There are names better known nationally among this year’s recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, announced earlier this week by the White House, but two stand out in terms of service to Washington state and the nation: Billy Frank Jr. and William Ruckelshaus.
Among the 17 recipients who will be honored next Tuesday in Washington, D.C., are names familiar to most — Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and Willie Mays — but in addition to honoring artists and athletes, the Medal of Freedom also is presented to those whose contributions to the nation have played a significant role regarding the environment, education, medicine, public policy and other areas of importance.
Frank, a member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, who died last year at the age of 83, is being honored for his years of work for Indian treaty rights and the environment. Frank, frequently arrested as a young man for fishing — as he believed treaty rights had established in the tribes’ “natural and accustomed places” — was an advocate for those rights, leading “fish-ins” during the fish wars of the 1960s and 1970s in Washington state. The demonstrations and other activism led to the landmark Boldt decision in 1974 that reaffirmed the rights of Indian tribes to act as co-managers with the state in managing the harvest and protection of salmon and other fish.
Ruckelshaus, now a resident of Medina, was selected by President Richard Nixon as the nation’s first director of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and returned to run the agency again under President Ronald Reagan in 1983. Ruckelshaus’ leadership led to the banning of the pesticide DDT and the agreement with the auto industry that required catalytic converters on vehicles to reduce toxic pollutants.
It shouldn’t be surprising that both men, more than crossing paths, worked with each other on several occasions, notes Bob Drewel, the former Snohomish County executive, and himself a community activist. Drewel worked with Frank and continues to work with Ruckelshaus on local and state issues, serving on the board of the Ruckelshaus Center, which works to build consensus on public policy matters.
Frank, Drewel said, following his work on fishing rights, continued to work with tribes and the state and local governments on environmental issues, including issues specific to the tribes and resources in Snohomish County.
“Billy could be in a room with 99 people, and everyone would be listening to him,” Drewel said.
Ruckelshaus commands the same level of respect because of the integrity he has displayed throughout his life, Drewel said, pointing to his decision to stand up to Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Ruckelshaus, then a deputy attorney general in the Justice Department, resigned in 1973 alongside Attorney General Elliott Richardson rather than follow Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Ruckelshaus, through his work with the Ruckelshaus Center, hosted jointly by the University of Washington and Washington State University, routinely brings together parties from business, labor, tribes, government and other backgrounds, often with competing interests. Last year, the center facilitated the work of the Highway 530 Landslide Commission, following the deadly March 2014 Oso landslide.
“He uses that integrity to bring people together and get them talking to solve issues,” Drewel said.
Names with greater familiarity will be honored Tuesday night, but none as important to Washington state than Frank and Ruckelshaus.