Dan Evans: The Great Conservationist

  • By Joel Connelly
  • Posted 11/03/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22822
See Additional Media

As a political species, the Republican environmentalist has become as endangered as the spotted owl. Washington still has, however, one of the country’s great conservation advocates in the person of former three-term Governor and U.S. Senator Daniel J. Evans, who celebrated his 98th birthday on October 16, 2023. Evans's long life defines what it is to be a cradle conservationist.

A Scouting Life

A landmark in protecting America’s public lands came in 1909, when just before leaving office President Theodore Roosevelt created a 610,560-acre Mount Olympus National Monument. He did so to stop the slaughter of elk, which today bear his name. The monument was precursor to today’s 900,000-acre Olympic National Park.

Young Dan Evans (b. 1925) discovered the Olympics and climbed 7,800-foot Mount Deception as a Boy Scout at Camp Parsons on Hood Canal. He would one day become a U.S. Senator and sponsor of legislation to create wilderness areas around the park, add Shi-Shi Beach and Point of Arches to the park, and extend Wilderness Act protection to 95 percent of the park. In August 2017, a ceremony was held at Hurricane Ridge. As headlined in the Peninsula Daily News, "Daniel Evans hiked through Royal Basin last week like he did as a Boy Scout 77 years ago. The former governor and U.S. Senator, 91, returned to Olympic National Park for an excursion with family, this time through a wilderness that bears his name" ("Ceremony Marks ..."). 

Open a Washington map and you’ll see dark green colors matching our three national parks, light green splotches for national forests, a dark brown Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, and dotted lines marking wilderness area boundaries. Evans has influenced or shaped all these designations.

Governor Evans

Evans was elected Washington’s governor in 1964 and took office in January 1965 at the age of 39. He strode into the middle of controversy over the future of the North Cascades mountains, a battle pitting the state’s powerful timber industry against a homegrown conservation movement. Behind the scenes, the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture, squared off against the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior. Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983), chairman of the Senate Interior Committee, told conservationist park advocates: "If you get up a big enough parade, I will lead it," according to historian Douglas Brinkley’s book Silent Spring Revolution, an account of environmental battles of the 1960s and 1970s.

They did. Conservationists published a handsome book, North Cascades: Forgotten Parkland. The Sierra Club produced a film The Wilderness Alps of Stehekin starring its executive director David Brower and his family. The Mountaineers began turning out guidebooks to put boots on trails. In response to Kennecott Copper’s proposal for a giant copper mine in the heart of the Glacier Peak Wilderness, the Sierra Club went national with a full-page New York Times ad: "An Open Pit Visible from the Moon." U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980) and wife Cathy let a hike up the Suiattle River to protest the proposed mine.

But the national park and wilderness cause faced formidable opposition. The chairman of the House Interior Committee, Rep. Wayne Aspinall (D-Colorado), was a mining-industry ally and hostile. Lines of logging trucks appeared in protest outside a House hearing in Wenatchee. County commissioners railed against "locking up" public lands. When a Federation of Western Outdoors Club delegation went to see Wenatchee National Forest supervisor Andrew Wright, his first words were: "Just what do you people want?" ("Alpine Plan Roadblock"). 

Washington Democratic congressman Rep. Lloyd Meeds (1927-2005) sought to write legislation, facing proposals for no national park, a small park, or a larger park. President Lyndon Johnson angered his old friend Justice Douglas by proposing a park of only 250,000 acres. Evans weighed in on the side of a big park. In his memoir, Evans sums up his preservation policy in five words: "Wilderness destroyed is never regained." He employed an important caveat: Wild places should be witnessed and enjoyed. Evans would never have patience with the keep-everybody-out-but-us wing of the conservation movement.

The North Cascades Highway, also known as State Route 20, was built on Evans’s watch, with his strong support. During construction, he led a pack trip covering the route of SR 20. (My mother, a journalist, wrote about the expedition and was surprised to see Evans perform the grunt work in camp.) The governor used his influence to intervene in the park battle, with emphasis on people enjoying the natural beauty of the Evergreen State.

