Huge task faces Puget Sound's anointed savior - Ruckelshaus to lead new state agency
May 20, 2007
It's been a long, storied career in government and business for William Ruckelshaus. He has defied President Nixon and he has battled the New York Mafia. He helped start the Environmental Protection Agency and he has sued Fortune 500 companies for pollution.
Now at age 74, from a corner office on the 37th floor of a downtown Seattle high-rise, Ruckelshaus can peer down at what may be his most sprawling and elusive problem yet.
Far below, cars whiz along the Alaskan Way Viaduct, spilling oil and other chemicals that will wash into the bay. Massive freighters chug toward the Duwamish River, a huge Superfund site. In the distance, West Seattle homes cover what used to be forest, allowing contaminated rainwater to rush into the Sound.
Now it's up to Ruckelshaus to convince the public that, despite the way Elliott Bay glitters in the afternoon sun, beneath the surface it is gravely ill.
Gov. Christine Gregoire has chosen Ruckelshaus to become the kingpin in a brand-new state agency, the Puget Sound Partnership, formed by the state Legislature this year to do what state, federal and local agencies haven't been able to: protect and restore the Sound.
The governor and other fans say few people are in a better position to fill the role of elder environmental statesman and navigate the region's tricky political waters. No one disagrees that he has a rare combination of political acumen, environmental know-how and corporate leadership, topped off with a squeaky-clean reputation that has weathered the likes of Watergate.
Still, on the eve of this ambitious undertaking, there are some who question whether his trademark approach — heavy on citizen involvement and input from a broad range of interests — will work.
Even Ruckelshaus admits success isn't certain.
"People aren't going to spend lots of money trying to fix something they don't think is broken," he said.
Power only to persuade
The Puget Sound Partnership in many ways has less legal power than a small-town policeman. It can't issues fines or tickets for pollution. It won't directly regulate industry, set pollution standards or clean up toxic spills.
Instead, the agency has been created to be part planner, part persuader, part banker and part cheerleader. One of its first tasks is to devise a master cleanup plan, then make sure local governments and state agencies aren't going astray, dole out cleanup money, and get all the various businesses, tribes, environmentalists and local governments to work together on a solution.
In naming Ruckelshaus, Gregoire said she was hoping to tap into his history of dealing with just these kinds of thorny environmental issues by enlisting citizens to find a solution.
She pointed to his recent leadership in asking local groups around the Sound to develop ways to revive the ailing Puget Sound chinook salmon, protected under the Endangered Species Act. The results became the core of a federal plan for chinook recovery.
"The fact that it happened, and that it was done at the local level and folks really taking responsibility, that's what I told him was exciting to me," Gregoire said. "We've tried it from the top down, we've tried a regulatory approach singly and those have not achieved what we needed."
But Ruckelshaus' allure also comes from the fact that he also has a long history of getting things done for the environment — as a Republican and a businessman.
Ruckelshaus helped launch the EPA under Nixon, and later ran the agency under President Reagan. He also has been a corporate leader, first as an executive at Weyerhaeuser and later as CEO of Browning-Ferris Industries, at the time the nation's second-largest trash hauler. While there, he famously led an effort to break into the Mafia-controlled trash business in New York City.
Through all this, Ruckelshaus gained a reputation for integrity and commitment to environmental issues.
"I think he understands, and has understood from day one, that there's a real obligation to do things right about the environment," said John Adams, the founding director of the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.
That image was cemented in 1973 when Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Ruckelshaus, then Richardson's deputy, to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor on the Watergate investigation. Both of them refused and quit. The incident was dubbed the Saturday Night Massacre.
Today, Ruckelshaus works as a strategic adviser at the prominent Seattle firm Madrona Venture Group. And many of his recent political donations have gone to GOP candidates.
But Democrats have turned to him, too. President Clinton enlisted him to figure out how to negotiate a treaty with Canada over salmon fishing. Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke made him head of the board that doles out money for salmon habitat restoration. And now there's Gregoire.
Ruckelshaus is quick to say he's not advocating a version of "the Seattle Way" — talking forever but avoiding action. But his style is clearly defined by bringing together groups with broadly varying interests and opinions to work together.
"I don't personally believe you can force the individual to change the way they interact with the environment through government," he said last week in his downtown office.
He resembles a college professor more than the power broker, millionaire and Medina resident that he is. He wears brown corduroy trousers and tweed jackets with elbow patches and speaks philosophically about democracy and environmental policy.
All that and a quick wit and a proven trustworthiness has won admirers on all sides.
"He will find a middle," said Ernesta Ballard, Weyerhaeuser's senior vice president of corporate affairs. She headed the EPA's Northwest office under Ruckelshaus. "He will build a tent that welcomes everyone."
Kathy Fletcher, who heads the environmental group People for Puget Sound, agreed his reputation precedes him.
"I think that he enjoys the respect and trust of people that he's working with," Fletcher said. "So I think his presence, it's a force."
But Fletcher worries that such a sprawling, costly and contentious issue as protecting Puget Sound might defy attempts to reach agreement on every issue.
"I think that the whole effort to protect and restore Puget Sound has embedded in it some very controversial issues around which a consensus may not be possible," Fletcher said. "The consensus that's simply a consensus but doesn't get to the desired results — that's not a success."
Then there's what might prove to be his toughest audience: millions of Puget Sound residents, many of whom don't recognize his name.
Polls have found that people value Puget Sound, but many don't think there's much wrong with it. That's going to be a major problem when the partnership goes in search of the money needed to pay the staggering cleanup costs — an estimated $18 billion to $27 billion between now and 2020.
And it means Ruckelshaus will have to take his skills out of the government meeting rooms and into the streets.
He figures it could take advertising campaigns, reaching out to schools and colleges, perhaps even a movie similar to Al Gore's climate-change documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."
"You've got to bring it to a point where they [people] think it's important to them and there's some economic benefit to them to improving the place where they live," Ruckelshaus said.
He traces his own environmental impulses back to his youth, when he spent summers fishing with his father, an Indianapolis lawyer and community leader.
Now, here on the 37th floor, fishing paraphernalia and sculptures of salmon line his office. Behind his desk, he has hung a painting of an angler hooking a salmon in an Alaska river. He commissioned the painting to remedy a homesickness he felt for the Northwest, while he was working in Houston in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But Bill Ruckelshaus, after years of working to save salmon, doesn't go fishing any more.
"I feel so guilty," he said of catching a salmon. "It's ruined it."
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or email@example.com
William D. Ruckelshaus
Education: Raised in Indianapolis. Earned a B.A. at Princeton, 1957, and a law degree at Harvard, 1960
1970 to 1973: First head of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, under President Nixon.
1973: Won public acclaim during Watergate scandal for resigning as deputy attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice, rather than follow Nixon's order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
1976 to 1983: Weyerhaeuser senior vice president for law and corporate affairs.
1983-1985: Returned to head the EPA under President Reagan.
1988 to 1995: Chairman and CEO of Browning-Ferris Industries, then the second-largest waste hauler in the country.
1983 to 1986: Served on the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development.
1997 to 1998: U.S. envoy on implementing the Pacific Salmon Treaty.
1999 to present: Chairman of the Washington state Salmon Recovery Funding Board.
2001-2005: Member of U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.
2007: Chairman of Puget Sound Partnership's leadership council, overseeing agency charged with organizing Puget Sound cleanup.
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