50 years ago, February 23, Governor Dan Evans signed a bill into law to create the Department of Ecology. We opened for business on July 1, 1970, several months before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did likewise on December 2.
The Department of Ecology bill was part of a package of environmental legislation and other bills Gov. Evans acted on that day. All came out of a 32-day special session that he convened on Jan. 12, devoted to environmental issues.
An Associated Press story that included Evans' signing the Ecology bill ran on the Seattle Daily Times front page, under a headline on his veto of a Vietnam veterans’ benefits bill. The article shared the page with a photo of a wounded Southeast Asian child and a story on a Middle East terror attack.
“The 1960s were times of conflicting activism,” Evans wrote in his forward to our 35th anniversary oral history, Historically Speaking. “The civil rights movement vied with a growing anti-Vietnam war protest for citizen support. Quietly, but with increasing intensity, people’s concern for the environment grew.”
“The idea of environmental protection for the next generation was becoming a very popular notion. And we had good leadership,” said Evans’ chief of staff at the time, James Dolliver, in a 1999 interview for the Washington State Oral History Program, quoted in Historically Speaking.
“There was no question the Republican House leadership was willing to go with Evans’ encouragement,” Dolliver said. “And in the Senate, the Washington Environmental Council worked very hard. And, in the Governor’s Office, we did everything we could.
“More than anything else, I would emphasize the particular temperament at the time. There was no suspicion of environmental supporters, and the environment was not a partisan issue.”
While the AP story gives brief information on each of the many bills the Governor signed February 23, the Times ran a Sunday feature the previous weekend on the critical role played by citizen activists during the special session.
One of those profiled in the Times article was Joan Thomas, with the Washington Environmental Council. She related in Historically Speaking how she found herself in a liaison role between the Republican Governor’s office and the Senate:
“Because the Senate, at that time, was in the hands of the Democrats and the Republicans had a majority in the House, my work required a lot of crossing over.”
“I’d start with what the House wanted,” Thomas explained, “then I’d go to the Senate and ask, ‘Can you accept this?’ If the answer was no, I’d have to go back and say, ‘Well, the Senate can’t accept that. What’s our next move?
“At the end of the day, maybe two or three days a week, I would then report to Jim Dolliver. If necessary, the Governor would talk to his leadership in the House.”
Evans soon appointed Thomas to serve on a search committee for the new agency’s first director. Years later, she came to Ecology, first as head of the Water Quality Division, and later to lead the Northwest Regional Office.
Environment, she told the Times in 1970, “is going to stay a popular issue.”
Throughout 2020, we’re marking our agency’s 50th anniversary with stories on how Washington state’s commitment to environmental protection has developed, and the results that commitment has achieved.