The final compromise reflected the governor’s approach. The North Cascades Act established a 505,000-acre North Cascades National Park, in two segments, plus a 117,000-acre Ross Lake National Recreation Area between the two units, and a 62,000-acre Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. It also created the adjoining Pasayten and Glacier Peak Wilderness areas, each about 500,000 acres. The protected areas totaled 1.7 million acres. A tired-looking Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation in October 1968, saying: "The North Cascades National Park and its adjoining acres in what have been called 'the American Alps' is next door to the Pacific Northwest’s most populous communities" (Fogel).  

More than half-a-century later, long lineups of cars park in the early fall at the Rainy Pass and Blue Lake trailheads, with hikers headed for high-elevation larch forests that turn gold. Public opposition blocked Seattle City Light from raising Ross Dam, which would have inundated the ancient cedar forests of Big Beaver Valley. Evans opposed the dam project.

Earth Day and Beyond

The early months of 1970 were a springtime for America’s budding environmental movement, highlighted by the nation's first Earth Day. This proved an ideal time for the Washington State Legislature to take up the proposed State Environmental Policy Act, and legislation creating the Department of Ecology. Once again, there was a fight, with Evans playing a pivotal role. Environmental bills stalled due to industry lobbying. (My Bellingham district was represented by a leading opponent, a lawmaker and commercial fisherman. He was given a comfortable security job at the Atlantic Richfield refinery at Cherry Point.) Evans reacted by doing a statewide TV broadcast rallying support. He also made common cause with Democratic State Sen. Martin Durkan (1923-2005), an anticipated 1972 opponent, to get the bills passed.

Evans became Washington’s first governor elected to serve three consecutive terms. Often, late in their tenure, governors run out of gas. Not Evans. During his lame duck year in 1976 he aided three varied victories in public-land preservation. The first was the addition of three fabled places – Shi-Shi Beach, Point of Arches, and shorelines of Lake Ozette – to the coastal strip of his beloved Olympic National Park. The second was putting together state, federal, and timber-company holdings to form a Skagit Eagle Sanctuary. Salmon runs draw one of the nation’s largest populations of its national symbol each fall and winter to a northwest Washington valley informally known as the "magic Skagit." The third was creation of a 393,000-acre Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area in the "land of 600 lakes" between Stevens and Snoqualmie passes. The area was aptly labeled "Backyard Wilderness" in the title of Seattle attorney David Knibb’s book on the two-year struggle leading to its creation by Congress. King County Metro now runs summer bus service out to its popular trailheads.

None of these achievements came easy. Evans’s environmental aide Elliot Marks dealt with balky industry landholders in assembling the Skagit sanctuary. The loggers’ champion, State Land Commissioner Bert Cole (1911-1993), showed up at the dedication in the company of executives of Crown Zellerbach, whose arms were twisted to donate land to the sanctuary. Evans raised an eye for friends to join him, putting distance from Cole in a fast-paced walk along the Skagit River. Eagle watching took precedence over hobnobbing.

The Olympic Peninsula beach additions reawakened what had been resistance to creation of Olympic National Park under President Franklin Roosevelt, and the later addition of the coastal strip under Harry Truman. Evans worked across party lines with two Democrats, Sen. Jackson and U.S. Rep. Don Bonker (1937-2023), and with Makah Indians to make it happen. The legislation would pass through Congress with no opposition.

Alpine Lakes and Gerald Ford

With a pending National Forest Management Act that would set policy for all national forests, the timber industry seized on the Alpine Lakes to show its clout with Congress. The lumbermen lobbied strenuously, funded a front group, and put forward a pared-back wilderness, deleting such old-growth valleys as Ingalls Creek and upper Icicle Creek from the proposed wilderness. In June 1975, a House subcommittee held a raucous hearing at the University of Washington. Lumbermen, county commissioners, and Land Commissioner Cole opposed a big, contiguous wilderness. Evans, however, led off with a familiar refrain: Wilderness lost is never regained. A second hearing, in Wenatchee, saw U.S. Rep. Mike McCormack (1921-2020) propose carving the wilderness into two segments with a road in-between.

