When sparking an environmental movement, timing is everything

When sparking an environmental movement, timing is everything

By Former Senator and Governor, Dan Evans

There is something special to be said for this place. Its beauty inspires its inhabitants to protect it – just as it inspired me.

At age 12, I joined the Boy Scouts and completed my first hike – Silver Peak near Snoqualmie Pass. I was freezing, exhausted, and ill-equipped for every moment of it – but as soon as we reached the bottom, all that was left was the sheer excitement of having done it.

A few years later I climbed my first major mountain – Mount Deception in Olympic National Park (just one year after the park had been established). The moment when I reached the top and saw lakes and peaks for miles I thought, “Look at all the places I can go” – and I was hooked. Since that day, I’ve hiked several thousand miles of the Olympics. I fell in love with the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest and it dramatically impacted the way I lived my life and the decisions I made in my career.  

One of the most important bills of my first legislature was to determine the location of the second Washington Lake Floating Bridge. This was early on – long before there was real legislative interest in the environment. It would be another ten years before we really saw the broadening of environmental interest to the point where we were able to do some really big things. 

Late in the 1969 legislative session, environmental interest was beginning to grow and a number of environmental groups had taken bills in front of legislature, but none had been successful. At the end of the session, the Washington Environmental Council (WEC) was formed with a mission to do better in the next session in 1971.

In 1970, I decided to call a special session. I brought together leaders from the WEC along with my legislative leaders and department heads most involved in environmental policy, and we spent a weekend in Crystal Mountain discussing which of the environmental issues were the most pressing – which ones we would go after. We narrowed it down from 60 issues to six, and then I called the session.

The legislature wasn’t happy about it – it was out of the ordinary and I faced a lot of push back. But I knew how important it was. The economy was growing and we couldn’t wait another two years. 

It didn’t start well – none of the bills were gaining traction until by chance, I was asked to do a TV interview in Seattle. I used my generous five minutes to tell the people of Washington that we needed to hear from them – they had to tell us if they cared about environmental issues.

The next morning, over 5,000 telegrams started to pour in – it was the biggest public response on any issue in the history of the state. Within 32 days, five out of the six bills had been passed, and the final bill was passed the next year.

This was when environmental legislation really started to move in this state – and it’s important to note that timing was a huge factor. This was an activist period and there were a multitude of rallying points like the rising tide against the Vietnam War, the second phase of the Civil Rights Movement, and of course – the first Earth Day.

The lesson to be learned here is that so often, the success of a movement depends entirely on timing. But you also need to identify the specific issues that need the most work, and you need to rally support around those issues.

I can already see that Earth Day Northwest 2020 builds on the spirit of the first day, but goes beyond the boundaries of a typical environmental get together. As we face rapidly growing effects of climate change – my hope is that this time around, the timing will again  be on our side.

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