Maia Bellon, the director of Washington’s Department of Ecology, has announced her plans to step down at the end of the year.
Bellon worked in state service for 25 years and was director of Ecology for nearly seven years.
In a statement, Bellon called the decision “bittersweet,” but said she’s confident that it’s the right time to make a professional and personal change.
“My current plans are to enjoy some time off reconnecting with my family and friends,” she stated. “I then intend to dust off my law degree and try my hand at private practice focusing on environmental law and policy.”
“It’s going to be a real loss for agriculture,” said Toni Meacham, rancher and attorney in Connell, Wash., and the Washington Cattlemen’s Association water ecology chairwoman. “Not to say she hasn’t been tough on ag. She has. That’s her job and she tried her best to make sure anybody she feels was accountable was held accountable.”
Meacham represents the cattlemen on Ecology’s agriculture and the water quality advisory committee, which Bellon formed in 2014.
Meacham also represented rancher Joe Lemire in a landmark case against Ecology. In 2009, prior to Bellon’s arrival, Ecology issued an order claiming Lemire’s cattle had “substantial potential to pollute” and ordering him to fence them out of nearby Pataha Creek.
The state Supreme Court in 2013 ruled in favor of the department, saying Ecology was not required to show that conditions on Lemire’s 29-cattle ranch polluted the creek. Lemire died in May 2018.
When she came on board, Bellon opened the lines of communication between agriculture and the department, Meacham said. The committee has provided a good venue for ranchers to express concerns to the department, she said, even though Bellon is still constrained by the law and requirements of Gov. Jay Inslee.
“You never felt like you were just talking to yourself,” Meacham said. “I definitely have always felt that she was listening. She might not have always agreed, but she did hear the concerns that we had.”
In an email to members, Bellon said she believed the committee had been “vital” in many ways — “mostly for mending broken relationships and establishing mutual trust. I want to personally thank all of you, especially the founding members, for your commitment to collaboration and partnerships. Together, we have made progress on clean water.”
Ballon added in her email that she hoped the committee would continue to meet and build upon “successful outcomes” previously accomplished.
“Until our paths cross again, I wish you all the best, and I thank you for taking a chance on me,” she stated.
“Maia has been a true proponent of working relationships, collaborative approaches and has been one to reach out to agriculture to try to create solutions,” said Paterson, Wash., wheat farmer Nicole Berg, one of the founding members of the committee. “She was a true listener and a problem solver.”
Berg said she hopes Bellon’s replacement has the same approach to outreach and agriculture.
“She has a true commitment to the environment, as us farmers do, and I always appreciated that about her,” Berg said.
Jack Field, executive director of the Washington Cattle Feeders Association, said Bellon worked with cattle feeders to proactively achieve environmental goals shared by Ecology and the association.
“Maia went above and beyond to try to connect with agricultural producers in all phases of production,” he said. “I think that’s why she’s been such a effective leader and such a good communicator and listener.”
Formation of the advisory committee allowed the first opportunity for some “pretty frank” conversations about challenging issues, Field said.
“Like everybody else, I want to wish Maia the very best in whatever the future brings her,” Field said. “If she changes her mind, I’m sure folks would love to see her stay.”
Twisp, Wash., rancher Vic Stokes was the first co-chairman of the advisory committee with Bellon. Stokes said Ballon struck a balance between the regulated community, farmers and ranchers, and the enforcement community.
“Her bringing everybody together in the same room, I hope it moved things along a ways,” he said. “She’s definitely been one of the better directors, probably the best Department of Ecology director that I’ve been around.”
Bellon told the Capital Press her proudest accomplishments include passage of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, and putting 50,000 acres of the Teanaway watershed into a community forest.
Asked her message to farmers and ranchers, she replied: “Never underestimate the power of partnerships.”
“I loved Maia,” said Aaron Golladay, Warden, Wash., farmer and rancher and former vice president of legislative affairs for the Washington State Farm Bureau. “She definitely always wanted to hear ag’s thought on an issue that affected us. While she may not have always gone 100% where we wanted her to, I do think when it was said and done, she was always fair to us.”
Golladay represented the Farm Bureau and served as co-chair on the advisory committee for three years. He believes that through the committee, Ecology learned “how to deal with farmers.”
“She understood, when we see a DOE letter, our reaction and she understood that the words they used mattered,” he said. “Because of that, I know they changed their approach. While they’re still the Department of Ecology, they did come at it from a standpoint of, ‘Hey, we’re here to help you, we’re not here to fine you.’ That made a big difference, I think.”
Bellon would often joke that both sides were unhappy, so she was in the right spot, Golladay said.
“Maia was a real person,” he said. “So many people in Olympia are a talking head, but she really did care and she really did want to make things better for everybody. She had a job, she was there to do the job, but she understood there was a way to do the job and work with people.”