Crooks, Joan A. (b. 1965)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 2/14/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10034

From her office in the LEED-certified Vance Building in downtown Seattle, Washington Environmental Council Executive Director Joan Crooks can look out over Puget Sound and the Olympics -- two elements that drew her to the Northwest years ago. Born and raised in New Jersey, she had never been to the West Coast when she turned down an offer from Yale and instead enrolled in graduate school at the University of Washington in 1989. She did not know a soul in Washington. But she knew there were mountains here, and water, and she gravitated to both. Now, after more than two decades as a leader in the effort to protect the environment of her adopted state, she takes some pride in the progress that’s been made -- particularly in the renewed emphasis on cleaning up Puget Sound and in the adoption of ”green” standards in the building industry. She also acknowledges frustration. The issues have become more partisan; the solutions more complex; common ground more elusive. But “trying to work these things out -- I find it fun,” she says (Crooks interview).

Child of the Navesink

Joan Ann Crooks was born April 20, 1965, in Red Bank, New Jersey, the second of three children of Albert William Crooks (1924-2006) and Marian Regina Weber Crooks (b. 1928). Three of her four grandparents were immigrants from Europe. They entered the country through Ellis Island and settled in nearby New Jersey. Most of their descendants stayed in the same area. Crooks is the only member of her immediate family who left the state.

Her father was born with the name Albert Crook. At some point, deciding that the initial "A" wasn’t a good fit with "Crook," he added an "s" to his surname. "All of my relatives are ‘Crook’ without an ‘s,’ but we are Crooks," she says, smiling (unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the Crooks interview).

In 1959, her father started his own business, the Taylor Fence Company, installing and later manufacturing fences. Crooks and her two brothers all worked in the business as they were growing up (her brothers manage it now). She credits that experience with teaching her practical skills about what it takes to run a small business -- skills that she later transferred to running a nonprofit organization. "One thing I learned is that we should try to make the rules -- whether for a business or to protect the environment -- be logical and make sense," she says.

Crooks grew up in Middletown, opposite Red Bank, on the other side of the Navesink River. The river, a saltwater estuary that empties into the Atlantic, was the focal point of her childhood. "We spent hours and hours on the river -- fishing, swimming, crabbing," she says. "My dad had a boat. We three kids had our own little kick-around boat. That was where we spent our fun time."

Middletown (population about 66,000) is only about 35 miles south of industrialized, urbanized Newark, but it seemed a world away. "I tell people that I spent a lot of time outside when I grew up in New Jersey and they kind of look at me like, really? But I spent much more time outside, free time, just exploring, than maybe my own children get to, here in Seattle. We would just disappear for hours." Crooks remembers one day when the "little pack of seven of us" (she, her brothers, and four children who lived next door) were gone for so long that their parents became alarmed and called the police. The kids had spent the day by a creek, taking clay from the streambed and making dishes for their parents.

In winter, the family went to the mountains. Both her parents loved to ski, and often took the children on ski trips to New Hampshire and Vermont. Between life on the river and vacations skiing in the mountains, Crooks says, "I literally grew up outside."

Finding a Path

Crooks’ first career choice was medicine. She majored in chemistry as an undergraduate at Middlebury College in Vermont because she thought it would give her an edge in applying to medical school. She liked chemistry and did well in it. "I think of myself still as somebody who comes at things from an analytical perspective, like a scientist," she says. "I like exploring how things work." Her minor was in environmental economics. Her coursework in that field sparked a nascent interest in natural resource management, although she was not yet ready to abandon medicine altogether.

Crooks earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry at Middlebury in 1987. She spent much of the next two years traveling, in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand -- looking at mountains, among other things. "Being near water is really important to me because of how I grew up," she says. "But I also have a love of mountains. I think that’s why I gravitated toward Vermont, for college. Then I did a lot of traveling and saw different mountains."

She eventually decided she didn’t really want to go to medical school; she had just been saying that she wanted to go for so long it had become rote. She began looking into fields related to natural resources. Her academic record was good enough to get her into several different graduate schools. She narrowed the choices down to two: the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, in New Haven, Connecticut; and what was then the University of Washington's Graduate School of Public Affairs (now the Evans School of Public Affairs). Yale was closer to her family but the UW offered a full scholarship for her first year. She packed her car and headed west.

Meeting a Mentor

Through a mentorship program in graduate school, Crooks met Joan K. Thomas (1931-2011), a prominent environmentalist, who, among other things, was a founder of the Washington Environmental Council and first woman manager at the Department of Ecology. Thomas was known for her willingness to mentor young people, and she took on that role with Crooks. She schooled her in the legislative process; introduced her to legislators, lobbyists, and the governor in Olympia; invited her to Washington Environmental Council board meetings. "How lucky was I to get hooked up with her," says Crooks.

