William Ruckelshaus was a widely admired, nationally prominent Republican with a reputation for incorruptibility and a penchant for environmental work. He was the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, a hero of the Watergate scandal and a staunch advocate for using collaboration to solve the kind of thorny issues so often stymied by partisan fighting.
When he passed away at the age of 87 in late November, obituaries in publications like the New York Times and Washington Post were quick to sketch out these major brushstrokes of his life.
What wasn’t so widely mentioned, however, was that the longtime Washington resident, who was born to a prominent Indiana family, educated at Harvard and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, also had an outsize influence on an unlikely place: Wyoming.
As a 1993 founding board member and namesake of the Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, Ruckelshaus can be credited with introducing and spreading an approach to natural resource conflicts that has rippled across the state.
“In Wyoming, he really is the person who inspired a collaborative-process approach to solving contentious natural resource problems,” said Nicole Korfanta, who formerly helmed the Ruckelshaus Institute.
In the era before Ruckelshaus, Korfanta said, when conflicts arose, lawsuits followed.
“He recognized that that was not actually creating real protection of natural resources, it just perpetuated the same old fights that had been going on forever,” she said. “And he envisioned an alternative, which sounds really common sense today but is actually very difficult.”
That alternative: bringing together stakeholders with divergent and even opposite views, finding common interests and working through a process of collaboration to forge solutions all can support.
Today, that idea’s influence is stamped on Wyoming issues from trail plans to air quality decisions and management of prairie dogs. The approach has become so common that it’s difficult to believe it was once novel. But before Ruckelshaus championed the idea, colleagues say, it was foreign.
“He gave us the Bible, and we followed it,” said former Sen. Alan Simpson, a longtime friend who introduced Ruckelshaus to Wyoming. “And hopefully that’s still going to go on.”
A political giant finds Wyoming
Ruckelshaus was born in 1932 in Indianapolis to a family prominent in legal and political circles; his grandfather was the chairman of the Indiana Republican Party and his father was also active in the party.
Ruckelshaus was educated at Princeton, served two years in the Army and then earned his law degree at Harvard. After he began practicing law, he was appointed Indiana’s deputy attorney general. In that post, he took legal action against companies polluting state waterways.
It was the beginning of a lifetime of environmental work so moderate, pragmatic and iconoclastic that Ruckelshaus was never considered a darling of either environmentalists or industry.
Ruckelshaus forayed into politics, and was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1966. The Nixon White House soon tapped him to become head of the Justice Department’s civil division.
In 1970, when the Environmental Protection Agency was created, Ruckelshaus served as its first administrator. Just days into his tenure, he ordered the mayors of Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit to develop plans to correct water-quality violations. Within months, he required cities to enact clean-air standards, and mandated factory owners to provide detailed reports of materials dumped into waterways. Ruckelshaus also famously banned DDT, a controversial move considered a landmark environmental achievement.
But what really cemented Ruckelshaus’ reputation for unshakable integrity was his role in the Watergate scandal. Following his EPA tenure, Ruckelshaus served as acting director of the FBI and then U.S. deputy attorney general. It was in that role that President Nixon in 1972 asked Ruckelshaus to fire Archibald Cox, who was tasked with investigating Nixon’s role in Watergate. Rather than obeying Nixon’s order, Ruckelshaus resigned — and became an icon of ethics in government.
Later he said it wasn’t a difficult decision.
“There simply are lines over which you cannot step,” he said in a 2012 interview for Wyoming PBS. “If you are asked to do something that you think is fundamentally wrong, you have no choice but to resign.”
Ruckelshaus again helmed the EPA in 1983, helping to gain the public’s favor following tumultuous years under the leadership of Anne Gorsuch Burford (the mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch).
His path intersected with Wyoming when he met U.S. Sen. Al Simpson (R-Wyoming) Simpson remembers seeing Ruckelshaus giving testimony in various Cabinet capacities in D.C. Ruckelshaus was often railed on by all sides for views that didn’t fit neatly with any one, Simpson remembers, but his composure was unflappable.
“As the firing would come at him from both sides, he would just smile and say, ‘is that what we are here to do, fight? Or are we here to solve something? So why don’t we just sit down, and we’ll talk,’” Simpson said. “And boy that’s what he could do.”
