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William D. Ruckelshaus

Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Vice President, Weyerhaeuser Corp.; CEO, Browning Ferris Industries

Interview Year: 2012

William Ruckelshaus created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and sent a message loud and clear that an aggressive new agency was on the job.   In a few short years at EPA, Administrator Ruckelshaus organized new recruits and existing staff from more than a dozen federal agencies while issuing sweeping new air and water standards, leveling the field for business competitors, and targeting “big polluters,” both companies and cities, for enforcement action.  In the early days, many new employees had no desks, and some had no paychecks either for weeks or months, but morale was still high.  The EPA staff welcomed a remarkable leader with respect for the rule of law, commitment to the environment, personal integrity, and even a sense of humor to ease the tension of stressful days.  His tenure at EPA was cut short when he reluctantly agreed to run the FBI during the Watergate scandals and then serve as Deputy Attorney General. Like Elliot Richardson, the Attorney General, he resigned rather than fire the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, at President Nixon’s direction.  He describes resigning as “not a hard decision.”  Ruckelshaus returned to head EPA in 1983 for two years to repair the agency’s morale and reputation damaged by President Reagan’s early appointees. 

In the private sector, Ruckelshaus has served in law practice, as Vice President of Weyerhaeuser Corporation, and CEO of a major waste management firm.  He is now Strategic Director of Madrona Ventures and active in many community organizations, including a program in the Puget Sound region to develop consensus-based cleanup plans for this major resource.  His sees value in more decentralized and collaborative approaches to educate landowners and smaller organizations on their environmental responsibilities. On big issues like climate change, he worries that our institutions may be unable to respond to fast-moving problems and that the lack of political will is eroding the “energy and inventiveness” vital for future success.  The American people are still “remarkably adaptive and resilient and innovative,” Ruckelshaus believes.  They could use a few more leaders like him.