Crooks graduated from the UW in 1991 with a master’s degree in public administration. She worked briefly as administrative director of Earth Share of Washington (a United Way-type agency for environmental organizations), and then, in 1992, joined Washington Environmental Council. She was named executive director three years later.

She spent much of her free time exploring the mountains of the Northwest. During one of those outings she met her future husband, Donald Davies (b. 1965), a rock-climbing partner of one of her UW classmates. It turned out that Davies, a native of Hailey, Idaho, could ski "almost as well as me," she says, with a smile. They were married in 1993. Their oldest son, Ryan, was born in 2001; followed by twins Adelle and Justin in 2006.

She remained close to Joan Thomas and counts as one of her highest compliments something that Thomas once said about her: that she had become a good mentor herself. For Crooks, mentoring means encouraging people to take on challenges. "I try to help people succeed here at WEC," she says. "A lot of people have worked here for a long time. I try to find ways to keep their jobs interesting -- to keep them challenged."

Thomas died of cancer on November 28, 2011. Crooks still keeps a photo of her on the wall above her desk.

Seeking Consensus, Part 1

The Washington Environmental Council was conceived in a pizza parlor in Olympia in 1967 by a group of frustrated conservationists who were licking their wounds after a key defeat in the Legislature. The first organizational meeting was held on December 17th that year. Representatives of about 20 different groups attended, including sportsmen, preservationists, bird watchers, nature lovers, educators, labor unionists, advocates of highway beautification, and what a Seattle Times columnist called "esthetes" (December 20, 1967).

At the time, there was no environmental lobby at the state capital. The founders of WEC intended to combine resources, hire a lobbyist, and present a nonpartisan, unified voice for the environment. The challenge was in developing a legislative agenda that all members -- described by one reporter as "strange bedfellows" who were often at odds with each other -- could agree on (The Seattle Times, May 14, 1968).

Unanimity proved to be a difficult objective, then and in the years to come. One of the first points of contention involved the creation of the North Cascades National Park in 1968. Sportsmen and preservationists in the WEC split over the issue of hunting. Thomas O. Wimmer (1910-1987), one of the organization’s founders and its first president, was caught in the middle. An avid hunter who decorated the walls of the den in his Seattle home with trophies, he nonetheless supported a ban on hunting in the park. Some of his old allies felt betrayed. "In many ways the outdoor sportsmen originated the environmental movement here, but they didn't grow with it," he said later. "I felt some of their views were too narrow and they felt I was a traitor" (The Seattle Times, June 15, 1985).

Throughout the spring and summer of 1968, the fledgling group held a series of public meetings and workshops to identify priorities for the upcoming legislative session, focusing on six areas: land use, pollution, transportation, urban design, natural rivers, and wildlife. When the Legislature convened, in January 1969, the Washington Environmental Council was ready with drafts of 31 separate bills.

That first legislative session did not go well. Not a single significant measure sponsored by the organization passed. As a writer for The Seattle Times put it, "the council, a new and potentially powerful conglomerate ... has yet to impress legislators on the need for livability measures." Tom Wimmer, the council president, was more blunt: "All the major environmental bills have been squashed, ignored, delayed irretrievably or compromised and distorted almost unrecognizably" (The Seattle Times, (April 11, 17, 1969).

Shortly after the end of the session, council announced that it would add litigation to its toolbox. Its first legal action, against the implementation of an omnibus state highway bill, was filed in June 1969.

Impressive Record

By 1992, when Joan Crooks joined, the organization had compiled an impressive record. It had led efforts to create the state Department of Ecology in 1970, pass the Water Resources Act of 1971, establish the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority in 1985, and enact the Growth Management Act in 1990. Its record also included successful legal actions to derail plans for a gravel and lumber export facility on the Nisqually Delta; prevent the construction of a proposed flood-control dam on the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River; stop the development of the proposed Early Winters ski resort in the Methow Valley, and limit the size of clear cuts and establish stream protection buffers in state forests.

The membership had grown to more than 100 groups, from garden clubs to the Sierra Club. A number of traditional adversaries had also come into the tent. When Washington Environmental Council celebrated its 25th anniversary, on September 25, 1992, representatives of the oil industry reserved one of the dinner tables. Labor leaders were there too. Washington Natural Gas picked up part of the tab for the party. Weyerhaeuser provided the table decorations. "No, the tree-hugger and the birdwatcher do not yet lie down with the hard hat and the CEO," wrote Seattle Times reporter Eric Pryne. "But there's a new attitude in the leadership of the environmental council, Washington's broadest-based environmental organization" (September 25, 1992).

