Towne, Chris Smith (b. 1934)

  • By Dee Arntz and HistoryLink Staff
  • Posted 9/22/2009
  • Essay 9162
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Chris Smith Towne is a Seattle-based community and environmental activist and consultant. Her career trajectory began in Bellevue as a member of Bellevue's Park's Board and as a Bellevue City Council member. In 1974, Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) appointed her to the state Pollution Control and Shorelines Hearings boards. As a Republican (she is now non-partisan), she was a welcome addition to the largely Democratic Washington environmental community. The boards adjudicated cases incident to the state's laws and regulations dealing with air and water pollution and shoreline management and water rights, and also wrote the regulations for the State Environmental Policy Act. Because she comprehended how all levels of government worked, she became the navigator helping others to implement environmental laws. Chris Smith Towne has served on the board of the Seattle Parks Foundation; as president of the board of Dunn Gardens, an Olmsted-designed residential garden in Northwest Seattle; and as secretary of the Board of Directors of, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history.

Growing Up Girl Scout 

Chris Smith Towne was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1934. She grew up in an Irish Catholic family and went to parochial schools until her senior year in high school, when she switched to public school. Toledo during World War II was a major center for wartime production. Willys Jeep was produced here along with tanks, planes, and parts for everything. The fact that this production was accompanied by a "callous disregard for the environment" is no surprise. America's job was to win the war. The joke among her friends, she said, was "if you fell into the [Maumee] river, you would die of typhoid before you would drown" (Interview). 

Chris joined the Girl Scouts at the age of 6 and was active until she graduated from high school.  She loved Girl Scouts especially because she could escape every summer to Girl Scout camp. Here she developed her appreciation for the natural world and her concern for the environment.

Moving to Boeing

She received a degree in English from Bowling Green State University. After graduating, she moved to the Puget Sound area in 1958. In her words,

"My then-husband was an engineer. This was when Boeing went through Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and hired 2,000 newly graduated engineers. Nineteen fifty-eight was the year that the 707 went into commercial production, so all these engineers were needed to build the commercial jet fleet  -- and I went to work for Boeing, too. Everybody went to work for Boeing" (Interview).

She worked for three years as a Boeing technical illustrator. She had to leave the firm in 1961 when she was four months pregnant because that was company policy.

"So then I had three kids and was a stay-at-home mother in Bellevue, which was then 10,000 people, lots of trees, no development of any significance east of [Interstate] 405. When I first lived in Bellevue, it was only 12 years after Bellevue Way, the main drag, was paved.  And back before the Second World War, what is downtown now was strawberry fields, Japanese-owned strawberry fields. During the war, the Japanese, of course, got sent off to internment camps, and so the fields went out of production -- and the rest is history" (Interview). 

In 1964 Boeing sent the family to Los Angeles. They lived there for four years in the midst of an "air cesspool": 

"L.A. in the mid- to late sixies was so smoggy, it was a kind of air cesspool, and so I got really concerned about air pollution -- here I was with three babies -- and grew interested in the subject, and when we came back here in '68, I joined the League of Women Voters, and got involved in air and water pollution issues.  And then, at the same time, I went on the Bellevue Park Board, and my specialty was running and passing park bonds to acquire as much land as we could before development ran rampant" (Interview). 

Bellevue City Council

In 1971 Chris Smith ran for Bellevue City Council against an incumbent and won. Along with other City Council candidates, she was asked to submit a statement of her positions to the Bellevue American, and hers stood out for its strong advocacy for the environment:

"I urge the preservation of streams and wetlands, and the acquisition of additional streams and wetlands.

"The automobile is shaping our style of living. If we allow this to continue, we will soon have to cover every space with asphalt We have forgotten the simple pleasures of walking of biking to our destinations; neither do we stop to think how a public transportation system could protect us from the invasion of cars and still provide us with needed mobility." ("Bellevue Council Candidates ... ").

