Arum, John B. (1961-2010)

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 2/26/2012
  • Essay 10044
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John Arum was an environmental attorney and outdoorsman who gained prominence in his adopted state of Washington as an advocate for wilderness preservation and Native American tribal rights. He worked to protect wetlands, forests, and other wild areas from development, often donating his time on such cases. He was a longtime board member of the Washington Environmental Council. He negotiated what was hailed as a landmark settlement of a dispute between Central Washington farmers and environmentalists over irrigation and improving stream flow for fish. He also represented the Makah Indian Tribe during its prolonged and controversial attempt to hunt gray whales. Aside from environmental law, mountain climbing was his passion. He had scaled more than 80 of the state’s highest peaks when he apparently fell to his death on a solo climb in North Cascades National Park. The five-day search that led to his body received wide-spread media coverage, in part because his father was a world renowned boxing promoter. But environmentalists and tribes around the country knew him not as Bob Arum’s son, but as a champion in his own right, a skilled and determined lawyer who made a difference.

Loving Nature, Heading West

John B. Arum was born June 23, 1961, in New York City, the first child of Robert "Bob" (b. 1931) and Barbara Arum. His father graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School and worked in the U.S. Justice Department under Attorney General Robert Kennedy (1925-1968). Young John was precocious, according to his father, reading before his second birthday. He also was drawn to nature. At age 16, he asked his parents to send him to wilderness camp. "After that, he wasn’t a New York kid anymore," Bob Arum said (Iole).

Drawn by the wilder terrain of the West, John Arum moved across country to attend Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and went on to law school at the University of Washington. By then, his father had left the Justice Department, worked for famed lawyer and author Louis Nizer (1902-1994), started his own law firm, and begun gaining fame and fortune promoting high-profile boxing matches. After founding Top Rank Incorporated in 1973, Bob Arum arranged bouts featuring Muhammad Ali (b. 1942) and many other world champions. He made millions of dollars packaging fights for television, something he was still doing in 2012.

The younger Arum preferred outdoor sports, and they led him to pursue a career in environmental law. He got his degree in 1990 from the UW, where he was associate editor of the law review. "He decided very, very early on in his career that he didn’t want to make the big bucks, although he had the intellectual acumen to do that," said Matt Bergman, who attended Reed with Arum and became a lifelong friend. "He made the career choice to do the kind of legal work that he enjoyed and that was meaningful to him" (Johnson).

Environmental and Tribal Cases

During summers while he was in law school, Arum worked as a clerk at the Seattle law firm of Ziontz, Chestnut, Varnell, Berley and Slonim. The firm was known for representing Native American tribes, especially defending their treaty rights. The partners were impressed enough with Arum that they offered him a job after he graduated. Marc Slonim, one of the firm’s partners, later recalled that Arum was willing to join them on two conditions -- that he could take environmental cases, often pro bono, and that he could have as much as a month or two off at a time for outdoor adventures. The partners agreed, and Arum took the job he would have for his entire career.

Arum did his share of tribal-rights work from the start, including assisting Slonim in winning a landmark 1999 U.S. Supreme Court case, Minnesota v. Mille Lacs, that preserved hunting and fishing rights guaranteed to a band of Chippewas in an 1837 treaty. That was a powerful victory for tribes in other states, including Washington, who were seeking to regain or preserve rights guaranteed by nineteenth-century treaties.

But Arum also passionately took on environmental cases. Much of that work was done for free, initially. Gradually he brought conservation-minded clients to the firm, including the Washington Environmental Council (WEC), a non-profit advocacy group, one he served as a board member. "He really developed the environmental practice here," Slonim said (Drosendahl interview).

Protecting Wetlands and a Forest

In 1992, Arum was involved in one of the region’s biggest wetlands battles and emerged on the winning side. The Port of Skagit County wanted to develop 83 acres, nearly half of them wetlands, to form an industrial park near the Burlington airport. On May 21, 1992, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave the port the permit it sought. Arum, as the attorney representing the Washington Environmental Council, Friends of the Earth, People for Puget Sound, and the Skagit, Seattle and North Cascades Audubon Societies, contended that the Corps had acted illegally because it failed to require the port to produce a plan to mitigate wetlands damage caused by the proposed project. In November Arum filed suit against the Corps, the Army, and the Environmental Protection Agency. By year’s end, the Corps had suspended the permit.

