Vim Wright, as she preferred to be called, saw a lot in her 76 years. From an impoverished childhood in Istanbul, to society life in Baltimore with adoptive parents, to eventually becoming a primary player in Washington state environmental issues, Wright was known for her vitality and determination. Her professional accomplishments in Washington include working as the assistant director at the University of Washington Institute for Environmental Studies, and founding several organizations, such as Washington’s League of Conservation Voters and Farming and the Environment. Her strong belief in democratic principles, grassroots efforts, and the merits of science inspired all who knew her. Known as an environmentalist, Wright’s real skill was in politics and networking. Her cause was that which didn’t have a voice -- plants, animals, and the land they called home. She made it her life’s work to be the voice for these entities that could not speak for themselves. Her deep rolodex was at the beck and call of the birds, the salmon, the forest, and eventually the stewardship farmers of Washington state.
On June 4, 1926, Lisetta Iakovidou was born in Istanbul, Turkey, which until 1923 had been known as Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Her parents, Pellagia and Yannis Iacovidis, were former farmers with no other children. While her mother worked as a maid at the American Embassy, little Lizetta caught the eye of General John Alden Crane, and his wife, Mary McKim Crane. They took her under their wing, eventually adopting her and bringing her back to Baltimore with them on the SS Excambion in 1936. According to the local paper, "She attended a Greek school in Istanbul during the three years she had been with [the Cranes] in that city and speaks Turkish, English, French and Greek fluently. She learns quickly, has keen power of observation and an enthusiastic appreciation of new things and places. She has already learned to enjoy American movies" (Clipping, June 27, 1936).
Her new life in Baltimore included attending the Garrison School for Girls, although she never graduated from high school due to family difficulties, and coming out in Baltimore society. Her adoptive mother changed her name to Violet Crane, although her lively, curious nature earned her the nickname "Vim," a name she would prefer for the rest of her life. In 1945, at the age of 19, she married Edward “Skip” Wright Jr.
While her husband served in the military, Vim became an active volunteer, chairing fund drives for the American Cancer Society, working in the local hospital, and organizing for the Republican Party. During this time, she earned a two-year degree from Eaton-Burnett Business College in Baltimore Maryland. The Wrights had two sons, Edward (Ted) and John.
In 1956, Wright divorced her husband and spent two years in Mallorca, Spain, managing a school and teaching English. She remembered this as an adventure and a special bonding time with her sons.
In 1960, after returning to Baltimore and deciding it wasn’t for her, Wright and her sons moved to Denver, Colorado, where she established a small real-estate business. It was in this bright, mountainous region that Wright discovered her passion for bird watching. As soon as the Denver Audubon Society was founded 1968, Wright joined.
Meanwhile, a conflict over the future of the nearby Florissant Fossil Beds was heating up. Thirty-five miles west of Colorado Springs, a field of trees, insects, birds, and fish had been frozen by a volcano some 38 to 34 million years ago. In 1962, the area had been officially proposed as a National Monument, and conservationists and developers had been dueling over the land ever since.
In 1969, the land belonged to a developer who was ready to build. Wright met esteemed scientist Estella Leopold (b. 1927), who told her about bird fossils buried in the land and her activist blood was awakened. Wright, Leopold, and Beatrice Willard formed the Defenders of Florissant to organize efforts to stop development on the fossil bed. Later, when asked about what inspired her involvement in the cause, "she knew she should say she did it 'for my children and grandchildren and posterity' or that she had 'such a feeling of the scientific verity of this wonderful piece of land that I wanted to preserve it.' But, in truth, what 'I really thought about was the birds ... in some way this is my offering to the birds. It was inconceivable to me that anyone would desecrate the burial grounds of these creatures.'" (Kaufman, p. 195).
To keep the developers from tearing up the land, Wright recruited a group, including a pregnant mother and several children, to sit in front of their bulldozers. They made their intentions public, alerting the press and government. Wright, believing no one would run over a well-dressed woman, had her hair done, put on her pearls and high heels, and drove the group to the site before dawn. While they waited, scared, at 6 a,m,, they got a message that a federal district judge had issued a temporary injunction to stop the development. Their plan had worked. On August 20, 1969, 6,000 acres became Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. At 43, Wright had made a dramatic entrance into environmental activism.
