Van Ness, William J. "Bill" Jr. (1938-2017)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 7/20/2011
  • Essay 9882
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Seattle attorney William J. "Bill" Van Ness Jr. worked under U.S. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983) from 1966 to 1977 on the U.S. Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. He served first as special counsel and then, beginning in 1970, as chief counsel. During his tenure he drafted several pieces of key environmental legislation that became law, including the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) .

Early Years   

Bill Van Ness Jr. was born on January 20, 1938, in Wolf Point, Montana, the son of William J. Van Ness and Mary Armyda Thomas. About 1942 the family moved to Port Orchard (Kitsap County), where his father took a job at the Bremerton Naval Yard. They stayed for three years in Port Orchard, then moved to Chimacum, Washington,  (Jefferson County), a small, unincorporated community located about eight miles south of Port Townsend.  Van Ness attended his early years of grade school in Port Townsend, and graduated from Chimacum High School in 1956.   

He worked full time for a couple of years to pay for college, and graduated from Bellingham’s Western Washington State College (now [2011] Western Washington University) in 1962 with a double major in English and Philosophy. After graduation Van Ness worked for a year, then went to law school at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he served as articles editor on the UW Law Review in his final year.  In 1966 he graduated near the top of his class, and attracted the notice of some of his law professors, who ended up steering his career in a different direction than he was planning.

A Different Direction


Van Ness had a Sterling fellowship to go to Yale Law School, and his goal was to get a J.S.D. in Law and become a law professor. But he first needed to get a job to pay his college bills. He was thinking of staying in Seattle, but soon got a phone call that changed it all. Evidently one or more of his law professors had spotted the young graduate’s potential and passed this information on to U.S. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson. Jackson had become chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs (now the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources) in 1963, and now invited Van Ness to interview for a position as special counsel on the committee.   

Van Ness wasn’t a particular fan of politics and wasn’t particularly interested in moving to Washington, D.C., either, but he needed a job, so he took the interview. He liked what he saw in Jackson, and described his first impressions in a June 2011 interview: "He was a hell of a nice man, with an open mind, and full of common sense" (Phil Dougherty interview).  Jackson was likewise impressed, and offered Van Ness the job. He accepted and moved with his family to the other Washington in August 1966. He found the issues and opportunities presented in his new position invigorating and challenging.  

Alaska Native Land Claims

One of Van Ness’s first assignments involved structuring a settlement of the long-standing Alaska Native land claims.  He began his research in the autumn of 1966 and soon found that there was virtually no information on who the Alaska Natives were, what their claims were, or even how many Alaska Natives there were. Realizing that far more in-depth research was necessary, he got authority to commission the Federal Field Committee for Development Planning to do a study. This committee, which had been formed to deal with reconstruction in southern Alaska after the great Alaska earthquake of 1964, prepared a comprehensive 565-page report in 1968 titled "Alaska Natives and the Land," which addressed virtually all factual questions which could be asked about the Alaska Native issue.   

That same year oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, which made settling Alaska Native land claims more urgent. Thus the timing of the committee’s report, completed late in 1968, couldn’t have been better. It became the basis for hearings and eventually shaped legislation (which Van Ness drafted and Jackson introduced into the Senate) that became known as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Congress passed the act and it was signed by President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) in December 1971.  

ANCSA was a wide-ranging act that paid $962 million to Alaska Natives in exchange for their claims to many of their native lands. The act also transferred approximately 45 million acres of federal land to 12 regional and some 200 village corporations in the state (a 13th regional corporation was later set up in Seattle to handle claims of Alaska Natives no longer living in Alaska). These corporations were formed under the act to manage the lands and to create for-profit business ventures. Since 1971 the Alaska Native corporations have become an important part of Alaska’s economy and provide thousands of jobs to Alaskans as well as millions of dollars for scholarships and cultural programs. In 2009 total revenues for the dozen regional corporations in Alaska were more than $7.2 billion.  