Arum also represented conservation groups in a 1996 dispute over plans for logging in Loomis State Forest in Okanogan County. At 144,000 acres, the forest was the largest of the state’s so-called trust properties, land meant to generate income for groups such as schools. Fifteen school districts in the county and from timber areas around the state sued to force the Department of Natural Resources to offer timber from the forest for sale and to develop a plan to maximize profits from the land. The conservationists managed to block the plan.

In November 1999, Arum was named an "Environmental Hero" by the Washington Environmental Council for donating thousands of hours of his time to a variety of projects, "including plans to protect the Loomis Forest from clear-cutting and to prevent development along a federally protected wild and scenic stretch of the Skagit River" (Steele).

Stopping a Resort in the Methow

Less than a month later Arum scored another victory. The R. D. Merrill Company abandoned plans for an upscale resort community on 1,200 acres near Mazama, a tiny town in the remote and scenic Methow Valley just east of North Cascades National Park. The development, named Arrowleaf, would have included 560 homes and a golf course. Arum, on behalf of environmental groups, fought the project on the basis of how much it would affect the area’s aquifer and streams. Finally Merrill gave up in frustration -- the third owner to be foiled in developing the property.

Attempts to develop those 1,200 acres had begun in 1974 when Aspen Ski Company bought the land, intending to build a destination ski resort called Early Winters. Frustrated by years of legal challenges, Aspen sold Early Winters to a Bellevue-based group headed by Harry Hosey. That group ran out of money battling the environmentalists in 1992. Merrill acquired the property at a foreclosure auction.

Arrowleaf had been carefully planned, and some valley residents thought it preferable to the kind of piecemeal development that could result if Merrill sold the property in smaller pieces. Although victorious, Arum did not claim the Methow was saved forever. "The future’s not certain," he said. "But I feel it’s more certain than it has been for it for 25 years" (Solmon).

The Right to Hunt Whales

One of Arum’s longest running cases involved the Makah Indian Tribe, which lives on the northern tip of Washington’s coastline. The Makahs have an ancient whaling tradition, and their right to hunt the marine mammals was guaranteed in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay. But they had not hunted whales since the 1920s, when commercial whaling nearly wiped out the gray whale. When that animal was removed from the Endangered Species List in 1994, the Makahs saw an opportunity to reconnect with their tradition. They announced their intent to resume hunting whales as their ancestors had done, from a cedar canoe with a harpoon. The lines were drawn for an epic legal battle -- treaty rights vs. animal rights.

The federal government chose to honor the 1855 treaty, and major conservation groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club did not object to the Makah whaling plan, even though the hunts would be in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. But there was widespread and determined opposition. American, British, and Australian animal-rights groups, along with tour-boat operators, kayakers, and Congressman Jack Metcalf (1927-2007), a Republican from Whidbey Island, sued to stop the plan. They contended that federal agencies had ignored laws in approving the proposed hunts and that more time was needed to study the environmental impact. In September 1998, with Arum representing the tribe, the Makahs prevailed. U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess of Tacoma approved the tribe’s plan to kill up to 20 gray whales in five years. The whale hunt could proceed.

After two unsuccessful tries and attempts by protestors in boats to stop them, Makah whalers killed a 30-foot gray whale on May 17, 1999. It was their first successful whale hunt in more than 70 years. While tribal members celebrated and spoke of how they felt reconnected to their culture, there was considerable outrage elsewhere. Several unsuccessful hunts and more confrontations with protestors occurred the following spring. Then in June 2000, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco suspended federal approval of the hunts, ordering a new study of environmental risks.

Arum called it a limited ruling but acknowledged "there is a psychological effect. It puts back into play again all the issues that were raised before" (Bernton). Two tries at reversing the court’s opinion failed. Although Arum contended the tribe was being denied its treaty rights and continued to try for federal approval, there would be no more legal hunts in his lifetime.

Settlement on Manastash Creek

Not all of Arum’s victories were won in court. A settlement he negotiated with about 100 farmers along Manastash Creek west of Ellensburg was hailed as a triumph of collaboration over litigation. At issue was how the farmers’ diversion of water for irrigation was harming the stream for steelhead trout. In 2001, the Washington Environmental Council notified the farmers of its intent to sue them under the federal Endangered Species Act. The farmers, concerned about their livelihood, were initially hostile and distrustful when Arum, representing the council, began meeting with them to discuss the situation.

More than two years later, the two sides announced they were working together on the problem. Four years after that, they signed an agreement. The resulting project, expected to cost more than $6 million in state and federal funds, would consolidate irrigation ditches used by farmers and ranchers, install fish screens, and gradually improve fish habitat by keeping the snow-fed stream from going dry in the summer. Besides the irrigators and the Washington Environmental Council, the agreement included a conservation district, state and federal agencies, and the Yakama Indian Tribe.