A Leader Emerges
In the years following the Florissant Fossil Beds conflict, Wright came into her own as an environmental leader. In 1971 she was elected president of the Audubon Society of Greater Denver. In 1972 she became the president of the Colorado Open Space Council, where she was awarded the Rocky Mountain Center for the Environment’s Organizational Award. From 1971 to 1977 Wright served on the board of the National Audubon Society. She fought against oil shale extraction and through research and lobbying was able to prevent it. She also devoted herself to protecting eagles from poisons, which earned her death threats from ranchers who were convinced she was attacking their livelihood.
During these years in Colorado, Wright initiated radio programming and the first television program on environmental issues in the United States. Her ability to make progress on an agenda while making sure all voices were heard earned her invitations to many committees, including the Governor’s Committee on Predatory Animal Damage, the Governor’s Ad Hoc Oil Shale Study Committee, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife Non-game Advisory Council.
In 1976 she was awarded the Feinstone Environmental Award from the State University of New York (SUNY) in recognition of her work in Colorado. In her nomination letter, Estella Leopold said:
“Mrs. Wright’s record of success is based on her cold logic presented with a disarming personality, her clear mind, and dogged dedication to any issue she takes on. Her contributions include success in streamlining organizations, recognizing and harnessing talent, building research cadres, clarifying issues and planning political strategy. These have been services of inestimable value to environmental science and activism on a national scale. Her particular accomplishments have been on issues related to predator control, wildlife, and oil shale” (Feinstone nomination).
Soon after, Wright was offered the position of assistant director of the University of Washington Institute of Environmental Studies (IES). Although it took much negotiating to convince her to leave Denver, in 1977, at the age of 51, Wright moved to Seattle.
At the University of Washington, Wright acted as the resource person in the Institute of Environmental Studies department and was responsible for connecting students with appropriate internships. She was the only non-Ph.D. in the department, and had not so much as graduated from high school. Later, Wright said she never felt limited by her lack of formal education:
“I think my eagerness to get to know so many people who knew so much was because I didn’t have the background education and I was open to getting it, I wanted to know. ... I was convinced that I didn’t know as much as I should know. ... It made me much more open to being able to listen to people and to try to understand than I would have been otherwise. I didn’t have the conceit of being well educated” (Oral History).
Wright went on to teach several graduate courses and develop close relationships with the director, Dr. Gordan Orians, as well as Dr. Dee Boersma and Dr. Estella Leopold, whom she knew from her work in Denver. While Wright’s role was not always readily apparent to the public, she kept building her resume and making connections. Networking came easily to her, and she quickly developed an impressive list of contacts to call for assistance or advice. She was also respected as a mentor to others, who valued her experience and wisdom.
A Plethora of Projects
In Seattle, Wright immediately became involved with the Seattle Audubon Society, and was soon coveted for many committee positions. Wright joined the Washington Environmental Council (WEC) in 1979 and remained on the board until 1998, helping to shape Washington’s environmental laws and create partnerships to benefit the plants and animals of the state.
In 1979 Wright was appointed to the Washington Department of Game, Non-Game Advisory Council, where she was a champion for non-game wildlife species. The department’s traditional focus on hunters and game species presented a challenge to Wright’s efforts to ensure that nongame species were protected by laws. Eventually, with the help of Gordon Orians and others, the game and non-game departments were integrated. Although Wright left her position in 1985, in 1987 the department changed its name to the Department of Wildlife, making its commitment to all animals clear. (In 1994 it merged with the Department of Fisheries, creating the Department of Fish and Wildlife.)
In 1980 Wright was appointed by Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) to the Copper Creek Citizens Advisory Committee, charged with researching whether the city of Seattle should build a dam on the Skagit River. Wright adamantly urged protection of the irreplaceable eagle habitat on the Skagit and, in its official report, the committee recommended not building the dam, on account of the eagles and also because of the impact it would have on the local population and Indian Treaty fishing rights. The need for additional energy did not overpower their concern about the loss of eagle habitat, a loss impossible to adequately mitigate. As stated in the report, “We are unanimous in our recommendation that a decision on the project should include the environmental and other critical issues themselves on their own merits, not just as potential courtroom losses” (Letter from CCCAC to Charles Royer, Feb 12, 1981, 4106-89-41). Based on this advice, Mayor Royer indefinitely postponed building the dam.