In an interview elsewhere in the paper, she revealed how her Southern California sojourn had helped shape her views. "A lot of her attitudes, she said, are conditioned by working in Los Angeles for four years. 'It is a miserable place to live. I don't want Bellevue to go that way'" ("Chris Smith: Take Time …").

And, as the only female among ten candidates vying for a city council seat, she also offered a unique rationale for her support of public transportation and foot and bicycle paths: "'I want my children to get somewhere without me taking them,' she said. 'It is a selfish motive but it is shared by every mother in Bellevue" ("Chris Smith: Take Time …").

During her time on the Bellevue City Council, she became an expert in passing park bonds. She was instrumental in acquiring Mercer Slough, Kelsey Creek, and other major parks and open spaces. She also went statewide, working with the Washington Office of Community Development and the Association of Washington Cities. Her name was getting out there.

Environmental Politics

In 1974, Governor Dan Evans appointed her to the Pollution Control Hearings Board. As she recalls:

"I spent six years there, until I left to manage John Spellman's campaign for governor. I don't know if the law's changed or not, but back then, the Pollution Board had to have no more than two of the same political party, so they had to appoint a Republican. Because of his commitment to affirmative action, Evans politically had to appoint a woman, and so I was it. So I was at the right place at the right time. This was period of the implementation of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 that came up with the swimable, drinkable, fishable goals" (Interview). 

Chris Smith was moving up steadily, following the rising tide of feminism and environmentalism. 

"We had that whole line of cases in the early days when the brand-new Department of Ecology, which had been invented by Evans in '70 or '71, was getting its act together and passing all the new regulations.  At the same time, the Clean Air Act was being reshaped, and we were getting involved in a whole series of air pollution cases.  A lot of it was sulfur dioxide back then, and one of our biggest cases was the Tacoma Smelter, ASARCO, and that went on for the whole six years I was on the board.  At the same time, we had the passage of NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] in '71.  And Scoop Jackson was, of course, influential in [passing] NEPA, and it resonated well here" (Interview).

Washington state passed SEPA, the State Environmental Policy Act, in 1972. In 1974, at the time that Chris Smith joined the boards, the state Legislature redesignated the Pollution Board as the Council on Environmental Policy. Its task was to write guidelines and to implement regulations for SEPA. So, she explains, "along with our air and water pollution and water rights cases, we simultaneously spent two years traveling the state and putting together the SEPA guidelines, the infamous "Red Book" (Interview). 

This work occupied the years 1974 to 1976. Chris Smith just kept riding the wave of cutting edge issues. She elaborates:

"The Pollution Board is also the nucleus of the Shorelines Hearings Board. There are three Pollution Board members who are the core and operating entity for the Shorelines Board, joined by a designee of the Association of Washington Cities, Washington Association of Counties and DNR. The Shoreline Act went into effect in'72, and it required each city and county to develop a master program.  So we heard the appeals on all of the shoreline master programs. For the City of Seattle, I think we went through seven iterations of the master program" (Interview).

During these years, Chris Smith worked with conservation activists Vim Wright (1926-2003) and Polly Dyer (1920-2016) at the University of Washington Institute for Environmental Studies. She also got involved in the League of Conservation Voters.

"I was one of the -- along with Vim -- token Republicans, because even back then, most environmentalists were Democrats, in spite of the fact that Nixon was the one responsible for all of this new environmental legislation."

She finished her term on the Hearings Boards in 1980 and was asked to manage John Spellman's (1926-2018) campaign for governor. She did so, and Spellman won. From this success, Chris moved to the Washington Department of Ecology where she was the department's lobbyist during the period the state was coming to terms with its toxic legacy. She then moved to Governor Spellman's Office to handle all natural resources issues except fish.

Indian Fishing Rights

Spellman did not win re-election in 1984, rendering Chris Smith jobless. What might have been a downturn in her fortunes was not. She ended up in the middle of one of the most important and contentious issues of the time -- Indian fishing rights.

