Remembering Bill Ruckelshaus

September 16, 2020
head photo of a man
Bill Ruckelshaus (Photo courtesy of Haub School/Ruckelshaus Institute)

Ruckelshaus leaves a lasting legacy of collaboration at UW and beyond.


By Micaela Myers 

Lawsuits, factions and deep divides—William Ruckelshaus knew there was a better way to solve natural resource challenges. By bringing diverse stakeholders together to engage in civil discourse, inclusive outcomes rather than litigation create lasting solutions.

Ruckelshaus died Nov. 27, 2019, at his home in Seattle at the age of 87, but he left a lasting legacy in Wyoming and the world. He served as the first administrator of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) under President Nixon and later under President Reagan, achieving major policy accomplishments to protect clean air and water. In addition to his work at the EPA, Ruckelshaus served as acting director of the FBI, deputy attorney general, a lawyer, an environmental consultant and CEO of a major waste management company, among other roles.

“He was known for his integrity and ability to build robust solutions that benefitted both environmental protection as well as business,” says Kit Freedman, an associate research scientist at the University of Wyoming Ruckelshaus Institute. “In 1993, he came to UW at the request of Sen. Alan Simpson to help create a new institute of environment and natural resources that would focus on bringing together stakeholders with differing perspectives to build collaborative solutions to natural resource challenges. Today, that institute has grown to include a school (the Haub School), as well as the Ruckelshaus Institute (named in his honor in 2002), which carries on his work and legacy.”

Ruckelshaus served on the UW Institute of Environment and Natural Resources board for nine years—most of them as chairman—before becoming emeritus. In 1998, he received an honorary doctorate from UW. In 2015, he received a Presidential Medal of Freedom recognizing his efforts as “a dedicated public servant who has worked tirelessly to protect public health and combat global challenges like climate change.”

Nicole Korfanta, former director of the UW Ruckelshaus Institute, says: “After decades of litigation over environmental disputes, Bill Ruckelshaus recognized that the best solutions don’t emerge from the courts but from civil discourse among reasonable people who disagree. His legacy—which lives on through the Ruckelshaus Institute at UW, the Ruckelshaus Center in Washington state and through the words he left behind—is a call to work through our toughest natural resource challenges together, to find solutions that sustain both people and our natural world.”

Among other programs, the UW Ruckelshaus Institute hosts the Collaborative Program in Natural Resources—a yearlong training program to give natural resource professionals the skills to apply collaborative processes to complex environment and natural resource issues. Spicer Chair of Collaborative Practice Steve Smutko supervises the program and says collaborative decision making has spread from environmental issues into other public policy issues such as education and public health.

“Through the work of the institute, we bring people together from environmental nonprofits, business and industry, and government at all levels and teach them skills in collaborative problem solving—collaborative leadership, negotiation, conflict management—so they can apply it to their own work,” he says.

Harold Bergman directed the Ruckelshaus Institute and Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources from 1998–2008, meeting Ruckelshaus in 1994.

“Bill was incredible,” Bergman says. “He was always even-tempered, smart and very able to talk to people from all sides of issues and find solutions. Throughout his career, he was really a proponent of collaborative dispute resolution and collaborative interaction among stakeholders. And that’s what he brought to that first meeting at UW. He recommended that for a land-grant university in the U.S.—where there are always disputes about land and natural resource issues—that we focus on collaborative solutions to these contentious problems.”

At early board meetings, they would model the processes together.

“We went through a whole series of issues through those early years—elevated nitrate in groundwater, open spaces protection, land use, conservation easements, how to use collaborative process in implementation of the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, coal-bed methane disposal issues and more,” Bergman says.

At the time UW established the school and programs, few universities were doing this kind of work. Ruckelshaus believed universities played a central role in fostering these processes.

In May 1997, he remarked: “Land-grant universities such as the University of Wyoming were borne out of a tradition of helping citizens solve their problems and achieve their goals, usually associated with improving agricultural practices, ranching, mining or the like.”

Ruckelshaus continued: “Their real genius lies in discovering that often different sides can each get what they need, that the pie can be artfully baked so as to be bigger than we thought. This is known in the facilitation business as going from OR to AND. We stop saying fish or irrigation, jobs or wildlife, and we start saying fish and irrigation, jobs and wildlife. From that change, everything else flows.”

Today, Ruckelshaus’ legacy lives on. UW’s institute and its graduates help facilitate collaborative stakeholder solutions across the state and around the country.

Bergman says, “He inspired us to find a different way to deal with these contentious issues.”



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