Wright’s displeasure with mitigation was a theme that would occur in much of her work. She wanted environmentally responsible projects, not just efforts to reduce damage after the fact.
Wright’s expertise and people skills made her a much-desired member of many environmental causes. Luckily, she had enough energy to go around and the list of her involvements runs long.
Board Involvements in Washington: A Selection
Seattle Audubon Society, Board (1977-1980)
Washington Environmental Council, Executive Committee (1979-2003)
Washington Environmental Foundation, Board (1980-1988)
Washington Environmental Political Action Committee (WENPAC), Founder and Co-chair, (1981-2003)
Washington’s League of Conservation Voters (1981-1995)
Northwest School for Arts and the Environment (1983)
Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences (1984)
Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Executive Committee (1984-2003)
Environmental Fund of Washington (Earth Share), founder (1985-1992)
Citizens Toxics Clean-up Campaign, Board (1987-1989)
Mount Rainier National Park Association, Board (1991)
People for Puget Sound, Founder, Board and Executive Committee (1991-1992)
Committee Activities in Washington: A Selection
Seattle Environmental Review Committee (1977-1980)
Seattle City Light: Committee for Reorganization of Environmental Affairs Office (1980)
Environmental Impact Statement Technical Committee (1982)
Olympic Experimental State Forest Plan Policy Review Committee (1988-1989)
The Blue Ribbon Committee on Washington Old Growth (1988)
Seattle Mayor’s Search Committee for Supervisor of City Light (1978-1979)
The Citizens Toxics Cleanup Initiative (1987)
Seattle Water Department Planning Advisory Committee (1989-1992)
Washington Department of Ecology Cleanup Standards Committee (1989-1990)
Water Resources Data Management Task Force and Water Resources Implementing Committee (1992)
Metro Sustainable Seattle (1992)
Wildlife/Fisheries Merger Work Session (1993)
Washington State Department of Ecology Financial Assistance Advisory Council (1998)
Washington State Conservation Commission (1996-2001)
WSU College of Agriculture Advisory Board (1999-2003).
Founder, Initiator, Innovator
In addition to contributing her skills to a number of committees and already existing organizations, Wright took it upon herself to found several brand new organizations dedicated to different aspects of environmentalism.
Wright was strongly committed to democratic principles, a quality she attributed to her Greek heritage and to participation in environmental issues, evidenced by her work with several organizations devoted specifically to voter education. In 1981, after serving on the national board of the League of Conservation Voters for five years, Wright cofounded the League of Conservation Voters in Washington. She also founded the Washington Environmental Political Action Committee (WENPAC) and Washington Environmental Alliance for Voter Education (WEAVE).
In 1985, Wright cofounded the Environmental Fund of Washington (now Earth Share), to represent environmental organizations in workplace giving campaigns. She served on the board until 1992. In 1994, Wright cofounded People for Puget Sound.
Vim Wright considered herself a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” her entire life, but she was always able to work with people from diverse political backgrounds and she encouraged participation in all manifestations. On top of her official duties on boards and committees, Wright was always active in the political arena, campaigning for friends and soliciting help from her many acquaintances. She served as an advisor for many elected officials. Wright was known for holding fundraisers at the Ravenna home she shared with Estella Leopold. Her friends and frequent guests included Harriet Bullitt, Patsy Collins, Christine Gregoire, and Joan Thomas.
In 1992, the death of her son Edward caused Wright immense grief. This combined with disagreements with the new director of the Institute of Environmental Studies caused Wright to decide to retire. The environmental community and local government put forth a huge outpouring of support, hailing her as energetic, dedicated, and politically savvy. Her ability to bring together people of from both sides of the political spectrum on behalf of an environmental agenda was repeatedly praised. Many also expressed the hope that now she would have more time to devote to her “real” (volunteer) work. James Abernathy, of the Puget Sound Keeper Alliance, said:
“Your most long-lasting influence for the good is in the countless numbers of individuals you have inspired to go to work for environmental causes. Vim Wright has been there for those just starting out in this movement and for those who have labored long and become discouraged or tired. Your personal loyalty combined with your willingness to give what are sometimes difficult and unwelcome messages has made many of us better persons and better advocates for the environment” (James Abernathy letter).