"Jim Waldo, who had just been appointed as the mediator for the Puyallup land claim dispute, hired me. This wasn't long after the big fishing wars, when Billy Frank kept getting arrested, and Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando came out to demonstrate. The Tribe claimed ownership rights over major parts of the port and the City of Tacoma, almost all of it, and so a group in Tacoma formed the oddly named Non-Indian Negotiating Committee, 56 members, chaired by Doug Sutherland, who was then Mayor of Tacoma.

"And Jim Waldo was hired as the mediator. He was then, and still is, at Gordon Thomas Honeywell, a Tacoma law firm.  So Jim hired me to do one of the major issues, because the Puyallup are a fishing tribe and the decline in the fishing stock on which they rely for their economic and cultural survival was a major element of the dispute. I was hired to look at Commencement Bay in light of the fact that it had just been designated one of the major Superfund sites in the country, and figure out what the fish needed, how they were being impacted by Port development. So we spent basically from '85 through '88, four years, negotiating a settlement, which we achieved" (Interview).

The Puyallup Tribe received a package valued at $167 million and renounced its land ownership rights while, of course, retaining their fishing rights. The tribe has prospered economically and has developed its own Port Terminal.

During part of this process, Chris Smith served as the environmental compliance officer for McFarland Cascade, a forest-products firm responsible for a major clean-up under Superfund.  After the negotiations were done, she became a member of Jim Waldo's mediation group at Gordon Thomas Honeywell, which focused on natural-resource dispute resolution.

Growth Management

In 1992 Booth Gardener (b. 1936) appointed her to the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board, which had been authorized in the 1990 Growth Management Act, but not activated at that time, because it required funding and appointments. So, she says:

"I put in seven years there, chaired it for five of those years when we set up the boards and that was when we did all the initial city and county comprehensive plans, all the initial development regulations, all the fights over critical areas" (interview).

In effect, Chris Smith Towne was instrumental in getting the Central Puget Sound Board up and running, and deciding seminal cases on urban villages and critical environmental areas, wetlands among others.

Her skill and focus has always been to make laws work, and to settle the disagreements and conflicts that tie things up. She says:

"You can see the pattern. I was always interested in making laws work, through developing regulations for them, or lobbying for funding, or adjudicating disputes, and the other theme was, hey, let's settle our fights and get on with it, instead of taking an ideological hard position and fighting.  Let's figure it out, and get over it, and go on to the next challenge. You know, along the way, I was on the Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency Advisory Council for some years, and I did a lot of other stuff -- I mean, I have a list that's three pages long. I'm a moving-right-along person. I finish a job, and I just find the next opportunity -- or it finds me" (Interview).

Parks, Gardens, and History

Chris Smith Towne joined the board of the Seattle Parks Foundation, where she was able once again to do what she loved, "acquiring land, preserving open space, and building parks, and getting water access." As of 2017, she remained on the Parks Foundation board and was also a longtime member, and secretary, of the board of, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history (this website).

She previously served as president of the board of Dunn Gardens, an estate garden designed by the renowned Olmsted Brothers and located in Seattle's Broadview neighborhood. It is the only such garden in the state that is open to the public.

As an aside, she mentioned that "one of my signal accomplishments, that nobody knows about, was convincing the King County Council in 2007 to put a percentage of their Parks & Trails Levies into a pot for municipalities. So the City of Seattle is getting substantial funds from it." She really does know how government and the legislative process work.

A Woman in Public Life

Her career reflects the expansion of the role of women in society. In the 1970s and the 1980s, a woman in public life was considered unusual. When Chris Smith ran for Bellevue City Council in 1971, The Seattle Times included her in an article about four local office seekers that ran under the headline "A New Breed of Politician: The Middle-class Housewife," in which readers learned that:

"The women prefer to be known by their own names not as Mrs. ___. On second reference, they prefer the title 'Ms.' It doesn't seem to be a 'women's lib' issue with them, but rather stems from a feeling that they are running for office independently and on their stands on issues. They want a separate political identity, not a shirt-tail one as Johnny's mother or Steve's wife"

"As far as campaigning conflicting with home life, Chris Smith summed it up this way: 'As long as they all have clean underwear and their meals are on time, I'm OK'" (Wolverton).