The times were a changin' in Washington. The state’s resource industries no longer held sway. A new technology economy was growing up in proximity to the state’s wildlands. The Interior Committee opted for a larger wilderness, which passed the full House. Jackson steered legislation through his Senate committee, on the same morning that timber unions staged a news conference at the Washington Athletic Club in Seattle vowing resistance. The completed legislation called for acquisition of 47,500 acres of private land holdings intermingled with the Snoqualmie and Wenatchee National Forests. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, whose department oversees the Forest Service, lobbied with the White House and in public for a presidential veto.

Enter Evans. He arranged for a 15-minute Oval Office meeting with President Gerald Ford. The governor borrowed and brought with him a Mountaineers picture book on the Alpine Lakes. Evans regaled Ford with the shots of places he had visited and the story of taking his three sons up over 7,780-foot Aasgard Pass into the Enchantment Lakes, in the teeth of a storm. Words from Evans’s autobiography tell the story:

"My 15 minutes was ticking away. I opened the book and started showing the President the pristine area encompassed in the bill. Soon he was immersed in the photos, studying each page while talking about his hiking experiences as a Boy Scout ... My 15-minute appointment turned into a 45-minute discussion on the historic opportunity at hand ... A few days later he signed the Alpine Lakes Wilderness into law" (An Autobiography). 

Power Planning

Evans gave way to Gov. Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) in 1977, Dixy an opponent of wilderness, a kind of Rachel Carson-in-reverse on environmental issues. Evans took on a new challenge as president of The Evergreen State College in Olympia. Years earlier, Evans celebrated completion of Evergreen’s clock tower by rappelling down the side of the building. He knew his sport, one Monday morning arriving sunburned at the governor’s office having just summited Mount Rainier over the weekend.

As a consequential sideline, Evans became chairman of the Northwest Power Planning Council. The eight-member panel – with two representatives from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana – was created by Congress to implement the 1980 Northwest Power Act. The legislation was passed in the wake of the Washington Public Power Supply System’s ill-fated attempt to build five nuclear plants at once. The legislation gave priority to energy efficiency, conservation, and renewables in meeting the region’s energy needs.

The planning council under Evans proved to be a counter balance to the "iron triangle" of the Bonneville Power Administration, aluminum industry, and utilities which had hitherto dominated electricity policy in the region. Forever warning of looming electric power shortages, it had boosted a nuclear energy future. The Puget Sound Power & Light Co. (now Puget Sound Energy) had proposed and planned twin nuclear plants with 500-foot-tall cooling towers that would tower over the Skagit Valley. Environmental groups fought the projects: Former British Columbia Premier Dave Barrett, an Evans friend, came south to warn of radiation dangers, telling a Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing: "I am opposed to the Skagit Nuclear Project. Why? Because I like to sleep with my wife" ("Don't Mess With ...").

The council’s studies and projections cast doubts on need for the Skagit project. In the meantime, an earthquake fault was discovered near the project site, and Skagit County residents cast a decisive vote against it. Puget Power moved its project to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Eastern Washington, but the power council refused to sign on. The utility abandoned the project, saving itself substantial debt. The region’s lights have neither flickered nor gone out.

The Other Washington

When Henry Jackson was stricken with an aneurism and died in September 1983, the state lost a vastly influential politician who had served in Congress for 40 years. Who could fill his shoes? Seattle Post-Intelligencer cartoonist David Horsey depicted a giant pair of empty boots beside which stood Dan Evans’s equally massive boots. Gov. John Spellman (1926-2018) picked Evans to fill Scoop’s seat, and Evans defeated Rep. Mike Lowry (1939-2017) in November 1983 to fill out the remaining five years of Jackson’s term.

Evans was assigned to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Sen. John Chafee (R-Rhode Island), Evans’s personal friend, fellow ex-governor and GOP environmentalist. The assignment came as the U.S. Forest Service was completing RAREII, an assessment of 2.5 million acres of roadless national forest land in Washington. At the behest of the Reagan Administration, it recommended just 300,000 acres be protected as wilderness.

