William Ruckelshaus, Two-Time EPA Administrator And UW Institute Namesake, Remembered

Jan 10, 2020

The father of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as he was known, passed away on November 27, 2019. His name may be a familiar one if you've been to the University of Wyoming: William Ruckelshaus. The Ruckelshaus Institute is a division of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at UW.

The 1st and 5th EPA Administrator, acting director of the FBI, and one-time deputy attorney general fought for environmental protection and pushed back on President Nixon during the Watergate Scandal. He also had a connection to this state.  

Energy and Natural Resources Reporter Cooper McKim speaks with Harold Bergman, former director of the Ruckelshaus Institute, who helps remember him.

A portrait of Bill Ruckelshaus taken in 2012.
Credit Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming

Harold Bergman: Ruckelshaus was, above all, a very smart and articulate and balanced proponent for environmental protection for valuing the natural resources and nature that we all treasure. He held strong beliefs about how to approach problems, how to solve problems.

He was always in favor of getting all stakeholder interests involved in resolving problems and issues and kind of built a career around collaborative engagement on issues no matter what the issues were.

He used his wisdom and his great sense of humor to de-escalate the situation if there were conflicting points of view. I mean, he was just a master at getting people to work together.

Cooper McKim: How was that set of values used in his record as head of the EPA

HB: Well, I mean, he was, you know, he was the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency twice, once for several years, three years, I think, starting in 1970, when the EPA was first created by the Nixon Administration, and then he was called back to serve again as EPA Administrator during the Reagan administration, being smart and articulate and being very committed to environmental protection and being committed to getting everybody to talk those sorts of challenges. We're really much needed.

I mean he did kind of lead in the United States and a couple of very important conflicts. There was there were conflicts in Tacoma, Washington about development of industry, and people wanted the jobs but they didn't want to destroy the environment. And he promoted discussions around those issues that we can Yes, we can have jobs and we can have the environment we just need to figure out how to balance these things. So he was always and those that example and many, many others, illustrated his balance and his ability to convince people to work together.

CM: What are some of the overarching accomplishments that he had, that he used those abilities for to complete something that we either still see today or big accomplishments back then?

HB: Well, a lot of key environmental laws were passed during the years that he was at EPA. I mean, the Clean Water Act amendments, the Clean Air Act, were all passed during his first stint at EPA. And so his participation in the negotiations that developed those laws and the real strong buttressing of environmental protection through legal means. He was a leader in all of that.

CM: So many who go to the University of Wyoming are very familiar with the name Rucklehaus. What is his connection to Wyoming and to well?

HB: Ruckelshaus really had no connection to Wyoming or the University of Wyoming at all. He, though, knew and he had worked with Al Simpson, Senator Al Simpson, and they were visiting about something and Al had been asked by the University of Wyoming to recommend people for an advisory board to advise on the new School and Institute of Environment and Natural Resources. And Al simpson asked Bill Ruckelshaus to attend an organizational meeting for this advisory board that might be created. And Ruckelshaus agreed to do that, and that's how his association with the University of Wyoming began.

Ruckelshaus seemed to have the very best ideas about what to do. He promoted the idea of Yes, the School and Institute of Environment and Natural Resources, an interdisciplinary program in a land grant college/university would be a great place to model how to do collaborative decision-making and collaborative dispute resolution around environment and natural resource issues which are always controversial.

His ideas sounded so good to everybody that the university president Terry Roark asked Bill Ruckelshaus to chair this board. So, that's how it all started with Bill Ruckelshaus in 1994. He stepped down as Board Chairman in 2000, because he wanted to develop the same sort of thing in the state of Washington where he lived, so when he stepped down, we asked him if we could name the Institute in his honor, with his name. He reluctantly agreed.

CM: Anything else to mention?

HB: The University of Wyoming was like most universities and most universities are still like this... are basically a whole bunch of silos that are different departments. But over the course of the last two, three decades, there's been more and more of an interest or concern about working across disciplines. Really, no big problems especially in environment and natural resources can be addressed simply as a biological problem, or simply as an economic problem.

I mean, Bill Ruckelshaus was very helpful in us getting past the silo design of a university, to being one that's focused especially in environment and natural resource issues, as an interdisciplinary approach, and so the growth and survival and really great successes of the School and Institute of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming owes Bill Ruckelshaus house a lot in it having grown and then so successful.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.