Arntz, Deirdre "Dee" (b. 1942)

  • By Elise Fogel
  • Posted 10/05/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9941

Dee Arntz is one of Washington state's foremost wetlands advocates. She worked in government throughout her career, specializing in program management and grant administration, and when she moved to Seattle in the late 1980s, she focused her expertise on the environmental movement, working tirelessly to learn about and advocate on behalf of wetlands. She co-founded the Washington Wetlands Network (Wetnet), organizing a statewide coalition of wetlands advocates in organizations and local governments. She enjoyed learning about the complicated issues that surround wetlands and has been energetically devoted to spreading her enthusiasm. A skilled networker and writer, in 2015 she published a book titled Mothers of Nature: The Extraordinary Women Conservationists of Washington, about local environmental leaders who are women.

Early life and Education

Deirdre Elizabeth Parker was born in Geneva, New York on August 6, 1942. She spent most of her childhood in Kingston, Pennsylvania, where her maternal grandparents were engaged in the local anthracite coal business. Her father supported the family, including Dee and her three younger siblings, by running a materials-handling business related to coal. The family took annual summer trips to lakes in the Poconos, and Dee’s mother was always fond of birds.

When Arntz reached high school, she was sent to a small Methodist seminary school in Wyoming where both her parents had attended high school. She was a reporter for the school newspaper, head of the women’s organization, and excelled in advanced classes in history and English, an early outlet for her writing skills.

After high school, Dee attended Newton College of the Sacred Heart in Newton, Massachusetts. She majored in Political Science and after graduation got a job in Washington D.C. working for the public health service. There she started introducing herself as Dee instead of Deirdre.

Life in Government 

She was drawn to government work because she enjoyed learning the ins and outs of a complicated process that many people don’t clearly understand. Dee worked in a variety of civil service positions in Washington D.C., during the early 1960s. As a representative of the Office of Civil Rights, she enforced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and witnessed racism first-hand, including being barred from eating in a restaurant in Virginia with Carolyn Davis, her African American boss. Arntz was shocked by such blatant racism. She eventually got a job with Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in its Community Development Program, writing regulations and handbooks associated with their Section 8 programs for low-income households. Arntz had inherited her mother’s interest in birds, and often visited nearby marshes for the birdwatching. 

During this time her boss introduced her to another HUD employee, Bill Arntz (b. 1925). Bill and Dee were married in 1970, and promptly took off on a two-year tour around the world, visiting Majorca, Athens, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Australia, and Fiji, among other countries. Extended trips would become a regular feature in their lives together.

When the Arntzes returned to the United States, the Department of Energy offered Bill a job in San Francisco and Dee was also hired to administer grants and conduct trainings in Northern California. They readjusted to the brisk pace of life in the United States and hunkered down to work, although they hadn’t quite shed the travel bug. Dee continued to excel as a government manager --  it satisfied both her curious, active mind and her desire to make a positive difference in people’s lives. Dee was inspired to go back to school and earn her master's degree in Anthropology at San Francisco State University, doing her thesis research on the Bay Area community of Tongan immigrants.

In 1984, when Dee was 42, the Arntz’s embarked on another adventure. From San Francisco they located an antique Dutch boat in Holland and flew to pick it up. The next two years were spent traveling the rivers and canals of Europe, receiving visitors and making new friends along the way. Bill’s past as a sailor enabled him to commandeer the boat and Dee was in a prime spot to observe the wildlife and birds on the water. Highlights of the trip included getting caught in a mistral storm on the Rhone and visiting French vineyards. Eventually it was time to return home to San Francisco and back to work

Meet Me in Seattle

In 1987, Bill retired and the Arntzes moved to Seattle to be closer to Bill’s daughter and grandkids. They bought a house on Phinney Ridge and started making a new life for themselves. Faced with getting to know people in a new city, Bill and Dee started volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium. They were assigned to the intertidal birds exhibit, which Dee was eventually hired to help run. Despite her passion for the animals, manual tasks such as digging up cattails made her glad she hadn’t majored in biology and become a research biologist. She preferred the behind the scenes work.

Arntz soon got a job as the Community Development Block Grant coordinator for the City of Bellevue, which she was very well-suited for, thanks to her extensive experience with government grants. Meanwhile, she was getting more involved in the environmental community in Seattle, and she and Barbara Douma (b. 1951), a friend she'd met at the Seattle Aquarium, decided to do Seattle Audubon Society’s two-year Master Birder Program. Arntz had been interested in birds for her entire life, but she knew there was a lot to learn, and she wanted to be an expert. She also took a class with Estella Leopold (b. 1927) at the University of Washington’s Institute for Environmental Studies, which included a trip to the Nisqually Delta Wildlife Refuge. She was horrified to learn about the proposal to build a port in such a peaceful natural place and her activist side was awakened. She joined the board of the Nisqually Delta Association, working with Mary Martin and Janet Dawes (b. 1932), among others, to reduce the harmful effects of development.