In her retirement, Wright stayed busy. As David Mann, president of the Washington Environmental Council, said, “If you add up all of the time she spends working to educate and better others, you will likely have trouble finding any time for Vim to even sleep, much less do anything else. That is Vim” (Jefferson Award Nominations).
Returning to Her Farming Roots
In 1994 Wright decided she wanted to work to save farmland and help farmers. She was appointed to the Washington Conservation Commission, established in the 1930s to assist conservation districts in protecting public land. Even though she was the only non-farmer of the group, Wright had the environmental experience and skills they needed, and she quickly earned the trust of the group. She was elected chair of the commission twice in recognition for her leadership skills. She slowly built relationships with farmers, who were often apprehensive of environmentalists, and although other environmentalists were often suspicious of her new direction at first, she helped many of them see the value in preserving farmland and partnering with farmers.
In 1998 Wright was invited to join Washington State University’s (WSU) College of Agriculture and Home Economics Advisory Council. She advised the council on its Integrated Farming Systems/Holistic Management Project, learning much about sustainable agriculture and making valuable connections along the way.
In 2001, Wright co-founded Farming and the Environment (F&E) with WSU Regent Dr. Peter Goldmark and Skagitonians to Protect Farmland Director Bob Rose. This non-profit organization was founded to help bridge the gap between farming and environmental stewardship and to honor working landscapes while also promoting the importance of nature. Initially a project of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, Farming and the Environment then became an independent organization. In recognition of the economic difficulties of modern farming and the traditional divide between farmers and environmentalists, Wright saw the possibility for collaboration between two groups both concerned about the future of the land. Their goal was to “Develop a structure and process to identify and re-evaluate the key state policies necessary to ensure the viability of productive and profitable farming integrated with environmental protection and enhancement” (project summary).
Their first step was to conduct an extensive statewide telephone poll to determine public opinion on farming and environmental issues. The results of the poll indicated that, despite their identification with a particular side of the divide, most people wanted to find a way to support farmers and the land. In Wright’s words, “People in Eastern and Western Washington agree that we need to keep the farmers on the land to maintain the land’s integrity. On this issue, there is no Cascade Curtain. ... We’ve accomplished something with this that will have national importance. This is a breath of fresh air” (quoted in Beecher).
Farming and the Environment set up a framework to provide incentives to farmers for acting as responsible stewards of the land and, in tribute to Vim, began awarding the "Vim Wright Land Stewardship Award" along with cash prizes once a year to worthy farms throughout the state.
Accolades and Honors
Over the years, Wright earned a number of awards for her hard work and expertise. In 1987 she was awarded the Washington State Environmental Excellence Award by Booth Gardner, after 10 years living and working in Washington state. In 2000 she received the Southwest Parks and Monument’s Danson Award for her work on their board since 1975.
Wright’s crowning achievement came in November of 2002, when she received the “Environmental Hero” award from the Washington Environmental Council for launching Farming and the Environment. In her acceptance speech she mentioned her Greek roots in farming and said:
“I am committed to working with the private land owners because I am convinced that these private lands are the last stand of the Endangered Species Act. The proper stewardship of these lands is all we have left. My work has always involved land and the creatures on it… yes, people, too… and that part of it continues. Only my style, not my values, have changed. I now work with farmers, not against them” (speech).
At the end of her speech she invited all the farmers and their spouses to get up and trade spots with an “extreme enviro” in order to meet new people and continue finding common ground. “We may put another light in your lives,” she said (speech).
Death and Legacy
On June 1, 2003, Wright died of lung cancer in Seattle, surrounded by family and friends. Her memorial service, held at Daybreak Star Cultural Center in Seattle’s Discovery Park, overflowed with people. The WEC created an endowment on June 4, 2003, Wright’s 77th birthday, with an award in her name: “Vigorous, Inspiring, Motivating (VIM).”
Longtime friend and colleague Joan Thomas took over Farming and the Environment after Wright’s death. Now co-chaired by Estella Leopold, F&E continues to give out stewardship awards each year. Wright left an indelible mark on the political, environmental, and physical landscape of Washington state. Her legacy lives on through the organizations she founded and the inspiration she passed on to all who worked with her.