Rhea Sun Suh is an environmentalist and President of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a center-left environmentalist group that seeks to “safeguard the earth—its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends.” Suh became president of the NRDC in January 2015.
Suh was born in 1970 in Boulder, Colorado. A daughter of Korean immigrants, her parents left the aftermath of the Korean War and settled in Colorado, where they raised Suh and her two sisters. Her father, Chung-Ha Suh, was an automotive engineer specialist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and her mother, Young-Ja Suh, was a homemaker.
Suh graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University in 1992 where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Science. She earned a Masters of Education, Administration, Planning, and Social Policy from Harvard University in 1998.
While earning her undergraduate degree, Suh taught earth science for one year at Stuyvesant High School, a specialized public school in Manhattan. After graduation, Suh was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Fellowship. Suh moved to Seoul, South Korea for a year where she researched environmental movements.
Upon returning to the states, Suh served as a senior legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-, later R-Colorado) from 1993 to 1996.
From 1998 to 2007, Suh would go on to secure program officer positions at two private foundations invested in environment policy and conservation.
At the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, she designed and led the clean energy and climate change initiative that produced the land-protection campaign regarding the Great Bear Rainforest. She also launched the New Constituencies portfolio, which focused on environmental issues for underserved populations in the United States.
Suh worked at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, where she created and managed a $200 million program dedicated to environmental conservation in the West. She developed the foundation’s strategy for reducing climate change emissions from deforestation. She also collaborated with various nonprofit groups to coordinate conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin.
Political Appointments, 2009 to 2014
Suh was nominated for the position of assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget for the U.S. Department of the Interior by President Barack Obama and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2009. The Department of the Interior is a cabinet level agency in the U.S. government, which is responsible for the protection and management of the nation’s natural resources, and for the nation’s trust responsibilities or special commitments to indigenous peoples.
During her tenure at the Department, Suh led agreements to shield the Flathead River basin ecosystem in the U.S. and Canada from oil, gas, and minerals development. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Suh co-led the strategic reorganization of the former Minerals Management Service. In this reorganization, she assumed responsibilities for the Office of Natural Resource Revenue, collecting oil and gas royalties and fees (averaging $10 billion annually) on behalf of the federal government.
President Obama nominated Suh in 2013 to serve as assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks at the Department of the Interior but faced staunch opposition from Senate Republicans.
A March 26, 2014, editorial in the Wall Street Journal criticized Suh for her previous work and statements against fossil fuels, and it said that if Suh were confirmed, the position “would give her control over endangered-species listings, meaning she could block vast amounts of public and private land from oil and gas drilling.” Suh’s nomination was never brought to a full-floor vote and, ultimately, she decided to withdraw. In the fall of 2014, Suh left her position as assistant secretary of policy, management, and budget.
Suh currently serves as president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).