves continuous debate with industries that have vested interests in the outcome; we learn much from interacting with others at CHE on the subject. Interpreting scientific studies and reviews, analyzing research designs, daylighting funding sources, ferreting out undue influence from industries in the setting of health standards and policies, and other related areas is where CHE should continue to offer a forum. It is also useful to have CHE experts respond quickly to “spin” in press releases and news articles. The public needs a source for unbiased information in a timely way.
Posted: 23 May 2006