What followed was a story of bipartisan cooperation for which the Washington congressional delegation used to be renowned. Evenly divided, five Democrats and five Republicans, the delegation met and worked with maps, a process Evans compared with redistricting boundaries. He initially favored 750,000 acres of wilderness. Environmentalists wanted all 2.5 million acres. The delegation agreed on a million-acre plan. Evans’s fingerprints were all over the legislation. He championed preservation of the Greywolf River valley in the Olympics, which the Forest Service wanted to log. He adjusted boundaries to put all of the Royal Basin trail into Olympic National Park.

The Reagan Administration had proposed a piddling 23,000-acre Cougar Lakes Wilderness Area east of Mount Rainier National Park. What emerged was a 169,081-acre William O. Douglas Wilderness Area, named for the Supreme Court justice. Evans shared the dais at its dedication with Kay Kershaw and Isabelle Lynn, operators of the Double K Mountain Ranch in Goose Prairie next door to the judge’s summer home. The ladies of the Double K came to host three of Douglas's four wives.

Other touches in the bill included preservation of the unlogged Boulder River valley near Darrington in Snohomish County. The Evans once-lost-never-regained philosophy was used to win support from the area’s congressman Rep. Al Swift (1935-2018), a self-described "great indoorsman." The Boulder wilderness was dedicated with a walk to a waterfall. Arriving at the trailhead, Swift asked: "Do you have a sedan chair?" (An Autobiography). 

Protecting the Gorge

Evans had, as early as 1970, advocated protection of the Columbia River Gorge, which forms part of Washington’s border with Oregon. A brutal battle broke out over the federal government’s role, with preservationists pitted against property rights advocates, and Republicans in the Oregon congressional delegation bitterly split. At one crowded hearing, former governor Dixy Lee Ray showed up and declared: "No more arrogant individual walks this Earth than a Federal administrator coming into your area" (McKay). Except, perhaps, Dixy Lee Ray.

When local officials realized that a compromise was inevitable, the task of drafting a compromise bill fell to Evans and his environmental assistant Joe Mentor. In his memoir, Evans tells the story of what happened to his exhausted aide: 

"He had drafted the bill late the night before, but when he hit the 'print' button the text of the bill disappeared. We were working with a crotchety pre-Microsoft program called 'prime.' Joe worked all night trying to retrieve the bill draft. Finally, minutes before I arrived, he typed 'Fuck You!' The machine finally disgorged the final bill" (An Autobiography). 

Evans, seatmate Slade Gorton (1928-2020) and Oregon Sens. Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood muscled the Columbia Gorge bill through the Senate. Future House Speaker Tom Foley (1929-2013) greasing its way through the House of Representatives. But the Reagan Administration hinted at a veto, terming the legislation unacceptable. Evans bet the store, telling reporters that a veto would be "an extraordinary slap in the face for the senators, and we may go down (to the White House) and tell them that" (An Autobiography). 

A month after final passage, on the last day before the bill would die, Reagan signed legislation creating the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, and declared: "While I am strongly opposed to federal regulation of private land use planning, I am signing this bill because of the far-reaching support in both states for a solution to the long-standing problems relating to management of the Columbia River Gorge" (An Autobiography). 

Coming Home

As a governor used to acting, Evans had troubles with the cumbersome procedures and slow pace of life in the "world’s greatest deliberative body." He decided not to run for reelection in 1988 and penned a New York Times Magazine piece entitled "Why I’m Quitting the Senate." It was not well received by colleagues, and likely nixed Evans’ chances of becoming Interior Secretary in the administration of President George H. W. Bush. Still, for a one-term senator, Evans got stuff done. The last achievement, in his last year, was the Washington National Parks Wilderness Bill, which extended federal protection under the Wilderness Act to almost all land in Washington’s three national parks. There would be no more road building, no tramways or ski areas. And for this reason, almost 95 percent of Olympic National Park is now the Daniel J. Evans Wilderness.

Although Reagan was a careful steward of his own ranch in mountains above Santa Barbara, our 40th president was no friend to federal wilderness areas. "A tree’s a tree: How many do you need to look at?" the Gipper famously asked. Thanks to Evans, however, Reagan now ranks on paper as a great environmental president. He signed into law the Washington and Oregon Wilderness bills, the Columbia River Gorge legislation, a bill creating the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Area (created before Evans became a Senator) and the Washington National Parks Wilderness Bill.