A Wetlands Advocate Emerges  

Based on her interest in the Nisqually Delta, the head of the Seattle Conservation Committee suggested she pursue wetlands conservation. She took the suggestion and delved into the complicated rules governing wetlands. Her background in government administration proved a perfect base upon which to build up her knowledge. Wetlands are regulated at all levels of government, and people are often confused about how to designate and manage them. The Washington state Growth Management Act was passed in 1990 and the first thing it mandated was an ordinance for wetlands. Dee entered the world of wetlands management just when interest in the field was gaining momentum.

Dee Arntz and Barbara Douma saw a need for more education on wetlands, so in 1991 they formed the Washington Wetlands Network (Wetnet) under the umbrella of the Seattle Audubon Society to bring together individuals, governments, and organizations for the benefit of wetlands. They raised an initial $400,000 in grants to start the program, and started holding workshops for government officials and the general public in collaboration with Audubon societies throughout King, Snohomish, and Whatcom counties. A general curriculum was developed, and local wetlands specialists, commissioners, and developers individualized the program to specific areas. Their primary concern was teaching people how to recognize wetlands, which was surprisingly complicated. Washington state government didn’t have the resources to do this work, but that didn’t mean they were receptive to others taking over the job.  Wetnet was greeted with antagonism in some places.

Wetnet and its Work

Wetnet, an entirely volunteer-based program, obtained a critical mass of wetlands advocates by bringing together people from a variety of conservation and political organizations. By 1996 it had 1,000 individuals and 300 organizations involved. Not only did Wetnet attract a variety of wetlands experts, it also welcomed the involvement of people with less expertise who just wanted to make a difference. A membership newsletter titled the Wetnet Gazette started making the rounds as a way to communicate actions to a diverse membership. 

In 1992 Dee Arntz and Barbara Douma won the Seattle Audubon Society Award for founding Wetnet. Wetnet was also recognized by the Clean Water Network and Audubon Societies across the country for the groundbreaking work it was doing. Dee kept busy during these years, working a full-time job (as Community Development Block Grant coordinator for the City of Bellevue) as well as directing an organization on the side. She had a specific goal -- to educate people about wetlands and thereby protect these important lands -- and she stayed focused on achieving it.

Dee utilized her writing skills on behalf of wetlands by co-writing several publications with Barbara Douma, including Wetnet Citizen’s Bibliography: An Annotated Guide to Current Publications on Wetlands and Wetlands Protection in 1993 and Wetnet Citizen’s Report: Local Wetland Protection in Puget Sound: An Assessment of Critical Areas Regulations Adopted by Twenty-Five Puget Sound Jurisdictions Under the Growth Management Act in 1994. In 1995 Dee co-wrote with Jennifer Thomas, the Wetland Protection Guide: A Citizen’s Guide to Wetland Protection Before and After the Bulldozer Arrives. It was published with a yellow cover and advocated diplomatic activism:

“Our laws and regulations provide the framework to preserve the integrity of our remaining wetland resources. The Guide explains how to work with existing laws an regulations applicable in Washington state. Our primary focus is the local level. Land use change is site specific and that site is where you live, the neighborhood and the local jurisdiction.

"Land use scenarios or games are played out in cities and counties across the state every day. Sometimes, as a citizen, you watch and sometimes you play and the outcome always matters. The goal is for everyone to win. In this way, we can maintain the quality of life for which our state is renowned” (Guide, 1995).

 These publications were distributed through the Wetnet mailing list.

When changes that would reduce the amount of protected wetlands were proposed to the Federal Manual for Identifying and Delineating Jurisdictional Wetlands, published in 1989, Dee helped organize a letter-writing campaign by writing comment letter templates and circulating them to make it easier for others to weigh in. She prided herself on turning “the comment letter into an art form.” Wetnet and Dee mobilized enormous support against the revised manual on identifying a wetland. More than 75,000 comments were submitted against the proposed changes, and these changes  were never implemented

Wetnet on a Roll 

While Wetnet was gathering speed and impacting the political wetlands climate, Arntz continued to be involved with the local environmental movement in other capacities, by serving on the Board of the Seattle Audubon Society for several years and joining the Washington Environmental Council board, where she served on the Development Committee and for several years wrote grants.

Dee’s history as a government grant reviewer served her well when she flipped to the other side and started writing grants herself. She recognized that wetlands were a trendy subject in the early-to-mid-1990s and that granting agencies were eager to contribute to viable organizations making a difference in the field. Wetnet received a $100,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as grants from the Bullitt Foundation, and the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority. Thanks to these grants, Wetnet was able to hire its first staff member, Christi Norman (b. 1950), to oversee training programs and publications.

In 1995 Dee earned a certificate in Wetlands and Science Management at UW, which would further inform her wetlands work. She also helped found the National Audubon Society’s Wetlands campaign to involved local community groups to protect wetlands.

