Feb. 12, 1970 – a landmark day for environmental protection

Governor Dan Evans

Fifty years ago today, Washington’s Legislature voted to establish a Department of Ecology. We opened our doors as an official state agency on July 1, 1970, creating a model for environmental protection that was replicated in other states. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was a comparative latecomer, starting on Dec. 2 of 1970.

Here are a few news clippings leading up to, and briefly noting, the Feb. 12, 1970 passage of the bill. Click or tap, then scroll around these Seattle Daily Times stories:

Newspaper headline -

Feb. 12, 1970 - "Department of Ecology likely to gain approval"

Seattle Daily Times, Feb. 13, 1970 with Ecology stories

Feb. 13, 1970 - "It Was an 'Environment Legislature'"

Until later in the 1970s, the Legislature met only in odd-numbered years for its regular sessions. Ecology came out of a special session called by Gov. Dan Evans (photo, above) on Jan. 12, specifically to address several environmental proposals.

Gov. Evans recalled that session in his forward to our 35th anniversary oral history, Historically Speaking:

“Here in Washington state, the environmental movement was strong and deep, but splintered into scores of competing organizations. Wise leaders worked to build lobbying strength for the environment and created the Washington Environmental Council in 1967. The next session of the legislature produced modest environmental results.

“I decided to call a special session in 1970, concentrating on environmental protection. In preparation, we held a meeting at Crystal Mountain in September of 1969. Representatives of the Washington Environmental Council, legislative leaders and appropriate state department heads gathered to discuss environmental challenges. In two days of discussion, over 60 proposals were identified. I asked each participant to identify their top three issues and we went through the list, identifying choices.

“Six issues emerged with overwhelming support. Leading the list was creation of a Department of Environmental Quality. Environmental leaders agreed to focus on these six issues; legislators promised to give priority hearing to these bills, and department heads drafted legislation.

“The session quickly bogged down on new and sometimes controversial environmental legislation. Halfway through the session, it appeared that none of the priority bills would pass. I was in Seattle on other business and was asked to appear on KING-TV to discuss the difficulties we were facing in the legislature. I pleaded with citizens to contact their legislators. The next morning the Seattle PI (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) ran a front-page headline story on the hold up of environmental bills, including identifying committees where bills were stuck and which legislators were blocking action. I faced a firestorm from legislators, many of whom had been wrongly identified as opponents by the newspaper. I tried to calm lawmakers, but soon realized that we were hearing mightily from the people.

Five thousand telegrams flooded the Capitol the next day, phone lines were jammed and bills began to move. Ultimately, five of the six priority bills passed and the sixth, shoreline management, was adopted by initiative the same year.

The State Senate insisted on a name change for the proposed new department; so it was officially designated the Department of Ecology. The legislature received deserved credit for a stunning environmental session, all accomplished in 32 days.

Gov. Evans signed the Department of Ecology into law on Feb. 23. That’s on a Sunday this year, so watch our blog for a story on Friday, Feb. 21, when we bring you some more vintage reading, including a Sunday paper feature about citizens who lobbied for the environment at that special session.

Graphic that states, Fifty years of Ecology, State of Washington. Ecology land, air, water theme fills the zero of a large fifty.