Farmers and environmentalists both said they were able to work together because they truly listened to each other. Arum said that was far better than going to trial. "You can be more creative than in a situation where you are asking a court to resolve the problem," he said. "Everyone comes out feeling like they won. There are no losers. In the long run, if you want lasting solutions the community buys into, this is only way to do it" (Lester, 2007)

The Manastash settlement earned praise as a model for resolving disputes between environmentalists and local stakeholders. Jay Manning, chief of staff for Governor Chris Gregoire (b. 1947) and a Washington Environmental Council board member along with Arum, said the lawyer was a key to the deal. "He went over on his own time, walked the streams, got to know how they used the water better than they did," Manning said about Arum. "The work he did was truly impressive" (Thompson).

A Fatal Fall in the North Cascades

When he wasn’t practicing law, Arum liked to be doing strenuous and challenging things outdoors. He had set a personal goal of climbing Washington’s 100 highest peaks and had made it to the top of more than 80 when he headed out alone on August 28, 2010, to scale Storm King, an 8,515-foot mountain in North Cascades National Park.

It was not uncommon for him to climb alone, although he often climbed, hiked, kayaked, and went back-country skiing with friends and with his wife, Susan Hormann (b. 1961). They both were 32 and living on Vashon Island when they met one morning on the passenger ferry to downtown Seattle. They fell in love, moved in together, and five years later were married. They loved the outdoors so much that they spent their honeymoon kayaking in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands. The year they turned 45, they spent three weeks hiking by themselves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, starting by being flown to a site near the Brooks Range and ending by riding inflatable canoes down the wild Hulahula River. Over the first 10 years of their marriage, they kayaked the Pacific Coast, two weeks at a time, all the way from Alaska’s Icy Strait to Vancouver Island.

They were planning to celebrate their 11th wedding anniversary by climbing Jack Mountain, another Cascade peak, the weekend after Arum went up Storm King. But he didn’t return on August 29 as expected. His wife reported him missing and National Park Services workers began searching for him on August 30. Relatives, including his father and mother, traveled to the park and anxiously waited for news. The effort eventually involved 12 rangers and mountaineers, search dogs, and two helicopters.

Three days after they started looking, searchers on foot found Arum’s backpack, apparently where he had set it, at about 7,600 feet on a climbing route along the mountain’s south side. The next day aerial searchers sighted his daypack at about 8,000 feet on the north side, the final approach to the top. On September 3, the fifth day of the search, a National Park Service helicopter spotted Arum’s body, about 300 feet lower than the daypack in an extremely steep area with treacherous footing. Rescuers concluded he had fallen, probably on August 28. He was 49 years old.  

Remembered as a Brilliant Lawyer

As news of Arum’s death spread, colleagues, clients, and adversaries praised a professional career they never expected to end so soon. They spoke of his ability to absorb and master large amounts of information and his extraordinary drive and dedication to saving wilderness. Several called him brilliant. State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark (b. 1946) said Arum’s death was "a huge loss for the state and for conservation." Goldmark noted that although Arum and the Department of Natural Resources sometimes were at odds, "we all agreed that the beauty of Washington's wild places was worth protecting. We have lost a friend who never stopped advocating for the public interest" (Thompson). Clifford Traisman, the WEC’s Olympia lobbyist, added that Arum was "the epitome of volunteerism" (Tibbits, September 5, 2010).

Several hundred people gathered for a memorial service October 2, 2010, at Daybreak Star Center in Seattle’s Discovery Park. The setting, a non-profit facility run by the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, underscored Arum’s relationship with Native Americans. Slonim, his law partner, said Arum had become one of the nation’s pre-eminent tribal attorneys, and that notion was reinforced by the presence of representatives from the Makah, Colville, and Swinomish tribes. "The environment, to the Makah people, is our way of life, and we’re glad John was on our side," said tribal member Michael Lawrence. Virgil Seymour Sr. of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation said, "The days of cowboys and Indians are over. Our battles are fought in the courts now. We are proud to call John our warrior" (McClure).

Robert McClure, a veteran environmental reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later InvestigateWest, a nonprofit organization dedicated to investigative journalism, wrote about seeing Arum in action. "I was awed by his ability to completely immerse himself in a case, mastering the obscure details of timber harvesting and stream flow and biology and geology and all the other ‘ologies,’" McClure wrote. "I could tell he was a genius."