So when Simpson was drawn into talks at the University of Wyoming in the early ‘90s about launching a new institute of environment and natural resources, he had an idea: recruit Ruckelshaus.
“If he could guide things through Washington and that bureaucracy, I knew he could do it in Wyoming, too,” Simpson said.
Harold Bergman, a longtime University of Wyoming employee who was involved in the founding of the institute, remembers when Ruckelshaus came to an early organizational meeting also attended by Wyoming’s governor, its entire D.C. delegation and the then-UW president.
“[Ruckelshauss] had a strong interest in finding ways for divergent points of views on environment and natural resource issues to get together and to collaboratively discuss and attempt to find solutions for these complex, difficult issues,” Bergman said. “He made the suggestion at this initial gathering … that that would be a fantastic way for a land grant university to engage on these issues. Everyone was taken with that idea.”
So much so, Bergman said, that attendees asked Ruckelshaus to serve as the first board chair of the new institute. He accepted.
A lasting legacy
The Institute for Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, as it was originally called, set out to bring together diverse stakeholders to work through sticky natural resources challenges. In Wyoming — where interests of wildlife, environment, land-use and extraction have long clashed — there was no shortage of those.
At the time, organizations specializing in this method of problem-solving did exist, said John Ehrmann, a close colleague of Ruckelshaus who was also involved in the institute’s inception. But the concept was new to Wyoming, he said, and instances of universities taking on the role were rare.
Ruckelshaus brought an unassailable reputation and an outsider’s neutrality to the effort, which, Ehrmann said, lent it gravitas and was probably key to its success.
Still, it was an unfamiliar concept in a state where disagreements often led to litigation, and there were skeptics. But as the new institute began gathering stakeholders on actual issues, conducting research and analysis and then using that science to steer collaborative decisions, it started catching on.
The institute went on to work with communities on issues ranging from coal-bed-methane produced water to ozone pollution in the Upper Green River basin, migration corridor protection and chronic wasting disease management. In 2002, it was officially renamed the William D. Ruckelshaus Institute for Environment and Natural Resources — a move originally opposed by its namesake. (“We had to arm twist him a bit,” Bergman said.)
Over time, the approach became widely accepted as a go-to model in Wyoming.
“We hear collaboration now all the time as a means of solving problems,” said the institute’s Spicer Chair of Collaborative Practice Steve Smutko, who has spent years facilitating collaborative processes around the state. “Twenty years ago that wasn’t the case. I think that’s his legacy.”
Today, the institute has grown to include a school — The Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources — which offers majors and minors to university students. It also provides trainings, forums and support services through its Collaborative Solutions program and Collaborative Program in Natural Resources, while Smutko and colleague Jessica Western travel the state facilitating discussions.
In that way, Ruckelshaus’ influence on the state has taken root and multiplied, said Doug Wachob, acting director of the Haub School and Ruckelshaus Institute.
“Twenty-five years later, we still have that as a core piece of our DNA,” Wachob said. “It has in many ways made us what we are.”
A remarkable human
Those who knew Ruckelshaus — even tangentially — describe a man who was sharply intelligent, but also funny, fair and incredibly principled.
“He was a gentle, humble person who didn’t need the limelight. And for someone of his stature and clout, that’s really something,” Korfanta said. “He treated everyone he knew equally, which again is this rare quality that he had. He was warm. And the no. 1 thing is just this incredible integrity.”
He was never afraid to wade into conflict, and even seemed to relish it, Simpson said. That’s because he was an individual led by facts, not emotion or partisanship.
That was occasionally cause for others to criticize him. But, Korfanta said, it’s a trait many people could benefit from in this divisive era.
“It does feel like we’re moving even further from his vision for civil discourse and collaborative processes,” she said. Despite that, she remains hopeful. “I think as we realize that these divisive approaches aren’t getting us to where we need to go, we’ll come back to it,” Korfanta said.
And Bergman, whose UW stint included 10 years as director of the institute, said Ruckelshaus’ influence can’t be overstated.
“He was just a remarkable human being who I think for quite a number of us on the faculty here at the University of Wyoming made a huge impression … that I think still goes on here,” he said.