After she was in office, the Bellevue American described how councilwoman "Chris, who has just rushed in from an hour of exercising at school with her kindergartner, talks expertly of transportation problems while embroidering chair covers her children have designed," adding that a foot-high stack of reading material related to her city council job awaited her after the children were in bed (Blosser).

In 1978, a Seattle-Post Intelligencer feature story with the lead "Why would a woman with a full time job, a husband and three children take on 3 1/2 months of demanding work as a volunteer?" described her work on a 150-page report for the King County Council on transportation policy (Raleigh). The story included a tip from Chris to go ahead and include volunteer accomplishments in a resume, but like other coverage of women during that decade, it also assured readers that she was a good cook and mother. Chris was quoted as saying "We pick berries and make jam. I have a fairly nice yard. Lots of dahlias this year" (Raleigh).

Ten years later, a Post-Intelligencer interview with Chris skipped the domestic details and focused on her career-building advice. The story seemed to have moved on from how she could accomplish what she did in the public arena while also being a wife and mother to how other women could too.

An Environmentalist at Heart

Chris Smith became (in 1987) Chris Smith Towne when she married David Towne. David was the director of the Woodland Park Zoo (he would retire from that position in 2000) and earlier had served as Seattle's Director of Parks and Recreation. Chris Smith Towne also raised three daughters and is an accomplished artist in pastels and watercolors.

After her retirement from the state and from Gordon Thomas Honeywell, Chris represented the state Department of Fish and Wildlife on the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council for four years, permitting and regulating energy facilities from nuclear to wind power. She later consulted with wind-power developers on proposed projects.

Chris shared a final wish, which she developed doing an exercise speaking to women's groups. Everyone receives a piece of paper with an outline of a tombstone and is asked to write in 10 words or less, "what do you want yours to read?" And hers?

"Mine is 'She left her campground cleaner than she found it.' That's been my motto since I was a Girl Scout. I started out as an ardent, passionate Girl Scout and I was the president of the Senior Girl Scouts of Toledo, Ohio, when I was in high school" (Interview).

Chris Smith Towne is smart, hardworking, and dynamic. Her career demonstrates an amazing ability to catch the wave of emerging issues -- air and water pollution, the rise of Bellevue as Washington's fourth-largest city, and growth management. In each of these issues, she was a recognized leader. A born-and-bred Republican, now non-partisan, she is an environmentalist at heart and, along with Vim Wright, another Republican, was a prime mover in many bipartisan environmental efforts, especially after the 1970s when the GOP virtually abandoned environmental causes following the Nixon era.

As an environmentalist and a public servant, and as a trailblazer for other women, Chris Smith Towne has not only left our "campgrounds" cleaner -- she has also left us more of them.


Dee Arntz interview with Chris Smith Towne, July 28, 2008, Seattle, Washington; Time, August 1, 1969; "State Environmental Policy Act" Department of Ecology website accessed September 2009 (; "Bellevue Council Candidates State Their Views," Bellevue American, October 28, 1971, p. 53; "Chris Smith: Take Time to Examine City," Ibid., October 28, 1971, p. 55; Conni Blosser, "Women Make System Work," Bellevue American, undated clipping ca. 1972, in possession of Chris Towne, Seattle, Washington; Joan Wolverton, "A New Breed of Politician: The Middle-class Housewife," The Seattle Times, September 26, 1971, p. H-8; Sally Raleigh, "You Can Always Find Time If You Want To," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 18, 1978, p. A-7; Cecelia Goodnow, "Women Can Create Career Opportunities, Says One Who Did," Ibid., April 5, 1988, p. C-1.
Note: This essay was substantially expanded and updated on March 9, 2017.

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