Darlene Madenwald, who became president of the board of the Washington Environmental Council in 1990, had made it a point to seek new allies in business, industry, agriculture, and local government and among Native Americans. She argued that environmentalists needed to be more willing to listen to the other side, to try to find common ground and build bridges. "We're perceived as too strident, people who won't negotiate, people who don't care about people," she said. "Being confrontational just isn't going to work anymore" (The Seattle Times, September 25, 1992).

Dissension in the Ranks

Less than a month after the anniversary bash, Greenpeace and Zero Population Growth announced they were dropping out of WEC, complaining it had become too conciliatory. "They’ve abandoned the grassroots, the people that built them," said Michael Gayler, chair of the Washington chapter of Zero Population Growth. "Instead, they're reaching out to Weyerhaeuser. A lot of the grassroots people don't like that" (The Seattle Times, October 15, 1992).

In his reporting about the split, Seattle Times writer Eric Pryne pointed out that discord was nothing new within the WEC. Members had been divided over the North Cascades National Park in the late 1960s, the proposed Northern Tier oil port in Port Angeles in the late 1970s, and amendments to the state Environmental Policy Act in the early 1980s. The state Labor Council, a charter member of WEC in 1967, had drifted away because of issues involving nuclear power plants and oil ports.

But the debate over tactics in the early 1990s occurred at a time when the organization was facing other pressures. For many years, Washington Environmental Council's representative was the only full-time environmental lobbyist in the state capital. That began to change in the late 1980s. Now, dozens of group had their own staffs in Olympia and were doing their own lobbying.

After she became executive director in 1995, Crooks helped restructure the organization. "What made sense in the ‘60s didn’t make sense anymore," she says. The group membership model was dropped. The focus shifted. On its website, Washington Environmental Council now identifies its mission as building partnerships, mobilizing the public, engaging decision makers, and taking legal action to ensure that laws already on the books are enforced. "At different times you need to take different approaches," says Crooks. "We use a range of tools. We build partnerships, we try to negotiate, but we’re also not afraid to go to court."

Seeking Consensus, Part 2

The proliferation of lobbyists in Olympia created a new set of problems. Groups developed specialized agendas, focused on divergent goals. Lobbyists were bumping into each other, duplicating efforts. One group would come up with a list of five things that it considered important. Another group would come up with a list of five other things. "You get a lot of groups doing that and it’s a recipe for inaction," says Crooks. "We were pretty good as a community in linking arms when there was a threat but not as good at moving the ball forward." 

Crooks is widely credited with being the architect of a solution that, in many ways, represented a return to the roots of the organization. In 2003, she helped establish what became known as the Environmental Priorities Coalition. The group didn’t have a name for the first couple of years, she says. There were some "turf issues." But support coalesced around an issue that brought everyone together: a bill to phase out mercury in products sold in Washington.

Grant Nelson, lobbyist for the Association of Washington Business, called the Mercury Education and Reduction Act of 2003 "a good example of how businesses can work together with the environmental community" to protect both the environment and jobs. Bruce Gryniewski, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters, agreed. "We've been able to sit down with business," he said. "It's a different way of operating." The mercury bill was one of five environmental measures that passed the legislature and were signed into law that year. Gryniewski described the session as "one of the most successful we've had in a decade," despite a split legislature (Democrats controlled the House, Republicans the Senate) and a $2.6 billion state deficit (The Seattle Times, May 15, 2003).

As of 2012, the Environmental Priorities Coalition includes 25 groups. Members identify three or four priorities each year and pool their resources to promote those goals. "It’s a reinvention of the table that brought us all together 40 years ago," says Crooks.

"Ground Zero" for Greens

Crooks doesn’t have to look far to see evidence of the progress that’s been made on environmental issues in recent years. She can start with the building where she works: the historic, art-deco Vance Building at 3rd Avenue and Union Street, constructed in 1929 and retrofitted in 2006 to meet the "Gold" standard set by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. The tall double-hung windows were weather-stripped and refurbished. Ceiling fans and window shades were added to help with cooling. Low-flow toilets and motion sensor faucets were installed. Old carpeting was removed to expose original terrazzo floors. The floors are not only beautiful but easy to clean with soap and water. The steam heating system was refurbished and valves added to the radiators, so temperatures can be adjusted individually. There’s an area in the basement where tenants can store their bikes and a shower and changing area so they can clean up after riding to work.

The 14-story building has become "ground zero" for the green movement in Seattle. No fewer than 18 environmental organizations have their headquarters there, among them Washington Conservation Voters, co-tenants with Washington Environmental Council on the top floor. "Being here allows us to walk the walk," Crooks told the Puget Sound Business Journal in 2008. "It allows us to live and breathe our work. Our work is inspiring, and this is an inspiring place to work."