Evans came home to this Washington, but has not stayed home. He co-founded the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition with 1983 Senate opponent, former Governor Mike Lowry. The organization has helped leverage billions of federal and state dollars to save endangered wildlands and create recreation facilities in the Evergreen State. With state shorelines under pressure of development, numerous blue heron rookeries owe existence to WWRC. So do such places as Whidbey Island’s gorgeous Double Bluff Beach.

Evans went under the knife for surgeries to rebuild both knees, but celebrated the rebuilding project with a hike up to Talapus Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. The state’s most distinguished elder statesman marked the occasion in the fashion of the teenage backpacker he once was. Evans went skinny dipping.

Nor did Evans lose sight of longtime priorities. An old mine-to-market road leads from Stehekin, at the head of Lake Chelan, several miles into the North Cascades National Park. It provides access to such backpacking destinations as the north fork-Bridge Creek cirque and Park Creek Pass, a wildland flanked by three of the state’s 9,000-foot peaks. A fierce fall storm recently took out the upper road at appropriately named Carwash Falls. Such groups as the North Cascades Conservation Council and Sierra Club have opposed rebuilding it, with tacit complicity of the National Park Service. Evans and famed climber Jim Wickwire have supported rebuilding the road, used mainly by park buses carrying day hikers and backpackers up the Stehekin River valley. Even with the road, it is still an eight-mile hike to Park Creek Pass. In Evans’ words:

"It was my intent when I sponsored the Parks Wilderness Bill in 1988 to protect the unique features of these splendid parks, but not to make access more difficult for those seeking the unusual experience of a wilderness park. I believe very strongly that continued protection of these parks depends on the active support of visitors, hikers and climbers who become active champions of our public lands" (An Autobiography). 

If you want to see Dan Evans’ legacy, just look around. The onetime Boy Scout has helped shape his state.


Dan Evans, Daniel J. Evans: An Autobiography (Olympia: Washington Secretary of State, Legacy Washington Project, 2022); Adam M. Sowards, An Open Pit Visible From the Moon (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020); Douglas Brinkley, Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Great Environmental Awakening (New York: Harper Collins, 2022); Harvey Manning, The Wild Cascades: Forgotten Parkland (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1965); Harvey Manning with the North Cascades Conservation Council, Wilderness Alps: Conservation and Conflict in Washington’s North Cascades (Northwest Wild Books, 2007); David Knibb, Backyard Wilderness: The Alpine Lakes (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1982); Brock Evans, The Alpine Lakes (Seattle: The Moutaineers, 1971); Tom Miller (photographer) and Harvey Manning, The North Cascades (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1964); Tim McNulty, Salmon, Cedar Rock & Rain: Washington’s Olympic Peninsula (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2023); Carsten Lien, Olympic Battleground (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2000); Kevin R. Marsh, Drawing Lines in the Forest: Creating Wilderness Areas in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007); “Reagan Shows Peculiar Attitude Toward Trees,” Sacramento Bee, April 10, 1967 (www.sacbee.com); “Why Do Environmentalists Want to Keep People From Nature?” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 20, 2009 (www.seattlepi.com); Rob Ollikainen, “Ceremony Marks Dedication of Daniel J. Evans Wilderness,” Peninsula Daily News, August 21, 2017, accessed October 15, 2023 (https://www.peninsuladailynews.com /news/ceremony-marks-designation-of-daniel-j-evans-wilderness/); Floyd McKay, "How the Columbia River Gorge Was Saved,” Crosscut, June 7, 2016, accessed October 15, 2023 (https://crosscut.com/2016/06/how-the-columbia-river-gorge-was-saved#:~:text=Together %2C%20Yeon%20and%20Russell%20built,legal%20and%20political%20maneuvering%20ensued); Joel Connelly, "Don't Mess With the 'Magic Skagit': River Resists 40 years of Environmental Assaults," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 5, 2019 (www.seattlepi.com); 

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You