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) 

In 1967 Van Ness took on another project which eventually became the National Environmental Policy Act, more commonly known by its acronym NEPA.  Environmental issues were coming to the forefront in 1960s America, but they were dealt with by multiple agencies with different priorities and approaches that often arrived at conflicting positions. Van Ness realized that there needed to be a process to identify all of the positions and then pinpoint the common goals to provide a basis for a better plan of action and better federal policy and decision-making.  

Jackson, along with Representative John Dingell (b. 1926) of Michigan and others, had introduced legislation in Congress in 1966 to establish an environmental policy council. Van Ness took it a step further. In 1967 he prepared a memo to Jackson that argued the need for a comprehensive national environmental policy, pointing out that there might be one in the future in any event. He drafted legislation that eventually became Senate Bill (S.) 1075, the template for NEPA, and added that his draft was vetted by fellow committee member Daniel Dreyfus: "He had experience that I didn’t have, and kept me grounded in reality. And he was a great critic" (Dougherty interview).  In 1968 Van Ness helped draft an additional report that outlined the need for a uniform approach to national environmental policy. With this background in place, Jackson introduced S. 1075 in the Senate in February 1969.  

The concept of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), now a key component of NEPA, was introduced in April 1969 during Senate hearings on the bill. The purpose of the EIS is to require federal agencies to provide analytic review of proposed major federal actions that would have a significant impact on the surrounding environment. The EIS must identify and address the environmental impact (particularly adverse environmental effects) of the proposed action and examine alternatives to it.  Van Ness, assisted by Dreyfus, drafted the EIS requirement, which ultimately became Section 102 of NEPA. "Nobody seemed to pay much attention to it" [at the time], remarked Van Ness. "I wanted the EIS to be short enough to be easily read and understood by cabinet officers and other federal decision makers" (Dougherty interview).

The Senate passed S. 1075 in July and referred the bill to the House, which had conducted hearings earlier in the year on a similar bill introduced by Dingell. The House passed Dingell’s bill (H.R. 12549) in September, after which the two bills went to a joint Senate-House committee to hammer out their differences. This was accomplished in December 1969, and the House and Senate both passed the final version of the act the week before Christmas. President Richard Nixon signed NEPA into law on January 1, 1970.  

Today NEPA is regarded as a milestone in environmental legislation.  It provides transparency and discipline for decision-making in a process that is open to the public. NEPA legislation has since been adopted by many states (including Washington state) as well as by other nations.

The Alaska Pipeline and Energy Conservation 

Van Ness took the lead in drafting two other significant acts that were enacted in the 1970s: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act and the Energy Policy Conservation Act. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act resulted from the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. There was plenty of oil but no reliable way to get it to the lower 48 states.  Oil companies determined that the cheapest way would be to build a pipeline through Alaska from the Arctic Ocean to Valdez, where the oil could then be shipped south.  

Environmentalists fiercely resisted construction of a pipeline through Alaska. It took the 1973 Arab oil embargo and resulting gas shortages to tip the scales in favor of legislation authorizing construction. "It’s doubtful it would’ve passed if people weren’t forced to sit in long gas lines," Van Ness observed (Dougherty interview). Even then the Senate deadlocked when the act came up for a vote, and it took a tie-breaker vote by Vice President Spiro Agnew (1918-1996) to break the deadlock. President Nixon signed the act in November 1973.  

The Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA), introduced by Senator Jackson in February 1975, was probably the least controversial of the four acts discussed in this essay, and "fairly straightforward," commented Van Ness (Dougherty interview).  It passed the Senate in April, the House in September, and President Gerald Ford (1913-2006) signed it in December 1975. EPCA created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, mandated automobile fuel economy standards, and extended oil price controls until 1979.

Moving On to Private Practice  

By 1977, Van Ness had decided it was time for a change. He had actually considered leaving sooner: "I tried to leave numerous times to go practice law, but Scoop was very persuasive.  He was a fun guy to work with -- great instincts and a great mind. Every time I tried to leave he always persuaded me to stay two more years. The last time I sent him a memo and was pretty firm that it was time for me to move on" (Dougherty interview).  