The Environmental Priorities Coalition has helped push through the legislature a number of laws to encourage "green" building. Among them: a 2005 requirement that state-funded buildings be built to LEED standards, and, in 2009, a sweeping energy efficiency bill. These measures, Crooks says, have "helped tilt the playing field," creating more of a demand for environmentally sensitive buildings and consequently making the field more competitive. She notes that her husband, a structural engineer, is in the building industry, "so I hear about this from his perspective" (Crooks interview).

Wins, Losses

Among other recent victories for environmentalists was the passage of a 2011 law banning the use of coal tar as a sealant for roadways in Washington. Coal tar leaves a toxic residue that washes off and contributes to stormwater pollution in lakes and waterways. The law, the first in the nation, is being used as a model in other states.

On the other hand, in the same session, the legislature refused to impose a fee on the sale of products that contaminate stormwater (primarily petroleum, fertilizers, and herbicides). Money collected through the measure would have been used to finance clean water projects. "It's only fair to ask polluters to pay their share of the cleanup costs," Crooks told the Kitsap Sun at the start of the session in January 2011. The Environmental Priorities Coalition had made such a bill its top goal for three years in a row. Its repeated failure, so far, has been a major disappointment.

Crooks cites the stormwater issue as an example of the increasing complexity of environmental problems. The smokestacks and sewer outfalls that were once the most evident sources of air and water pollution have, for the most part, been controlled. The remaining sources are more diffuse and more difficult to curb. They’re also less dramatic. A group of forlorn children standing on a beach by a sign warning them that the water was polluted spurred the cleanup of Lake Washington in the 1950s. It’s harder to galvanize public opinion when the problem involves something as seemingly mundane as rain falling on roofs, parking lots, and driveways.

While the problems have become more complex, the debate about how to solve them has become more partisan. "It’s disappointing how partisan all politics has become," Crooks says. "It makes it harder to connect with what I think are the core issues that people in this state care about." She points out that it was a Republican, President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1944), who established the Environmental Protection Agency. Nixon also signed nearly a dozen major environmental bills during his term in office, including the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (often called the Magna Carta of the nation’s environmental laws). The act’s main sponsor was a Democrat, Washington’s Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983). On the state level, Washington Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) worked with both Democrats and his fellow Republicans to advance environmental causes. That kind of bipartisan cooperation is much less common now.

Still, looking ahead, Crooks strikes an optimistic note. The old argument about "jobs versus the environment" has flamed out, she says. "The public doesn’t believe it anymore. The spotted owl conversation -- that was heating up when I got to Washington state. Now there’s more of a feeling that we don’t have to choose; we can have jobs and a healthy environment." Some legislators and decision makers in the state capitol still represent business from the perspective of where it has been, "but where business is going is toward clean industry."

She adds that environmentalists, for their part, have gotten better at recognizing that long-term change comes through building coalitions and working with new partners. "I like to think I played a role in fostering that change," she says. Not that it’s been easy: "Working together takes work."


Sources: Cassandra Tate interview with Joan Crooks, February 2, 2012, Seattle; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Thomas, Joan K. (1931-2011)" (by Dee Arntz), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 2012); Walt Woodward, "State Environmental Council Faces Crucial Meeting," The Seattle Times, December 20, 1967, p. 13; Susan Gilmore, "Wimmer at 75," Ibid., June 15, 1985, p. A-10; Woodward, "Environmental Group Withstands Test," Ibid., , May 14, 1968, p. 13; Woodward, "Environmental Council to Emerge As Mighty Force at Session -- Or Die," Ibid., September 20, 1968, p. 16: "Council Upset," Ibid., April 17, 1969, p. 38; Woodward, "Environmental Bills Fare Poorly," Ibid., April 11, 1969, p. 13; Eric Pryne, "Environmental Council Sows Seeds of Industry Cooperation," Ibid., September 25, 1992, p. A-1; "Longtime Members Greenpeace, Zero Population Growth Drop Out," Ibid., October 15, 1992, p. A-1; Jean Godden, "Pipeline Is Dividing Old Friends," Ibid., August 25, 1995, A-19; Associated Press, "Locke Signs 5 Measures on Environmental Issues," Ibid., May 15, 2003, p. B-8; "Our Member Organizations," Environmental Priorities Coalition website accessed February 2012 (www.environmentalpriorities.org); "Two Wins for Washington’s Waters," Washington Environmental Council website accessed February 2012 (http://wecprotects.org); Jane Meyer Brahm, "Graying Buildings: Redo Turns Aging Vance Building into Magnet for Eco-Minded Tenants," Puget Sound Business Journal, April 18, 2008 (www.bizjournals.com); Deirdre Gregg, "Ray of Light in Washington State's New Energy Law," Ibid., May 3, 2009; "Wash. Enviros Pushing Fee on Stormwater Pollution," Kitsap Sun, January 31, 2011 (www.kitsapsun.com).

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