On February 12, 1970, the Washington State Senate votes to authorize the formation of a new Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE). It will be formed largely by consolidating four other state agencies, and will be initially staffed by about 173 people. Washington's Department of Ecology preceded the federal government's similar Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and also made history as the first such state-level organization. The trail-blazing agency went on to serve as a model for many other states that would follow the same path.
Earth's Day in the Legislature
By the late-1960s awareness about environmental issues was gaining considerable traction amongst the general population. In 1967 the Washington Environmental Council was formed to address policy matters in this realm, and by April 22, 1970, the celebration of the first Earth Day effectively focused national attention on related concerns. In between those two watershed events came another momentous development: Washington became the very first state to officially authorize the establishment of a Department of Ecology. Along the way Governor Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925) saw that:
“Here in Washington state the environmental movement was strong and deep but splintered into scores of competing organizations. ... I decided to call a special session in 1970, concentrating on environmental protection. In preparation we held a meeting at Crystal Mountain in September of 1969. Representatives of the Washington Environmental Council, legislative leaders and appropriate state department heads gathered to discuss environmental challenges. In two days of discussion, over 60 proposals were identified. ... Six issues emerged with overwhelming support. Leading the list was creation of a Department of Environmental Quality. Environmental leaders agreed to focus on these six issues; legislators promised to give priority hearing to these bills, and department heads drafted legislation” (Dan Evans).
Washington’s 41st legislature of 1969 had already finished its main business and ended its regular session when Evans -- and his Chief of Staff (and future state Supreme Court Justice), James Dolliver (1924-2004) -- decided to call the legislators back for a special session that began on January 12, 1970. Their proposal was to form a Department of Environmental Quality. The House of Representatives quickly passed House Bill 47 and it then fell to the Senate to do their concomitant part.
Five Thousand Telegrams
After much senatorial stalling and wrangling -- and with pressure applied by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times, and KING-TV -- the public now weighed in. Evans recalled that suddenly
“we were hearing mightily from the people. Five thousand telegrams flooded the Capitol ... phone lines were jammed and bills began to move. Ultimately five of the six priority bills passed and the sixth, shoreline management, was adopted by initiative the same year. The State Senate insisted on a name change for the new proposed department; so it was officially designated the Department of Ecology. The legislature received deserved credit for [a] stunning environmental session, all accomplished in 32 days” (Dan Evans).
And thus, by passing the Engrossed Senate Bill 1 -- which consolidated four previously existing organizations (the Water Pollution Control Commission, Water Resources, the Department of Water Resources, and the Department of Health’s Solid Waste Section and Air Quality Control division) -- Washington became the first state to boast a Department of Ecology.
A Pioneering Agency
The agency began, effectively, on July 1, 1970, under its first director John Biggs (d. 1990). Biggs had been the director of the Game Department, and a member of the Water Pollution Control Commission. Biggs and his initial staff of 172 employees -- who were brought over from those predecessor agencies -- soon set up shop at their new headquarters based in the Abbott Raphael Hall on Saint Martin’s College (now University) campus (5300 Pacific Avenue SE) in the town of Lacey.
With this leadership the legislature would, in 1971, build on this momentum with the passage of additional progressive bills authorizing the Model Litter Control Act and the Coastal Protection Act, and the State Environmental Policy Act. Again, Evans had good cause to be proud of the organization’s legacy and the visionary leadership displayed at that time: “As the department built its reputation, it became the model used by many other states. We were asked by the national [Richard M. Nixon] administration and many governors how to develop a good environmental department” (McLoed).
On December 2, 1970, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began its admirable mission and in time many other states followed.