William Ruckelshaus

William Ruckelshaus in his Seattle office in 2011.

In an era of bare-knuckled politics, it is instructive to reflect on the career of William Ruckelshaus, the first director of the Environmental Protection Administration.

He died in Seattle last week at age 87, leaving behind an unblemished career as a voice for environmental reason.

Ruckelshaus was no stranger to pitched political battles. His career in the administration of Richard Nixon abruptly ended when Ruckelshaus resigned his job at the U.S. Justice Department instead of firing the Watergate special prosecutor.

But after two turns as the EPA administrator — as the agency’s first chief under Nixon and again under President Ronald Reagan —Ruckelshaus probably knew more about how the EPA and statutes such as the Endangered Species Act work than anyone else.

In 2011, Capital Press interviewed Ruckelshaus about the EPA, the ESA and issues related to the protection of species. Edited for space, here are some of his thoughts:

On the ESA: If the law is working properly, the “how to” is an agreement by the people who will be impacted by the necessary changes. It doesn’t work as well as it ought to, because a lot of time the government comes in and imposes habitat requirements that the manager of the land doesn’t find completely reasonable.

On the Clean Air Act: After a couple of years of administering it, I knew it needed change. ... What has proven really hard is to get these laws changed, and the reason is, I think, the people who lobbied the laws through were primarily outside the government, and the government agencies that administered these laws and the staffs on committees remain in place for a long time — they get a vested interest in the law and they fight furiously against any changes.

The scope of the ESA: (Congress) wrote the law broadly enough, and of course it’s been interpreted broadly enough, it encompasses a lot more than they probably originally intended.

Changes needed in the ESA: If I’m a landowner and someone is running a highway through my land, I may not like it, but at least I’m being compensated for it. If I’m forced to put buffers alongside streams that run through my land in order to protect salmon, sometimes those buffers take a significant amount of my land, and I think they should be compensated for that....

If that’s a public good and it’s being asserted against a private property owner, then why shouldn’t the public pay for it the same way they do with a highway?

On environmental regulations: In the first place, some guy writing the regulation down in Olympia or in Salem, and not being on the actual land itself, can’t possibly draft a regulation that makes sense on every piece of land. So the landowner has the regulator from the government coming on their land, starting to tell him how to manage it. He’s been managing for five generations and this guy’s maybe six months out of school. Well, they’re not going to be very pleased with what they’re told to do. ...

(Let) the individual landowner have a lot more authority about what he should do to manage the land in such a way that it doesn’t adversely impact the environment. And compensating them where there are significant costs involved.

On collaboration: If they’d see themselves as part of a family, they’d begin to make progress. But if they see themselves as adversaries, as enemies, then you don’t make any progress. ... My experience of listening to farmers and environmentalists when they finally let their guard down, they are not nearly as far apart as they think they are. I’ve heard farmers say, “Well, if that’s what you want us to do, that’s not so hard.” And here the environmentalists would say, “Well, I guess that’s not really the problem, is it?”... Once you see those interests come together, it really is remarkable.

These words, spoken from experience, offer wisdom to all sides of many issues, whether they involve the environment or other topics.

Maybe, just maybe, the world needs more voices for reason like William Ruckelshaus. We’ve seen plenty of the alternative.

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