William Ruckelshaus and the late Billy Frank Jr. are being awarded the highest civilian honor in the U.S. Both worked on environmental issues for decades.

Share story

Two influential figures from Washington state, each with a long record of environmental leadership, were named Monday as recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Billy Frank Jr., the former chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and a treaty-rights leader, and William D. Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are receiving the highest civilian honor in the U.S. The two advocated for and worked on environmental issues for decades.

Frank, who died last year at age 83, is remembered for hosting “fish-ins” and advocating for tribal fishing rights. His actions eventually led to the Boldt decision, which cemented Washington state tribes’ right to half of each year’s fish harvest.

“Billy was a tireless advocate right up until his dying day,” said Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. “He was getting ready that day to go out there and to continue to be the voice for the habitat and treaty rights.”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Frank, a member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, was first arrested when he was 14 for fishing on the Nisqually River. As a young man. he began advocating for the rights of tribes to fish in their “usual and accustomed” places, a right finally affirmed with the Boldt decision in 1974.

Frank didn’t stop with just Washington state tribal rights. He traveled frequently to advocate for natural resources and tribes, said his longtime friend Hank Adams.

“He started carrying this Washington success to other tribes in other parts of the country,” Adams said. “He had a close connection to the natural world and knew the natural world was what gave Indian people life.”

Frank’s son, Willie Frank, said his father is still brought up in nearly every meeting that many Northwest tribes hold.

“In my eyes, he was Superman and he never slowed down at all,” he said.

While Frank was advocating for tribal fishing rights, Ruckelshaus was in the other Washington, working to reduce pollution.

Ruckelshaus, now 83, has deep roots in the Puget Sound region. He is a founding managing director of Madrona Venture Group, a leading venture-capital company, and was on the board of Weyerhaeuser, served as chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership’s leadership council and is chairman of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center at the University of Washington and Washington State University. The center provides collaborative problem-solving services.

But he is perhaps best known for his work as a top federal government official, including serving as both the first and fifth administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970 and again in 1983. He is largely credited with helping to put in place a ban on DDT, a pesticide, as well as agreements that reduced pollution from cars.

That was a big achievement for him. Ruckelshaus can remember going to Washington, D.C., in 1969 and having difficulty getting into work because the thick smog made it so hard to see.

“People could hardly see one another, let alone the blue sky,” he said.

Being the first EPA administrator, Ruckelshaus said, was the most challenging job he has ever had. That’s saying much for a man with his list of job titles — not least of which was serving as deputy attorney general in the Justice Department during the Watergate scandal.

In what is known as the Saturday Night Massacre, Attorney General Elliott Richardson and Ruckelshaus stepped down in 1973 rather than fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox on the orders of President Nixon.

Ruckelshaus remembers that time simply as “chaos.”

“I was convinced that the Watergate prosecutor was doing exactly what he was hired to do … and for the president to discharge him for doing what he was hired to do by that same president was unconscionable,” Ruckelshaus said. “I didn’t want to be a part of it.”

Ruckelshaus now lives in Medina and works with the Ruckelshaus Center and with Madrona as a strategic director.

The medals will be presented at the White House on Nov. 24.