ELI Primary Menu

Skip to main content

Message From the President

On the Passing of an Environmental Pioneer

Last week, the day before Thanksgiving, the environmental community was deeply saddened to learn about the passing of William D. Ruckelshaus. Here at the Environmental Law Institute, this loss hit home. Not only did Bill set up the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just as ELI was itself setting up shop, but Bill had been a part of the ELI family, having served on ELI’s Board of Directors during his accomplished career.

When Bill began his work at EPA, he sent a message loud and clear that an aggressive new agency was on the job. In a few short years, 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 both companies and cities for enforcement action. In the early days, many new employees had no desks, and some went without paychecks for weeks or even 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 chose to resign 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, which had taken a difficult turn in the early days of the Reagan Administration.  A young trial lawyer in DOJ’s Environmental Enforcement Section at the time, I remember well his famous “Gorilla in the Closet” speech, which served to revitalize and energize the entire federal enforcement apparatus.

Bill’s contributions in the private sector were also noteworthy.  He was one of the founders of what would become the Beveridge and Diamond law firm, served as Vice President of Weyerhaeuser Corporation, and also served as CEO of a major waste management firm. He was active in many community organizations, including a program in the Puget Sound region to develop consensus-based cleanup plans for this major resource.

In 2012, former ELI President John Cruden sat down and talked to Bill Ruckelshaus. You can watch the interview here. As explained in his own words, Bill saw value in more decentralized and collaborative approaches to educate landowners and smaller organizations on their environmental responsibilities. On big issues like climate change, he worried that our institutions may be unable to respond as quickly as needed and that the lack of political will is eroding the “energy and inventiveness” vital for future success. But he believed that the American people are still “remarkably adaptive and resilient and innovative.”  

As we embark on the next 50 years of environmental law and policy, one thing is clear: leaders like Bill Ruckelshaus are rare but still very much needed.

—Scott Fulton