THIRTY-SEVEN FLOORS ABOVE SECOND AVENUE, Bill Ruckelshaus gazes over Elliott Bay from a thronelike leather chair behind a massive cherrywood desk facing an L-shaped bank of ceiling-high plate glass. From this panoramic perch—Ruckelshaus’s corner office at the Madrona Venture Group, the VC firm that helped launch Amazon—Puget Sound appears pristine. It surely looks tempting to a seasoned sportsman like Ruckelshaus. As usual, he’s wearing waterproof Rockports, tan corduroys, and a brown tweed sport coat over an open-at-the-neck oxford shirt. He looks as though he might at any moment pluck the rust-colored waterproof anorak from its hook behind the door, hire a float plane, and soar off into a real-life version of the almost life-size oil painting that hangs on the wall behind him. It shows a younger Ruck casting into the roiling Karluk River on Alaska’s Kodiak Island.
At 76, six foot four and 180 pounds, Ruckelshaus is still built like a football player—just like his larger-than-life father, a powerful Indiana attorney who’d been the tallest high school basketball player in the state. But he has always favored fishing, a sport in which calculated patience rather than brute force wins the trophy, over football. He can certainly afford to take an afternoon off; he’s a multimillionaire who lives in a seven-bedroom Medina mansion a few hedgerows from Bill Gates. But two years ago, after leading the drafting of the Shared Strategy for Puget Sound, a federally sanctioned regional recovery plan for endangered chinook salmon, he lost his appetite for fishing local waters; he couldn’t in good conscience kill something he had resolved to save. Besides, he hasn’t had the time. Not while the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency Governor Chris Gregoire picked him to lead last May, scrambles to make a December 1 deadline for releasing its much anticipated master plan to restore not just a single aquatic species but the entire Puget Sound ecosystem by the year 2020.
Ruckelshaus’s CV includes many tough battles and monumental achievements, charted in the course of a civil service and business career that spans half a century: establishing the Environmental Protection Agency (a torturous process he likens to the more recent birthing of the Department of Homeland Security), defying Richard Nixon by refusing to derail the Watergate investigation, returning to rebuild Ronald Reagan’s scandal-plagued EPA, even taking on the New York City Mafia as chief of the nation’s second-largest trash hauler. But all these milestones pale against the complexity and scale of the challenge he’s taken on now.
That might explain his frown, the bushy white Gandalf brows furrowed in uncharacteristic consternation rather than raised to punctuate a punch line. Ask Ruckelshaus’s friends to describe the man and they’ll inevitably use words like “modesty” and “integrity,” but the first thing they usually mention is his wit. Former Delta Airlines CEO Gerry Grinstein, a Madrona partner who lives near Ruckelshaus on an estate formerly owned by Bill Gates, calls him “Bucklenuts.” Grinstein once gave a framed portrait of himself holding a freshly downed pheasant, neck hanging limply, to Ruckelshaus—who promptly had it mounted above the urinals in the Madrona men’s room.
In his own office, the handful of black and white photos from Ruckelshaus’s Beltway days don’t merit a “Me Wall,” or any wall at all. They’re propped against a bookcase on the floor, under all those panoramic windows. One shows a 1970-vintage Ruckelshaus with a full head of coal-black hair, standing beside his wife, Jill, and Tricky Dick himself, right hand raised as Chief Justice Warren Burger swears him in as EPA administrator. Another taken a decade later shows him balding, with a bad comb-over, sandwiched between his daughter Cathy and a beaming Ronald Reagan, starting his second tour at the EPA’s helm. Below is Reagan’s cartoonish scrawl: “Portrait of a happy day. I know for sure it was for one of us, and I hope for all three. Warm regards, Ron.”
Reagan “was one of the most likable human beings I have ever met,” says Ruckelshaus. “It was absolutely impossible not to like him. He was a lot more curious about the environment than Nixon ever was. Nixon never asked me, ‘Is the air really dirty? What’s everybody so worried about?’ ”
That Ruckelshaus hasn’t gotten around to hanging his photos is in keeping with the down-to-earth farmer’s sense of self he’s preserved through all his years in Ivy League universities and the professional and political stratosphere. On his first day at the EPA, the agency sent him a black stretch limo. He kept the driver but downgraded to a prototype natural gas–powered sedan. When he assumed the helm of Browning-Ferris Industries in 1984 after his second EPA stint, he converted the sumptuous executive penthouse at its Houston headquarters to conference rooms and took an office on a lower floor, nearer the rank and file.
Ruckelshaus nods at the Nixon photo, then turns with a faraway look back to the pearlescent waters of the Sound. A ferry chugs toward Bainbridge, and the white teeth of the Olympics saw at the horizon.
“I was 38 years old,” he muses, recalling his arrival at the EPA in 1970. “It was a very exciting time. Environmentalism was new. Back then, the issue was gross pollution. We had flammable rivers, just terrible situations. People could see the pollution. Feel it. Touch it. It’s different today. You look out at Puget Sound and you think, What’s wrong with Puget Sound? It looks beautiful. Particularly at sunset, with a sailboat going by. Today’s environmental problems are much more subtle. You don’t get this physical reinforcement that something is wrong.”