WA's Ecology director on Native knowledge and fighting for forgotten communities

Maia Bellon grew up exploring Washington’s woods and coastlines. As Washington's Department of Ecology director, she's putting environmental justice front and center.

Director Maia Bellon at the Washington Department of Ecology in Lacey on May 30, 2019. She has been director since 2013. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

I grew up below the poverty line, and [outdoor recreation] was our vacation. My parents had us outside all the time — we were swimming, trout fishing in lakes and fly-fishing in rivers. My dad would do things like grab a bunch of  sea kelp and seaweed, wrap himself with it and run after us on the beach pretending to be a sea monster.

I loved romping around in the woods. My father had me convinced as a little kid that some of the moss growing off of trees was Sasquatch hair, so I was the self-appointed Sasquatch tracker. It was wonderful; I loved it. We did a lot of hiking, climbing and camping, while living in Washington, Montana and Northern California on the Fort Bidwell Paiute Indian Reservation. It was all very rural and isolated.

I am part white, and I am part Native. When I was going to a very small rural high school, and half of the school population was native and half was from a non-Indian ranching community, my brother and I were the only two mixed-race children. The bus was divided, and this was 1983! The non-Indian children sat up front and the Native children sat in the back. By the time we moved to Tumwater a few years later, that bus was integrated.

My mother is Native American — she's Mescalero Apache and Tiwa Pueblo from central New Mexico. My dad was in the logging industry as a young man. He grew up in Oregon and California, but he’s spent most of his life in tribal communities. He’s an anthropologist by training, and had an affinity for working with tribal governments. He ended up being the tribal manager for the Chehalis tribe here in Washington for 30 years, one of the longest standing tribal managers of any of the 29 federally recognized tribes in our state. I married into the Makah tribe — my husband, Bill, and I have chosen to enroll our daughter, Talia, with the Makah.

My parents tried to make sure that we used our brains. My dad signed up for magazines about environmental issues, and I was drawn to them. They thought it was fun to come home with a stack of cards that had butterflies on them and, on the reverse side, the scientific name of the butterfly and its region of origin. And they’d say, “Go out and identify the butterflies in the backyard!” Some of the lessons I received as a child stem from that Native heritage, about understanding the importance and sacredness of the environment and how to respect it. One of our family tribal expressions is to drink water at the beginning of a meal, and drink water at the end together, and that just in and of itself shows the sacredness of water.

The one area I felt we heard about most often at the dinner table was water. The Klamath River Basin, straddling southern Oregon and Northern California, was often a topic of conversation with my family, and the issues I remember were the Klamath Tribe’s concern of over-appropriation of water for irrigated agriculture, to the detriment of fish resources and habitat. I heard about the Boldt litigation, where tribes asserted that their water treaty rights were meaningless if they didn't have the right to access fish and have co-management responsibility. I thought that everybody heard that kind of a conversation.

Maia Bellon at the Washington Department of Ecology in Lacey on May 30, 2019. She has been the department's director since 2013. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Once when we were traveling along the Columbia River, I got very carsick. My family pulled over to to give me a breather. I remember standing at the banks of the Columbia and seeing the [Dalles] dam and I was confused. I didn't understand how this huge structure could be here. My parents explained what it was, that it helps generate power — and I was worried about the fish and how they moved back and forth. My parents walked back to get the car reorganized. I was holding my brother’s hand and I said, “I bet that river feels as sick as I do right now.” I'm forever grateful for that experience. It just helped me refine my passion, and what I do now in my current job.

I'm a big advocate for fish passage. And here I am on the Orca Recovery Task Force as a governor appointee, along with 40-plus other incredible people trying to turn the dial for recovery of our orcas, and we know that salmon is really important to that. But, as an environmental regulator, I also need to think about everyone’s interests. It can be super easy to not think about the consequences [of regulation] to communities, to industries, to businesses, to families, to farms. I try to be fair and think about all of those different parameters.

I cannot claim I'm a scientist. When I was at Evergreen State College, I graduated with a traditional liberal arts degree, but at first was on a premed track focused on neuroscience. I was in the thick of it doing labs and brain and cadaver dissections. But neuroscience started weighing on me. It was ... depressing. It was an area I felt would be hard for me to work in. My professor suggested I get an internship for a quarter in something totally different and outside the box. I applied for and got an internship with our local congressional office here in Olympia, with then-Congresswoman Jolene Unsoeld.

A few environmental disasters happened during that time. When a bunch of fish came up dead on the Black River in the Chehalis Basin, I fielded calls from worried people. Then we had a flood event where I tried to help connect people with their insurance possibilities. Toward the end of my internship, the office manager and congresswoman said, “You've got a knack for working with people and understanding their issues, translating them, and getting them the support that they need, and we just think law is something you should explore.” So I went off to law school [in Arizona]. It had a budding Indian law program and a heavy emphasis on natural resources and environmental law, so I was drawn to that.