A Posthumous Victory on Maury Island

At the time of his death, Arum was representing multiple groups in several environmental battles. One was to protect Sequalitchew Creek and the Nisqually Delta from the effects of a proposed gravel-mine expansion near DuPont. Another was to block a coal-export port at Cherry Point near Bellingham, with environmentalists contending it would harm a genetically distinct type of Pacific herring.

Closest to his Vashon home was one of the one of the region’s longest environmental disputes. It involved plans by Glacier Northwest to greatly expand a sand and gravel mine and develop a barge port on Maury Island. Opposed to the project was Preserve Our Islands, a group of Maury and Vashon residents that contended the project would harm marine life in Puget Sound. As their first lawyer, Arum helped win a stay in King County Superior Court that temporarily stopped dock construction, buying time for the group’s legal challenges to proceed. "Without that stay, we may well have lost Maury for good," said Preserve Our Islands leader Ann Carey. "John’s work gave us that fighting chance" (Johnson).

Barely two months after Arum’s death, the mine’s owner, CalPortland (formerly Glacier Northwest), agreed to sell the 236-acre property to King County for $36 million, rather than continue to try to develop it. The parcel included 250 acres of Madrona forest and a mile of shoreline with habitat for endangered chinook salmon. Together with the county’s adjacent Maury Island Marine Park, it created the Sound’s largest protected shoreline.


Lynn Thompson, "John Arum Noted For His Environmental Work," The Seattle Times, September 6, 2010, p. B-6; Natalie Johnson, "John Arum, A Lawyer And Activist, Lived Passionately and Fully," Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber, September 7, 2010 (; Kevin Iole, "Arum Finds Solace In His Work," Yahoo!, September 11, 2010, website accessed January 30, 2012 (; Robert McClure, "A Lesson On How To Live A Life: John Arum, 1961-2010," InvestigateWest, October 4, 2010, website accessed February 20, 2012 (; Glenn Drosendahl interview with Marc Slonim, Seattle, February 17, 2012; Tom Brown, "North Americn (sic) Free Trade Agreement -- Trade Pact Hits Home," The Seattle Times, September 13, 1992, p. C-1; Eric Pryne, "Corps Suspends Wetlands Permit -- Environmentalists Trip Skagit County," Ibid., December 31, 1992, p. B-1; "Expert Witness Says He’s No Expert," Spokane Spokesman-Review, March 2, 1996, p. B-6; Karen Dorn Steele, "Dawn Mining Opponent Gets ‘Hero’ Award," Ibid., November 20, 1999, p. B-3; Chris Solomon, "No Peace In The Valley," The Seattle Times, December 14, 1999, p. A-1; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Makah Whaling," (by Kit Oldham), (accessed February 20, 2010); Danny Westneat, "Lawsuit: U.S. Worked With Tribe, Ignored Laws In Allowing Whale Hunt," The Seattle Times, May 22, 1998, p. A-12; Peggy Anderson, Associated Press, "Makah Whaling Plan Is Given Go-Ahead from Federal Judge," Ibid., September 22, 1998, p. B-1; Paul Shukovsky, "Makah Postpone Whale Hunt," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 15, 1998, p. A-1; Lynda V. Mapes and Chris Solomon, "Makahs Celebrate Catch," The Seattle Times, May 18, 1999, p. A-1; Hal Bernton and Lynda V. Mapes, "Court Voids Approval Of Makah Whale Hunt," Ibid., June 10, 2000, p. A-1; Lewis Kamb, "Tribe’s Whalers Await Chance To Hunt Again," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 17, 2004, p. A-1; Kamb, "Makahs Will Seek Whaling Waiver," Ibid., February 13, 2005, p. A-1; David Lester, "A Solution That Helps Farmers and Fish," Yakima Herald-Republic, October 8, 2003, p. B-1; Lester, "Collaboration Trumps Litigation On Manastash Creek Restoration," Ibid., December 23, 2007, p. B-1; Glenn Drosendahl interview with Susan Hormann, Vashon Island, February 22, 2012; George Tibbits, Associated Press, "Searchers Find Packs Of Missing Climber," The Seattle Times, September 3, 2010, p. B-3; Tibbits, "Rescuers Plan Retrieval Of Climber’s Body," Ibid., September 5, 2010, p. B-2; Rob Carson, "Gravel Mine Gives Way To Protected Shoreline," Tacoma News Tribune, November 11, 2010, p. A-1.

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