UW Today

January 18, 2012

New oral history of William Ruckelshaus, key figure in environmental policy, now online

News and Information

Douglas Brinkley, left, and William Ruckelshaus

Douglas Brinkley, left, and William Ruckelshaus

Douglas Brinkley, a noted historian who has written several books on U.S. environmental history, conducted more than seven hours of interviews with Ruckelshaus in 2011. The interviews span his entire career, beginning in the office of the Indiana attorney general in 1960, when he was assigned to the Indiana Board of Health. It was that experience that made clear to him the link between pollution and its impact on health.

He became the first EPA administrator under President Richard Nixon in 1970, organizing the agency, defining its mission, setting priorities and hiring its original staff. He held the position until 1973. One of his key actions was putting into place the first regulations to control air pollution from automobiles.

Ruckelshaus was also the agencys fifth administrator under President Ronald Reagan from 1983 to 1985, helping to restore integrity to an agency in crisis after the resignation of administrator Anne Burford following a confrontation with Congress over the alleged mismanagement of the agency. While at the agency a second time Ruckelshaus put in place rules that led to a ban on lead in gasoline.

Ruckelshaus also served as acting director of the FBI and deputy attorney general in the Nixon Administration, receiving accolades, along with Attorney General Elliot Richardson, for refusing to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

The oral history, which discusses these and many other topics, is available through the special collections branch of libraries at the University of Washington and Washington State University. It is also available online in the archives of TVW (http://www.tvw.org/index.php/ruckelshaus), a nonprofit public affairs television network that broadcasts Washington state government and public policy and co-producer of the oral history project.

”Bill Ruckelshaus has made a remarkable contribution to public service, corporate leadership and collaborative policy in the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st,” said Michael Kern, director of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center. “It is a gift to us all to have recorded his recollections for current and future scholars and authors.”

The Ruckelshaus Center, a joint effort of WSU and UW that fosters collaborative public policy, has sponsored the oral history project, with support from the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, Meridian Institute and TVW.

Brinkley, author of “Wilderness Warrior,” a biography of Theodore Roosevelt that focuses on his creation of federal laws and national parks to protect wildlife, is planning a book on the environmental history of the United States since the publication of “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson in 1962.

“It would be impossible to write an environmental history of the 1960s and 70s without including William Ruckelshaus,” Brinkley said.

Brinkley has said he believes Ruckelshaus was a successful environmental administrator because he was trusted by both environmentalists and the business community, as well as by leaders of both political parties. For his part, Ruckelshaus has maintained that vigorous public discussion about complex environmental issues is an essential component of successful regulation.

Ruckelshaus lives in Washington state and has continued to influence environmental policy. From 1983 to 1986, he served as the U.S. representative on the World Commission on Environment and Development created by the United Nations. From 1997 to 1998, he was the special U.S. envoy in implementing the Pacific Salmon Treaty.  From 2000 to 2004, he served on the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, which was charged with making recommendations to the president and Congress for a coordinated and comprehensive national ocean policy. He is currently co-chair of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, a broad-based organization promoting the implementation of a comprehensive ocean policy in the U.S.  In Washington state, Ruckelshaus has led large-scale collaborative policy efforts on salmon recovery and Puget Sound cleanup.

He was appointed in 2004 by the presidents of UW and WSU as chair of the Policy Consensus Center, a joint effort aimed at contributing university talents to the resolution of difficult public policy issues. That center, which now bears his name, continues to work to resolve conflicts surrounding public policy issues.