My mother grew up very poor in a mining town in Southern Arizona — she was a seventh grade dropout. When I was at Evergreen, my mom visited our campus, and had some remorse about her education and not having some of the opportunities my brother and I did. I challenged her that very day and said, “You can go to college.” We convinced her to take her GED, and she enrolled at Evergreen. When I flew home my second summer from law school, she was delivering the graduation speech as a graduate.

Environmental justice issues have been very near and dear to my heart. We have some wonderful communities that are very engaged in the cleanup decisions that are being made and about providing public comment, and showing up to hearings and feeling articulate and having representation. And then we have community members that don't have that option, either because English is not their first language or they're working three or four jobs and can’t get to the public hearing. And they're trying to figure out how to get the next meal on the family table. And it’s in those communities, I find many times, they have an exponentially higher exposure to environmental harms, toxic pollutants, bad air and water that isn't clean. And who am I to think that that will rectify itself without me trying to insert myself in a way that has a positive engagement, I hear what those communities say, and then I inculcate that into the work we do at this agency.

I've really made an effort to make sure we talk about our work in a way that my neighbor understands. I [actually] have a neighbor who keeps an eye out for me at the end of the day: He's usually standing at the mailbox waiting to find out what I did that day, and I've been able to explain to him things about cleaning up the largest nuclear waste facility in the world, and how we're trying to handle 56 million gallons of nuclear waste, and he gets it by the end of the conversation.

Early on, I introduced into our management team the practice of discussing environmental justice every time we take an action. When someone's going to brief me, one of the categories in my director's briefing form they have to address is, is there an environmental justice issue at hand? That way I can see it, but it's also so my program can feel and live that experience. Say we have a Hmong community that continues to fish off of this area in the Duwamish River and it's highly contaminated ... we'd put our thinking caps on to make sure we do translation in Hmong.

[Environmental justice involves] incremental success and putting myself out there to say how important it is to me. When we make a tough decision, I always sprinkle in an example of how a piece of that is helping give voice to communities that might not otherwise have the opportunity to be heard and protected. At the Department of Ecology, our folks are so thoughtful and engaged, and have really embraced that as a part of the dialogue.

Our agency can be proud of the influence we have. We're working very closely with the Governor's Office on equity, diversity and inclusion issues; and three newer directors in state government were all plucked from my executive leadership team. So whether it's conscious or not, we've influenced those wonderful people. There’s the director of the Department of Agriculture; the new director of the Washington State Conservation Commission, who was our lead scientist at this agency for several years; and the director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who used to be my special assistant for five years and who ran the water quality program here.

That’s how you spark engagement: Creating that ripple and that wave that ends up reflecting the best of ourselves, and the best of ourselves is caring about our communities — including those we may not even have close connections with or an awareness of.

One thing I do worry about is our communities of color and low-income communities sometimes perceive environmental protection almost as a luxury. In communities struggling below the poverty line, there are deep social and health services needs, and community safety and protection needs —  those are the priorities. I think that’s why it's hard for me to [recruit] scientists from those types of communities. [They’re] maybe feeling pushed or obligated into professions that get food on the table now, just getting that social health service or mental health need [met] now. [But] I find that some of those communities, after they hear what we're trying to tackle, I think they realize, “Someone's got our back.” So, by God, I better have their back.

Sometimes people push back when we're putting out protective measures. “Well, wait a minute, that [measure] only protects the person who has a compromised immune system; the air quality doesn't need to be that great. Out of 25 people, 20 are doing just fine.” But most of our environmental laws, federally and in Washington, are prevention laws. The point is to prevent [damage] from happening in the first place, not to wait until after and deal with the problems.

When we protect our most vulnerable communities, we are protecting everybody, and that is something that I often have to remind industry and businesses about. One incredibly intricate piece of the puzzle in our state is we have 29 federally recognized tribes who are very sophisticated, not just on the science and environmental fronts but on a legal and policy path. They're always keeping an eye on us, making sure we're moving in the right direction.

The engagements with the tribes have been some of the most fulfilling and challenging I've had. We think I'm the first Native American cabinet member to ever serve a Washington governor, and I think maybe there were expectations of me that some laws perceived as not being protective enough for tribes would just be gone, and I would do something differently. So I think there was a little bit of tension. I took an oath when I was sworn in unanimously by the Senate that I would follow the state of Washington’s laws and the federal laws and rules and regulations and, as a lawyer I take that very seriously. So I had to have a few blunt conversations with my colleagues in the tribal community to say that I'm going to implement these laws, [and when I do] I will do my absolute very best to integrate and take your thinking and comments and advice into account, but I have a duty to the state.

A high priority right now is my concern that several of our federal partners under the current administration are treating our environment in a way that it’s less deserving. It is a very difficult job to be the director of a state agency with 1,700 employees, and there's that burnout factor.  But I have been absolutely re-energized in taking seriously my role to protect and hold the line in terms of environmental protections we've been putting in place over the last 50 years. It’s been high priority that I make sure that the federal government — the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, you name it — knows that Washington state values our natural resources and our environment and we won't stand for rolling back environmental protections that we've worked so hard to put in place. I will not stand for that to be rolled back on my watch. OK?

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