Review of The Gorilla in the Closet: A Memoir and Historical Account of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Why It Is Becoming Obsolete, and Its Future after Trump by Frederick A. Eidsness, Jr.
Patricia J. Rettig, Archivist, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University March 7, 2022 (Dec. 31, 2021 pre-publication draft reviewed)
During the early years of the Trump presidency when he and federal lawmakers talked about abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, students on college campuses voiced objection with signs saying, “Save the EPA.” As I, an archivist at Colorado State University focused on western water history, walked past them, I thought about how they likely only had a superficial understanding of the EPA. Indeed, I thought about how that is true for most Americans.
At the time, I knew that Frederick A. “Eric” Eidsness, Jr., EPA Assistant Administrator for Water from March 1982 to May 1983, was writing a book about the organization. (I knew Eric from having his collection of historical documents in my care.) I wished the college students could read Eric’s book and have a deeper understanding of their cause.
Now, after years of work creating a lengthy tome covering his life and work experience, Eric Eidsness provides his lessons for all of us to benefit from in The Gorilla in the Closet.
Eidsness is well qualified by education and experience to enlighten experts and the general public alike about the inner workings of the EPA. He has structured the book in five chronological parts, with the first four telling his story, insights, and opinions, and the fifth looking to the future. The blend of personal memories and work experiences can seem unnecessary at first, but Eidsness’ early influences and the worldview he acquired have bearing on the work he did, so the information about his father, his education, and his service in Vietnam prove to be relevant. Nevertheless, readers who want to get to the policy parts can skip ahead.
Part III, covering Eidsness’ time directing a waste treatment management study for the Larimer-Weld Regional Council of Governments (1975-1978), proves to be a valuable case study of a successful process, even if from decades ago. The details given about approach taken, decisions made, and people involved contribute a needed addition to our knowledge of water management in Colorado. This experience and prior work at a regional EPA office led to Eidsness’ nomination for the higher-level position.
Eidsness’ time as AA for Water was brief but impactful; he was in office during “Sewergate.” The information he shares about how the organization functioned at the tumultuous time is intriguing and baffling at the same time. Readers will easily come to their own conclusion that reform is needed.
Upon approaching the book, readers may be intimidated by its length, and upon skimming it, they may be put off by the abundance of technical details on water pollution policy. Non-experts can choose to struggle through such parts, or scan them to glean the main points. This is not a book readers will want to absorb every word of or even read straight through, yet it proves to be thought
provoking. In the preface, Eidsness assists readers by addressing the redundancy present in the book and referencing the glossary of acronyms, a useful aid in understanding government bureaucracy.
Anyone interested in peering behind the curtain to see how environmental policy works (or doesn’t) should examine this book. College students in various disciplines, from political science to natural resources, will benefit from having parts of the book as assigned reading and discussing them in class. Anyone in or thinking of entering the environmental field, whether within the government or a non- governmental organization, could benefit from this.
College students and concerned citizens alike may care about the environment and therefore assume the EPA is fighting the good fight. EPA-insider Eric Eidsness not only exposes some truths about the organization but suggests how it—and we all—can work toward a better future.