Even though Lisa Jackson *86 grew up a “city girl” in New Orleans and wasn’t particularly outdoorsy, she has made a career in protecting the environment so that other people can enjoy hiking, camping, and swimming. 

As commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, she’s got her work cut out for her in safeguarding the natural resources of the most densely populated state, which also is home to the most federal Super-fund sites. The job is “tough,” she admits. “You never make a decision that pleases everyone.”

On any given day Jackson, who oversees about 3,200 employees, may work on issues ranging from wildlife management of black bears to air quality to beach access. One day last year, with a Star-Ledger reporter, she got a firsthand look at one of the most polluted stretches of the state’s most contaminated river, the Passaic River in Newark, whose cleanup has been mired in legal and federal stagnation since the 1980s, when it was declared a Superfund site. The state is waiting for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to decide on a cleanup plan and money, and is suing the companies responsible for polluting in the 1950s and ’60s. “We expect polluters to pay,” says Jackson. 

Despite the legal battles, Jackson doesn’t get discouraged. “I developed a tougher skin,” she says. With an environmental protection department that predates the federal agency, New Jersey has served as a model for shaping national policy, she adds. 

In her Trenton office is a framed photograph of Gov. Jon Corzine, with Jackson behind him, signing legislation to adopt ambitious goals for the reduction of state greenhouse-gas emissions. She keeps the pen he used. The governor’s plan calls for a 2020 goal of rolling back greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels and a 2050 goal of an 80 percent reduction from 2006 levels. Jackson is putting together a plan that will outline the means to reach those goals, including investing in mass transit and alternative fuels and developing new building codes. 

After receiving a scholarship from Shell Oil Co. to attend Tulane University, Jackson initially saw herself working for the petrochemical industry. But at college and at Princeton, where she earned a master’s in chemical engineering and was influenced by professors like Ernest Johnson, who was working on groundwater cleanup, she developed an interest in using her engineering skills to address and prevent pollution. She worked for the EPA from 1987 until moving to New Jersey’s department in 2002. She was sworn in as commissioner in February 2006. 

To make Corzine’s 2050 vision a reality, she says, residents must change the way they live — particularly with auto and water use — to reduce their environmental footprint. The state also needs to assess its coastal development, because “we can’t avoid sea-level rise,” says Jackson. “When I see people still clamoring for development at the shore, you have to realize that the shoreline will not look the same by midcentury. And we have to look ahead to what that means for us.”