HELENA - If there's one person who can turn around the state Environmental Quality Department's tarnished reputation, it's probably Jan Sensibaugh.
Sensibaugh, 50, has spent almost half of her life working for state environmental agencies. She began as an administrative aide and climbed to the top this year as director of Montana's chief environmental regulatory agency through an appointment from new Republican Gov. Judy Martz. Sensibaugh succeeded Mark Simonich, who now heads the state Commerce Department.
The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) likely is Montana's most contentious state agency and arguably the most difficult to steer. Environmentalists and industry representatives often engage in heated battles over regulation of the state's natural resources, and the department frequently finds itself caught in the middle.
The agency faces challenges, Sensibaugh admits, but she's prepared. As a veteran of the department and one who knows all the players on Montana's divisive environmental topics, she knows her stuff.
Sensibaugh may not always tell others what they want to hear, but at least they know where the department stands. When dealing with emotional issues, she says it's critical that the agency can defend its decisions.
"My whole philosophy is open communication, listening to everyone because everyone's position is valid," she said.
Jim Jensen, a leading environmental advocate and executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, says Sensibaugh is proving that of which she speaks. He says she appears off to a good start.
"It's a little early to tell what the record will be, but she has shown a consistent ability to acknowledge that the laws are there for a reason and must be enforced in a sensible way," said Jensen, a frequent critic of the DEQ.
"I think the state will be better having a fair and even-handed person at the top of that department," he added. "I think everyone benefits - the regulated community, people concerned about protecting their communities from air and water pollution and elected officials."
John Bloomquist, a Helena attorney and lobbyist for livestock interests, says Sensibaugh plays it straight with all sides and appears headed toward improving the reputation of the environmental agency.
"So far, I think she's doing a really good job," he said. "It's kind of early to know exactly what the future holds, but I'm pretty impressed so far."
Despite the difficulty of running an agency such as the DEQ, Bloomquist believes Sensibaugh seems to be doing a good job keeping staff working together and ensuring that the state's interests are represented well.
Sensibaugh grew up in Idaho and Southern California and came to Montana shortly after college as a Vista volunteer. Although she left for a short time, she returned in 1978 to work for what was then the Department of Health and Environmental Sciences, which was since reorganized into two agencies, one of which is the DEQ.
Twenty-three years later, she not only has continued to work for Montana government, but has remained in environmental regulation.
"I wish I had a plan in life, but I didn't," Sensibaugh said. "I just sort of threw my future to fate and found out what happened."
Although she isn't sure what's next, she says working for the state is rewarding, particularly on issues affecting the state's environment. Much of her career has been focused on air-quality monitoring and protection. She helped craft a new permitting program and later a new DEQ division of which she was appointed the administrator.
Dealing with the ins and outs of Montana's natural resources over the years, Sensibaugh says she learned that through all the emotions lies common ground. While it can be "brutal" at times, she says she's worked hard to bring differing points of view to the table to find solutions.
As she eases into her new job, Sensibaugh said there are many challenges, including improving relations with the public and being responsive to their concerns, along with retaining and recruiting employees, many of whom often can get heftier paychecks in the private sector. She also sees a need to balance a desire to develop new power generation in the state, yet protect the environment and ensure other needed tasks get accomplished.
Martz says she couldn't be more pleased with Sensibaugh's performance so far, commending her for her knowledge of issues and ability to get along with various factions in the environmental debate.
"Jan has the ability to get people to work on scientific evidence and quit arguing about their personal opinions," Martz said.
Sensibaugh said she wanted to be director DEQ because she believes in its mission and it's employees. Sensibaugh says it was important that whoever took the helm would defend the people who make the tough decisions regulating natural resource development and environmental protection.
"This is a really controversial agency," she said. "We don't have a core constituency that supports us all of the time. We need to do that ourselves because we're not going to find it externally."
"I wanted to be the person internally who would do that for DEQ," she added. "It doesn't need to be a stepchild agency that's always in trouble."