Van Ness established the firm of Van Ness, Feldman, Curtis and Sutcliffe in 1977, partnering with three other attorneys who had also worked as counsel or chief counsel to various committees in both the House and Senate. The firm specialized in handling energy, environmental, and transportation issues; one of its first clients was the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. He also registered as a lobbyist, but this was not the central focus of the firm’s work. "None of us [at the firm] wanted to be known as a lobbyist," he explained. "We wanted to be known as legislative craftsmen who know the process in the House and Senate and can achieve substantive results" (Dougherty interview). Curtis and Sutcliffe eventually moved on, but Howard Feldman remained with the firm, which became known as Van Ness Feldman.  

In 1988 Van Ness returned to Seattle, opening an office of the firm in the Emerald City the following year. Also in 1988 he became president of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, a position he held until 2008. The foundation, formed in 1983 after Jackson’s sudden death, makes grants and develops initiatives in four areas reflecting issues that Jackson was involved in during his years in Congress: international affairs education, environmental and natural resource management, human rights, and public service. Since it was established, the foundation has committed more than $22 million to nonprofit organizations and educational institutions in both the United States and Russia.

Van Ness also served on the Board of Directors for the University of Washington Medical School for nine years, during a time that the U.S. Department of Justice brought litigation against the UW, alleging massive billing fraud in overbilling government insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. In 2004 the UW and the Department of Justice agreed to a $35 million settlement, but the story remained hot in the press. Later that year the UW Medicine Board named Van Ness head of a committee to review the weaknesses that led to the billing problems and to make recommendations to prevent a recurrence. "The committee’s review was thorough, frank and, in some instances, scathing," reported The Seattle Times when the report came out in 2005. "But it put the issue to bed," concluded Van Ness (Dougherty interview).

Van Ness married Patricia "Pat" O’Meara (b. 1940) in 1959 and they had four children: Tamara, Keith, Douglas, and Justin. Into his seventies Van Ness went into his law office several days a week and worked from home as needed. When not working he enjoyed spending time at his beach cabin on Marrowstone Island in Jefferson County with his grandchildren, gardening, wood-carving, and fishing in Alaska. Bill Van Ness died on November 22, 2017, at age 79.


Environmental Policy and NEPA: Past, Present and Future ed. by Larry Canter and Ray Clark (Boca Raton, FLorida:  St. Lucie Press, 1997), 28-31;  Editorial, "Moving UW Forward After Billing Scandal -- The Newspaper's View," The Seattle Times, July 22, 2005, p. B-6; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Jackson, Henry M. 'Scoop' (1912-1983)" (by Kit Oldham) (accessed June 28, 2011); Julie Stricker, "ANCSA Alaska Native Regional Corporations Holding Strong," Alaska Business Monthly website accessed June 28, 2011 (; "History of ANCSA," ANCSA at 40 website accessed June 25, 2011 (; "Bill Summary & Status, 94th Congress (1975-1976), S. 622," Library of Congress website accessed June 26, 2011 (; "Program Areas," Henry M. Jackson Foundation website accessed June 25, 2011 (;  Ron Spatz interview with William Van Ness Jr., LitSite Alaska website accessed June 25, 2011 (;  "History of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System," Trans-Alaska Pipeline System Renewal EIS, website accessed June 26, 2011 (;  "Six-Member Panel To Investigate Medicare Billing Errors," University of Washington Alumni Association, September 2004, website accessed June 25, 2011 (;   Sam Kalen, "The Devolution of NEPA: How the APA Transformed the Nation's Environmental Policy," 33 Wm & Mary Envtl. L. & Pol'y Review 483 (2009), William & Mary Law School Scholarship Repository website accessed June 15, 2011 (;  Phil Dougherty telephone interview with Bill Van Ness, June 27, 2011, Seattle, Washington;  Bill Van Ness email to Phil Dougherty, July 12, 2011, in possession of Phil Dougherty, Sammamish, Washington; "The Passing of William Van Ness, Jr.," November 22, 2017, Van Ness Feldman website accessed December 2, 2017 ( Note: This entry was updated on December 2, 2017.

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