Wetnet and the Audubon Society

In 1997, Wetnet moved to Audubon Washington amid a flurry of rumors about Wetnet's  financial viability. Wetnet hosted workshops around the state, and the Seattle Audubon leadership never felt comfortable with the organization being a leader in the state, even though it was the largest chapter in Washington. The whole process was emotionally upsetting and draining for Dee Arntz.  

It was time for another trip. In 1996 Dee and Bill took off on a two-year RV trip around the United States. Dee acted as a consultant to the National Audubon Society, visiting people doing wetlands advocacy all over the country and encouraging their work. Dee considers herself a cheerleader at heart and is a firm believer in telling people they’re doing a good job. After losing some confidence in the power of government and becoming disillusioned with the politics of wetlands management, it was energizing for her to see people all over the country persevering on behalf of wetlands. She wrote reports of their actions and sent them back to the National Audubon office, wanting to empower Audubon to take advantage of its broad, active base.

Meanwhile, Wetnet moved under the auspice of Audubon Washington, where Christopher Townsend took over as director and Christi Norman continued to coordinate workshops. On returning from her trip, Arntz continued to be involved to a lesser extent, including helping to write the strategic plan. She was inspired by the Great Texas Birding Trail, and helped initiate the Washington Birding Trail with a $700,000 grant, which Christi Norman went on to lead. Wetnet continued to publish policy papers and longer publications, including Understanding the Role of Wetlands in the Salmon Lifecycle and Between Land and Water: Understanding the Role of Wetlands.

Accolades

Dee Arntz also served on the board of Audubon Washington in the late 1990s when it created the Seward Park Environmental and Audubon Center, built to include a younger and more diverse population in environmental issues. In 1999 Arntz won the National Wetlands Award from the Environmental Law Institute for Outstanding Program Development. On May 12, 1999, State Representative Jay Inslee announced her award to the House of Representatives and officially thanked Dee for her hard work:

“Her dedication to wetland protection has led to major environmental accomplishments at both the state and national level. Ms. Arntz is an example of the enormous impact one citizen can have on the environment. This award is very well-deserved” (Congressional Record).

Christi Norman, a longtime colleague and friend of Dee’s, describes her as an energetic idea person with her finger on the pulse of local issues. She is superb at staying connected to the relevant organizations and people, and at keeping her sights on the bottom line, all while keeping her patience and sense of humor. She has an innate sense of how to connect people, of the importance of being connected to achieve goals. Arntz has remained involved with Audubon Washington, and in 2007 wrote in-depth pamphlet titled Guide to Bird and Community Conservation, which detailed the ways that citizens could protect their local habitats.

Writing (Her)story

After over a decade of intense involvement in the Washington environmental community, Dee noticed that although women have been the backbone of the environmental movement, often as volunteers, they have not received due attention for their efforts and results. In 2002, she had a vision to shine a light on these powerful women working behind the scenes and to show what they have accomplished.

She began conducting interviews with eight of the grand dames of Washington’s environmental movement, eventually conducting over 50 interviews. The book, which she started actively writing in 2008 and was published in 2015, was titled Mothers of Nature: The Extraordinary Women Conservationists of Washington. Dee, with her vast writing experience and networking abilities, was the perfect person to complete such a project.

When she’s not busy working in her attic office, Dee, like many environmental activists before her, enjoys birding as a way to experience the beautiful habitats of the Northwest.


Sources: “1999 National Wetlands Awards Recipients,” Environmental Law Institute website accessed August 18 (http://www.nationalwetlandsawards.org/nwa1999.htm); Dee Arntz and Jennifer Thomas, Wetland Protection Guide: A Citizen’s Guide to Wetland Protection Before and After the Bulldozer Arrives, Audubon Washington website accessed August 30 (http://wa.audubon.org/conservationpolicy_WetNet.html); “Dee Arntz,” Washington Environmental Coalition website accessed August 30, 2011 (http://wecprotects.org/spotlights/dee-arntz); “Christi Norman,” Audubon Washington website accessed August 30 (http://wa.audubon.org/aboutus_staff_ChristiNorman.html); Hon. Jay Inslee, "Congratulating Dee Arntz," Congressional Record,” Vol. 145, Pt. 11, July 1, 1999 to July 15, 1999,” p. 15,556; Elise Fogel telephone interview with Christi Norman, September 26, 2011; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Washington Legislature Enacts Growth Management Act on April 1, 1990,” (by Kit Oldham), http://historylink.org/ (accessed September 30, 2011); “Issues and Action: Washington Wetlands Network,” Audubon Washington website accessed August 15 (http://wa.audubon.org/conservationpolicy_WetNet.html); “Last Chance for Wetlands,” High Country News, April 15, 1996, accessed online on August 18, 2011 (http://www.hcn.org/issues/57/1782); “Seattle Audubon Awards,” Seattle Audubon Society website accessed August 18, 2011 (http://www.seattleaudubon.org/sas/WhoWeAre/AboutUs/History/
SeattleAudubonAwards.aspx).
Note: This essay was updated on February 11, 2016.

Related Topics:   Biographies | Environment | Women's History

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