Norman Winn, a Seattle attorney, mountaineer and one of the biggest defenders of Pacific Northwest wildlife, died late last month. He was 82.
Winn spent decades climbing Washington state’s tallest peaks, protecting its wilderness from deforestation and mining, and lobbying for legislation that to this day protects parks, lakes and wildlife reserves as far as the Arctic Circle.
Despite those achievements, his family and friends say his contributions as a civil servant never outshined his character or his endless admiration of the great outdoors.
“His joy of living and of being in the outdoors … that’s what affected me the most,” said Richard Munsen, whose friendship with Winn began nearly half a century ago after the latter moved to Seattle in the late 1960s. “I’m going to miss his intellect and his analysis of the political situation.”
Winn was born at a tumultuous time, and in a tumultuous part of the world.
Less than two years after he was born in Beijing, on Oct. 25, 1939, to a pair of Presbyterian missionaries, his family moved to the Philippines. For the next three years Winn — together with his mother, younger sister and older brother — lived in the jungles and mountains of the Philippines, which was still under Japanese control, while his father was incarcerated in a Japanese-run civilian internment camp in the Philippines.
When he was 5 , the Winns journeyed for more than 100 miles through dense forest to the coast of the Philippines, where they boarded an American submarine that took them to a base in Australia.
The family made their way to Iowa, where Winn’s uncle lived, and they were finally able to reunite with his father soon after.
After a brief stay in Ithaca, New York — where Winn’s parents studied at Cornell University — Winn and his family moved back to China but left to escape the policies of Mao Zedong.
Winn later attended high school in Idaho, college at Harvard University, then law school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he met Karyl Leix, his future wife.
The two married and moved to Seattle in 1968, after which she began her career as an archivist at the University of Washington, and he began his as a lawyer and an avid mountain climber. He was a managing partner of Smith, Brucker, Winn and Elhert from 1974 to 1994.
Over several decades, Winn became involved in a dizzying number of conservation groups and policy efforts, all while climbing so many mountains that he became a highly respected figure in the outdoor community.
“His contributions to the functioning of government and the environment made a big difference,” said his 84-year-old brother, Rodger Winn, who lives in Portland with his wife, Diane. “He was a true citizen in the best sense.”
Some of his most notable affiliations spanning nearly four decades include Young Lawyers, the Washington Wilderness Coalition, Forest Practices Advisory Committee, Washington Water Trails Association, Washington Environmental Alliance for Voter Education, Audubon Society, Federation of Outdoor Clubs and Washington Wild.
But his longest tenure was with The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based nonprofit founded in 1906 with a current membership of more than 13,000 hikers, climbers and other lovers of nature and the outdoors.
He served as the organization’s trustee in 1985 and 1986, board president from 1975 to 1977 and, for several years, chair of the outdoor division and conservation.
It was with the organization that Winn not only became involved in public policy and publishing, but he also made some of his most cherished friends and allies.
He had plenty of affiliations and memberships, but all of them stemmed from a single thread: conservation.
He was one of the greatest defenders of wildlife in the Pacific Northwest. As an attorney, lobbyist and activist, his colleagues said he fought for the protection of more than a million acres of wilderness and forests in the region, as well as spotted owls, nesting birds in popular climbing areas, salmon in the Elwha River and dammed areas on the Olympic Peninsula.
The secret to his success, according to his brother Rodger, was his knack for brokering compromise between two opposing groups.
Winn was lauded for his ability to foster cooperation across the aisle, an invaluable skill that would fuel his efforts to help pass the 1976 Alpine Lakes Wilderness Act, 1984 Washington Wilderness Act and the expansion of protections within Olympic National Park in 1988.
“I admired his ability to do that,” said Marc Bardsley, who was a member of The Moutaineers for nearly 25 years and served on the board of trustees when Winn was president of the organization. “One person typically doesn’t have much that they can do about the climate … but [Winn] was a person who was convinced that we have to go after climate change more seriously, and people are going to have to get used to a different standard of living.”
The sight of Winn gathering residents of a certain district, knocking on the doors of Washington state representatives or testifying in Olympia was apparently a familiar one.
“People don’t believe they can influence their government,” said Donna Osseward, who met Winn in the 1970s and spent decades working together with him in the conservation division of The Mountaineers. “But they can, and Norm was a prime example of how you go about it.”
Winn worked with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., during the Plum Creek Land Exchange, which was approved by Congress in 1999 and involved swapping with a timber company more than 42,000 acres of forest land in the Cascade Mountains. Of the many books he helped publish, “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land” was possibly the most impactful, as it temporarily prevented — with the help of Sens. Murray and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. — oil drilling in parts of the Arctic.
“Norman was a strong advocate for Washington state’s wild spaces, and I worked with him on the checkerboard land exchanges in the 1990s,” Murray said in a statement. “He was also a great partner in our efforts to designate the Wild Sky Wilderness and to expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. His dedication to conservation will live on in the lands he helped protect.”
In the 1990s, Winn turned his attention toward voters. In 1994, he founded the Washington Environmental Alliance for Voter Education, or WEAVE, which aimed to raise awareness of environmental issues during elections.
“He knew what being a good citizen is,” Osseward said. “That’s something we need right now.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Marc Bardsley’s last name.