From reporter to environmental chief: David Small reflects on career

DOVER — Twenty-nine years and 11 months after he began working for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, including several years running the agency, David Small is no longer a state employee.

Mr. Small entered DNREC from the journalism industry, with no environmental training, and he leaves after making his mark on the department.

“It was incredibly humbling and it still is to think about the opportunity. I would never have believed it in April of ’87 when I started,” he said.

Mr. Small became the secretary of DNREC in June 2014 under then Gov. Jack Markell, and he departed earlier this month following the confirmation of former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Shawn Garvin. Mr. Garvin was nominated by Gov. John Carney, who took office in January, but a delay by Senate Republicans led to Mr. Small staying on for about seven weeks longer than expected.

In the end, Mr. Garvin was successfully voted in as the new head of DNREC, meaning Mr. Small is once again a private citizen.

Former DNREC Secretary David Small at the recently named the David S. Small Wildlife Trail and Observation Tower in Little Creek. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

A native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Mr. Small, 59, moved to Delaware decades ago to take a job with Atlantic Publications Inc. as a reporter.

Little did he know where it would lead — both personally and professionally.

Journalism experience

Not only did his journalism experience help prepare him to run a department, Mr. Small also became close friends with his boss at Atlantic Publications. In fact, he later married her. Mr. Small’s wife of 33 years, Cindy, spent many years in the tourism industry and now works for the University of Delaware.

After working in journalism for several years — including a stint at the Delaware State News — Mr. Small joined DNREC as the head of the information office.

Former DNREC Secretary David Small looks out from the observation tower at the David S. Small Wildlife Trail and Observation Tower in Little Creek. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

In that role, he was responsible for explaining what DNREC did and why. As such, he “had access to every nook and cranny of the agency.”

“The secretaries that I worked for included me in all of those discussions, and so it helped me and I was able to provide input and it exposed me to all of those issues,” he said.

Mr. Small, who lives in Dover, eventually was named executive assistant, the precursor to the position of deputy secretary. As the executive assistant, he worked closely with the General Assembly, pushing for specific bills and working to convince lawmakers of the importance of environmental protection.

After several years in that role, he became the deputy secretary of DNREC in 2001.

Gets the top job

Thirteen years later, he ascended to the top job when Collin O’Mara stepped down.

“To follow in his footsteps was in some ways a fairly daunting proposition,” Mr. Small said.

The former reporter is convinced his initial career impacted his work at DNREC.

To be successful in journalism requires listening carefully, asking questions, being objective and hearing from people with differing views, and those skills translate well to other fields, Mr. Small said.

Former DNREC Secretary David Small at the observation tower recently named the David S. Small Wildlife Trail and Observation Tower in Little Creek. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

That’s especially true working at DNREC, one of the most diverse state agencies, Mr. Small said.

The department, which has about 800 full-time employees, is divided into several sub-units that deal with issues as disparate as parks and pollution. The secretary handles both day-to-day and big-picture matters, including permitting, budgeting and meeting with lawmakers.

As secretary, Mr. Small served on the board of directors of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative Inc., a state-backed nonprofit that aims to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

He’s sought to fight the idea that environmental protection and economic growth cannot peacefully coexist. Not only does environmental conservation not conflict with business success, it actually boosts it, Mr. Small believes.

“In order to be able to have successful economic development you need to have strong environmental protection systems in place,” he said.

DNREC under fire

Still, not everyone agrees. DNREC has been under fire at times for what some see as overreach that limits prosperity, with some lawmakers fighting to limit the agency’s power.

One instance: A group of developers challenged DNREC stormwater regulations, leading to a judge ruling in 2015 the agency did not pursue the proper procedures prior to adopting the new rules.

Mr. Small has few regrets about his tenure running the department, however.

Going forward, he believes the agency can improve efficiency, accomplishing more things with fewer resources — something especially critical with a tight budget this year.

Gov. Carney, some lawmakers and members of the business community have advocated for changing the Coastal Zone Act, a 1971 statute that restricts industrial activity along the Delaware River and Delaware Bay.

That’s something Mr. Small is onboard with, as he said he believes the act could be modified to allow cleanup of brownfields, creating an opportunity for new manufacturing facilities along the coast.

While Mr. Small had no formal training in the field prior to joining DNREC, the ensuing 29 years he spent with the agency offered plenty of opportunities to learn about myriad environmental issues and solutions.

“Because of the diverse portfolio there’s a lot of skill sets that can be applied to lead the agency,” he noted.

In honor of Mr. Small’s time with DNREC, a trail and viewing tower at the Little Creek Wildlife Area was named after him last month.

Moving into private sector

The former secretary plans to move into the private sector, with his eye on Duffield Associates, an engineering firm that focuses on issues like water usage and energy saving.

But while he’s no longer with DNREC, Mr. Small — who jokes that he’ll probably never get out of the habit of using “we” when referring to DNREC — looks back fondly at his nearly three decades there.

“The oath of office that every person in Delaware takes, elected or appointed … part of the oath says that it’s incumbent upon the person taking the oath to respect the rights of future generations to share the rich historical and natural heritage of Delaware, and that, I think, says a lot about how the state values its natural resources,” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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